In Praise of the Almost Famous Man, Parts Three and Four

This is the final installment of Danny Marroquin’s analysis of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  See his introduction here, and Parts One and Two here. – Liz

By the time Agee was done staying with the Fields and the Tingles he’d picked up some Southern twang he’d lost during his undergraduate years at Harvard. He didn’t just like writing about them, he liked being around them.

Elizabeth Tingle remembered,

I asked Mr. Jimmy, I said, ‘what kind of sound does your voice got?’ He said, ‘That is the Northern kind of talk. All of them up there’s like that,’ But you know, when they left here, they got to where they was talking our kind of talk.

Agee continued bonding and writing well into the night. He wasn’t able to shake the deep impressions inside that betrayed him as a spy of sorts, and a stranger to the region where he was born. Rushing feelings had their play on James’s admiration for the farmers. He tries to go home at one point. He even tries to wreck his car, like his father did, but Mr. Fields comes across and helps him out, driving Agee back to his house to eat a large meal. His admiration and sense of humility spill over the rim of his thoughts.

Agee is genuinely awestruck by simplicity and kindness. Perhaps what separates Agee from other Southern writers and from journalists is the way he sustains a sense of joy and wonder. Even today this would fit him for the aliens Wayne Coyne dreams about; It’s not at all an exaggeration to call some of his tiny-scripted prose enchanted:

We lay on our backs about 2 feet apart in silence, our eyes open, listening. The land that was under us lay down all around us, and its continuance was enormous as if we were chips or matches, floated, holding their own by their very minuteness, at a great distance out upon the surface of a tenderly laboring sea. The sky was even larger.

Despite the grit and dirt of the assignment, Agee never stopped laboring to restore dignity to his subjects. He performs a kind of alchemy, touched with the direct address he admired in letters he stole from trash cans. He used these genuine articles of correspondence as a model for certain passages:

Louise, for your skin was a special, quiet, glowing gold color, which can never come upon the nicely middle little girls in towns or cities but those who came straight out of the earth and are continually upon it in the shining of the sun…”

If any one wanted to accuse Agee of being “too much,” then they’d just have to look back on his life story to see a largeness of spirit that abounded. Over the years those actions sublimate into the power of his writing. The smallest gestures are still small, but should be noted in the way they speak to his writing attitude. Agee’s writing is his character, his character his writing.

Bumming after a semester of college, Agee was picked up by a Buick from Oklahoma. He drives by a black hobo and asks the driver to pick him up. The driver promptly declines. Then James begins a fantasy, in his journals, in which he hands over his own shoes and socks to the bum.

Back at Harvard, he’s set up with a gay roommate, Tom Raywood, who tries to persuade Agee in a mock-suave manner to stop dating those petty girls. Raywood’s manners and obviousness in coming on to him disgust Agee (“If I weren’t so sorry I’d murder him”). The student gets shunted from hall to hall. Agee finally takes him to the entry steps and talks with him one night into the dawn, paraphrasing Raywood’s concerns, “Sure, I know, it’s lousy. Jesus knows, it’s lousy.”

Having seen the opposite from my own peers, this particular story stands in sharp contrast. One of the first moments of friction I witnessed living in the OU dorms was when an acquaintance came to me outraged that his roommate came out of the closet. He’d known the guy for years, and all this time, they’d been sleeping in the same room. A few days later he put in a request for a roommate change. There was of course no long talk. Those kinds of talks, I now think, are rare and undergone by those with the character to do so.

Agee’s sensitivities could be an albatross. I don’t think any novelist would recommend getting as close as he did to the Field and Tingle families. His personal life was chaos. Once during the writing stage, he took his second wife Alma to a suburb to work quietly. At that home he took in a bum and a goat, both of which he’d have to abandon, the goat to a butcher, guiltily, the bum left in their dark living room where the furniture had mysteriously disappeared. The neighborhood kids felt compelled to write on his window


Agee returned to New York to write, and the distractions and alcohol again started taking their toll on Agee and the book. He and his 2nd wife Alma divorced. Agee started going out more, and reading the book aloud to his soon-to-be 3rd wife Mia and any colleague who would listen. The admirers were many once Agee’s kinetic film reviews for The Nation ran–wannabe wild journalists would drive to the Stork Club to see Agee, where he may be banging on tables to illustrate film edits, tipping the tables over. Fortune magazine had long since dropped Agee’s article, and so the testament to the downtrodden had taken on the form of something no one had seen. His first publisher sent him a humbling letter of suggested changes. Agee wrote up a protest against the agency. Agee said he would make the changes if they would publish his protest at the front of the book. They dropped the book. Agee kept writing. After three years the look of the country changed. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath arrived and pretty much claimed every American reader interested in the dispossessed. The Nazi armies invaded Poland. As Agee wrote and wrote, the depression became old news.

