From the Archives: Why James Agee Still Matters
In a 1962 piece for The New Republic, John Updike, 30 years old and suddenly in the spotlight for both the receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the publication of his novel Rabbit Run, diagnosed a variety of maladies in what he deemed “a very sick literary situation” in America. His representative case – or, perhaps more accurately, his cadaver? James Agee. The article, “James Agee, Talker,” does not so much tear Agee and his writing apart as attempt to neatly expose in them the pernicious presence of decay; here, Updike says, holding up Agee as a model, is what contemporary American authors are – wastrels in work, in talent and in life, claiming their very failings as things to be revered. Agee, along with the rest of the reckless and difficult bunch for whom he stands in, failed to live up to his potential – in the words of Salinger’s Seymour Glass, his best works are “so much better than they should be. They read waste, waste, waste.” Updike’s ameliorative prescription is vague – more craftsmanship, less crying out – but it seems that for him, a good start is not taking James Agee too seriously, at least not beyond his “few, uneven, hard-won successes.”
Despite having arrived about 50 years too late to this discussion, I read Updike’s commentary with great interest, for I am a longtime admirer of Agee’s work. And it’s only fair to admit that the article isn’t entirely unkind: though it dissects and discards much of its subject’s prose with a kind of contemptuous economy, it also does not hesitate to point out that “[t]he author of the best pages of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family owes no apology to posterity.” Still, I’d like to argue a little with Updike – because I think that it’s precisely the qualities that he finds damning that make reading Agee singularly worthwhile, even today. Perhaps in a peculiar way I even love the Updike article: because, by its dismissals, it has given me reason to write what I’m pleased to try to write – criticism that arises, as George Steiner has suggested, from “a debt of love.” It’s my belief that we might all owe James Agee, if we would carefully read him; here, then, is my attempt to begin to pay my debt.
I first read Agee when I was seventeen, the summer after my senior year of high school. My uncle, a university professor, had recommended Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to me several years back, one of many titles in an unwritten, impromptu, and far-over-my-head reading list whose creation was one of the hallmarks of the few days we spent together every year. One day in late May, after school had ended, I finally picked it up.
My recollections of that initial encounter are, first, that it took forever to read the book, and, second, that I loved it. It was dense and difficult and sometimes I had no idea what James Agee was talking about or trying to do. And when I told people I was reading a 400-page book about tenant farmers in rural Alabama, they found it difficult to understand why – and I found it equally difficult to explain. The story of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – both the story it tells and the story of its writing – is a strange one, and it symbolizes the strangeness and intensity of its author’s career as a whole.
Agee was only 26 when he wrote the book: after graduating from Harvard, where he distinguished himself as a poet, a fiction writer and a journalist, he was drafted as a writer for Fortune, recently founded and overseen by publishing giant Henry Luce. It was Fortune that in 1936 sent Agee and the photographer Walker Evans, on loan from the Farm Security Administration, to document the effect of the Depression on the lives of sharecroppers in the South. The magazine declined to run Agee’s article and, upon reading the greatly expanded version that was eventually published five years later, one can imagine why: it ranges from near-eidetic accounts of the realities Agee encountered during his three-week stay in three families’ homes to grand, abstract meditations on what his own status as an observer and his attempts to record reality might mean. The book dilates and contracts its focus as its author sees fit – it tells stories, lists details and makes ardent, ranting digressions. It was mostly met with bafflement upon its arrival on the literary scene – and yet, among those who still read Agee, it’s arguably more loved than even his last book, A Death in the Family, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1958, three years after Agee’s early death at the age of 45. Agee worked as a book and film critic and as a screenwriter, and his writing in these realms, as well as in fiction, is intelligent and acutely felt. Still, to me it is still somehow Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a 20th-century mutation of Henry James’s “large, loose baggy monsters” and a synthesis of its author’s critical, narrative and poetic faculties, that stands, in all its difficulty, as Agee’s best book, as the truest example of his singular talent.
It was exactly the book’s difficulty that excited me that summer, because my challenges in reading it seemed to parallel Agee’s troubles in actually writing it. What impressed and even awed me (and still impresses and awes me) was the intensity and variety of ways in which he tries to combat problems of representation – problems that at the time I’d never even considered. The effort makes the difficulty visible, and that, in the end, is what Let Us Now Praise Famous Men seems to me to be about: the impossibility of success and the ragged, dogged determination to try anyway. These twin certainties – one objective and one predicated on individual will – are present in both the book’s subject and its composition, and the harmony of the two, in my opinion, is not unlike the best of Beethoven, whom Agee so admired and whose name is invoked several times in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
Beethoven said a thing as rash and noble as the best of his work. By my memory, he said: “He who understands my music can never know unhappiness again.” I believe it. And I would be a liar and a coward and one of your safe world if I should fear to say the same words of my best perceptions, and of my best intention.
Performance, in which the whole fate and terror rests, is another matter.
