We lay on our backs about two 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.
–James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
If you ever want to attempt to read a beautiful but prolonged and exasperatingly complex, minutely detailed, verbally rococo work of human sociology — poetically rendered — pick up the above-cited volume by a man who during his brief life was, indeed, a poet, novelist, screenwriter, movie critic and, briefly, a very unusual journalist. This particular book grew out of a Depression-era Fortune magazine assignment to write about poverty-stricken families of Alabama tenant farmers. Agee never really finished the assignment — or, perhaps finished it, but had it rejected by his editors though it would be preserved and enormously expanded by the author. The story of how it came to exist is doubtless told in two Agee biographies that I’ve been totting around and aspiring to read.
The book always comes accompanied by a front leaf of several exquisite black-and-white photographs of the farmers and their environs by renowned photographer Walker Evans who accompanied Agee on the assignment. Indeed, the photos are inseparable from the text. Perhaps, if you ever get the book, you can just look at the pictures and merely sample Agee’s prose. But, somewhat guilt-stricken, I should note that, though I quite love the book, my qualified estimate of it might be challenged by many who find it, without exception, a work of art. It sold only a handful of copies when originally published, but remains in print and in bookstores today.
Walker Evan actually wrote an introduction to the book that speaks as eloquently as his photographs. And the previous anonymous owner of my copy blue-highlighted a paragraph in which Evans says “The days with the families came abruptly to an end. ….The writing they induced is, among other things, the reflection of one resolute, private rebellion. Agee’s rebellion was unquenchable, self-damaging, deeply principled, infinitely costly, and ultimately priceless.”
Wonderfully put, and true. This is not your run-of-the-mill tract inveighing against poverty. And Agee seemed to pay an inordinate physical price for all of his literary labors. His degree of empathy with the poor families is brilliantly manifest, as is his painful determination to accompany them in their hard-bitten, long-suffering lives. And he finds them, as we are often told of the poor, happy in their own simple and unique way. Certainly happier than Agee, who’d become a self-loathing denizen of Manhattan who never completely broke his ties to the rural South and its people. In some respects, he must have felt at home among those farmers.
Henry Luce and TIME, inc. got more than they bargained for when they hired James Agee as a general assignment business reporteer, a manifestly brilliant writer but erratic and tormented soul. I came to feel a certain affinity with him, given that he was born on my birthday (November 27) in the year my father was born (1909). He wrote the screenplay for the famous pairing of Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen. But in most respects, he’s pretty obscure.
In Famous Men (the title comes, I believe, from a verse in The Book of Common Prayer), he might spend a page or more meditating on how the clothing of the poor farmers appeared as it hung from clothe lines strung between their flimsy shacks ( I don’t know if such a passage exists in the book but I wouldn’t, based on my extensive random reading and browsing, be surprised. It’s all quite beautiful — and, in many places, slightly ludicrous, eccentric and obsessive, like Agee himself.)
No, I’ve never read the book all the way through. I picked up my old paperback copy out of a box at a Harvard Square flea market years ago. Long sections of it had been blue-highlighted by its original admiring reading. I like to think it was a Harvard student who, long after Agee himself passed through those halls, found what Agee had written worthy — and worthy of a complete end-to-end reading. I write here to recommend that you attempt the same, if your heart and will dictate.
A Southerner, Knoxville born and raised, semi-devoutly Episcopalian, Agee ( soft “g”) was Exeter and Harvard-educated and died of a heart attack in the back seat of a New York taxi in May of 1955 at the tender age of 45. His posthumously published novel A Death in the Family was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The novel’s opening italicized meditation called Knoxville: Summer, 1915 was transformed into an oratorio by the American composer Samuel Barber. There are recordings of it featuring, among other renowned sopranos, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman. It is quite beautiful. I recommend this as well. Both a play and a movie were made from the novel, called All The Way Home. (Don’t know why they didn’t keep the original title, but I believe those are close to the final words of the novel which read, if I recall correctly, “all the way home, they walked in silence.”
Years ago, when I worked as an editorial assistant at The Boston Globe, I learned that Globe columnist George Frazier, a former Entertainment Editor at LIFE Magazine, had known Agee. I asked George about him. “A brawling drunk,” he said, not without a trace of affection. George told of a time, walking along beside him on a Manhattan street, Agee had drunkenly attempted to land a good roundhouse punch which George successfully ducked. Small wonder he recorded Agee to be a brawler, especially when drunk. But the record suggested a soul struggling with demons. He was a heavy drinker ( probably alcoholic) and a chain smoker. He was, according to one account, en route to a doctor’s appointment when death came in the back of that taxi.
This Day of Our Lord, February 3, 2020, has no known connection to old J.A. But I stumbled on the above quote and thought I’d pass it along — along with a little of what you need to know about a soul gone a whole 65 years ago. Think of him when squabbling Bogart and Hepburn turn up in their river boat on AMC or TCM. Listen for the words. Words were James Agee’s business. He loved movies, too.