So he watched lots of movies in the dark, and he drank. No matter how much he drank he never seemed drunk to his friends. He womanized. He roamed the streets. He wrote his priest. He let his attention fray so many different directions that friends noticed that things seemed to merely happen to Agee, and that he did not have control over them.

What kept him centered was work on a project no one wanted. The fact that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men represents a leap of faith makes itself clear in the text. In spite of his difficult, existential rants the book at its crests remains utterly readable. The theme turns out to be the leap of faith itself, the fact that someone could dive completely into a task without reservation. Meanwhile, he realistically predicted it would be a curious object, important only to hardcore writers. One night, he set his papers neatly aside and attained a rare mood of calm. He wrote to reporter colleague Robert Fitzgerald:

I regret parts of it and have doubts of some other parts, but on the whole have a feeling I’ve never before much enjoyed, of knowing why I have done this….and of believing in the why I have done it…It’s worth the try so far.

The chronic procrastinator and talker would finish a work of art.

One of the people who’d heard Agee read from the book was Eunice Clark, a Vassar graduate and Fortune researcher. When she became a talent scout for Houghton Mifflin, she sent it to the top editors. It was called a great oddity, in “a deep American vein of dissent worthy of Melville and Thoreau.” They’d edit out the bad words in Massachusetts and disregard Agee’s request that it be printed on newspaper. It printed and sold a few hundred. Today, Violette publishes a lovely coffee table edition–noticeably not found in OKC bookstores. Walker Evans’s pictures preface the journey, and then Agee begins his deeply principled rebellion.

Most readers were puzzled. The New York Times called it “arrogant, mannered, precious, gross.” On the other hand, some important critics have championed it. Lionel Trilling (the professor whom Allen Ginsberg spurned) said he felt sure it was a great book. He pardoned every self lacerating attempt Agee made to filter what he saw through the doubts in his mind–efforts which make up a good deal of the book, and render some passages tedious even for this Agee admirer. Agee’s sensibility was “moral rather than a physical sensibility,” Trilling wrote in the Kenyon Review, “The book is full of marvelous writing which gives a kind of hot pleasure that words can do so much.” Father Flye wrote back to Agee, “I find in it a sympathy, a love, a care for human beings which makes me think of our lord.” Today the book becomes a pillar in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto to David Shields; it’s a book he says dissolves every genre and creates its own.

It was costly. Agee would gather himself to write one more book from a place similar to this one. But the drinking finally took its toll on his body. While living in his head, he neglected the respect and awe his peers had for him. John Huston, Walker Evans, Charles Chaplin, the poets W.H. Auden and Archibald MacLeish all did what they could to keep Agee working. His stubborn emotional drive stands alongside that of Hart Crane and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Kurt Cobain and Mozart and John Keats or Elliot Smith as an ominous statement on the incompatibility between fiery romance and living in the world. Some physically enduring artists seem to be the ones who can manage their emotions. Agee died without knowing he’d win America’s highest prize or without the public opinion that he’d invented a new journalism.

In July 1988 a journalist writing for The New Yorker, John Hersey, wrote a tender short history of Agee’s life that does not conclude with his death, but rather conveys how his legacy has expanded. In this ending, the year is 1964 and John Hersey follows ivy league colleagues to Holmes County, Alabama one hot summer. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been re-released and selling by the thousands. Hersey took Agee’s lead and witnessed the Civil Rights struggle by living, as a journalist, in the small house of a black farmer and his family. Around him were other students helping with voter registration. “An astonishing number of them had brought Agee along with them,” Hersey noticed. They responded to the same Agee who wanted to give his socks and shoes to black hitch hikers, and the Agee who felt sandwiched between America’s vicious cultural bookends. There are myriad ways we can view Agee today. Deep in a recession, we look to our wretched, or just at ourselves, and see countless living without health care or under a mound of debt. The farmers were tenants; we have credit cards and foreclosure. The man’s character is another consideration. Even Proposition 8 picketers would surely admire the James Agee who stayed up all night with an awkward, gay collegiate to open a line of frank communication.

This brings us to that aspect of the book that trumps all others for Hersey, a quality that keeps it alive to those of us who find it:

He certainly did, as Trilling pointed out, idealize his three tenant families. Love idealizes, and one of the attractive things about Agee’s writing is that with all his remarkably skeptical intelligence, and despite his many declared doubts and weaknesses…

he was capable of copious, unsentimental, generous, searing love.

(c) Danny Marroquin All rights reserved.

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