All Agee’s appeal and all the thorniness of his work (and these things overlap and blur – Robert Fitzgerald, in his moving memoir of his friendship with Agee, writes that “Jim’s weakness and strength were not so easy to tell apart”) – all his best and worst qualities as both a narrator and a composer appear in this passage: his strange strong combination of arrogance and hopelessness, his fierce individualism (no better way to alienate your reader than to place yourself apart from her and her “safe world”), the almost painfully bold belief in what art might do and how much it could matter.
Perhaps some of this is what Updike means when he writes that “Agee’s undoing was not his professionalism but his blind, despairing belief in an ideal amateurism.” And Agee did openly believe in amateurism as an attitude towards the world and art alike. In his introductory column as the movie reviewer for The Nation, he tells his readers: “That my own judgment, and yours, is that of an amateur, is only in part a handicap. It can even be an advantage, of a sort…” Later in the piece, he explains the peculiar attitude necessary when identifying oneself as a novice:
As an amateur, then, I must as well as I can simultaneously recognize my own ignorance and feel no apology for what my eyes tell me as I watch any given screen, where the proof is caught irrelevant to excuse, and available in proportion to the eye which sees it, and the mind which uses it.
In order to understand this paradoxical mandate, we can look to the root of the word “amateur” itself – it comes from the Latin amatorum, which is simply a lover. What state of inclination or being better typifies the combination of absolute surety and self-doubt that Agee here promises to bring to his work than the exhausted exaltations of love itself?
Agee’s self-designated inadequacy and his commitment to trying rather than to succeeding are exactly his contributions to the tradition of American literature. It’s embodied for me in earlier iterations by the maximalist striving of Melville and Whitman and, later, in the agonized, convoluted and honest soliloquies of David Foster Wallace’s characters and narrators. An emphasis on sincere self-conscious attempt, coupled with admitted doubt, places them in conversation. They ask similar questions, and tend more towards questions than resolution. For Agee in particular, though, the intensity of the questions he asks and of those he tries to answer elevate his response to a pitch equally fierce and vulnerable. This reader, at least, couldn’t help but listen and be moved. That striving to turn the world into art is a blind and despairing act – that creative effort is, ultimately, an admission, equally defeated and exuberant, of inadequacy – this is what I’ve learned from Agee and his work. Not everyone must speak so bluntly and loudly on the topic of making art while making it. But for me, as a seventeen-year-old wanting to write and trying to figure out what that meant – and even now, some years later, still wanting and still trying – his honesty about his own amateurism, and the beauty of that honesty, blew more restrained or polished work right out of the water.
But how does all this strangeness and honesty strike the reader? What are its literary effects, its literary methods? As the title of Updike’s essay suggests, he, at least, believes that Agee’s mode was not literary – that, to put it perhaps too simply, he was something other than a writer after all. Updike sums up the problem thus: “He simply preferred conversation to composition. The private game of translating life into language, or fitting words to things, did not sufficiently fascinate him. His eloquence naturally dispersed itself in spurts of interest and jets of opinion.”
But Agee’s work quickly refutes this summary. He might not rank high on a list of writers prized for their control and reserved precision, but his interest in, and indeed passion for, language and its synchronization and syncopation with actuality manifests in numerous other ways. One way is in direct statement of the difficulties of Updike’s “game,” such as this lovely lengthy passage from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
Trying, let us say, to represent, to reproduce, a certain city street, under the conviction that nothing is as important, as sublime, as truly poetic about that street in its flotation upon time and space as the street itself. Your medium, unfortunately, is not a still or moving camera, but is words. You abjure all metaphor, symbol, temptation to invent, as obstructive, false, artistic. As nearly as possible in words (which, even by grace of genius, would not be very near) you try to give the street in its own terms: that is to say, either in the terms in which you (or an imagined character) see it, or in a reduction and depersonalization into terms which will as nearly as possible be the ‘private,’ singular terms of that asphalt, those neon letters, those and all other items combined, into that alternation, that simultaneity, of flat blank tremendously constructed chords and of immensely elaborate counterpoint which is the street itself. You hold then strictly to materials, forms, colors, bulks, textures, space relations, shapes of light and shade, peculiarities, specialization of architecture and of lettering, noises of motors and brakes and shoes, odors of exhausts: all this gathers time and weightiness which the street does not of itself have: it sags with this length and weight: and what have you in the end but a somewhat overblown passage from a naturalistic novel: which in important ways is at the opposite pole from your intentions, from what you have seen, from the fact itself.
This is about as direct a declaration of thoroughgoing investment in the process of “fitting words to things” – of trying, as hard and as hopefully as one can, to ask blank blocks of language to build a world – as one could ask for from an artist, and the specificity of the prose itself displays exactly the fascination that Updike finds lacking.
This investment (and, for the reader, the pleasure of its returns) shows not only in Agee’s intellectual forays but also in his aesthetic successes. His descriptive and figurative language in both his fiction and nonfiction is, to my mind, singularly inventive; where else does one find a trunk “bearing itself in a kind of severe innocence, as certain frame houses and archaic automobiles do,” or an old man holding up “supplicating tiny hands like a Moslem mole,” or stars that “beat like hearts”? These are not occasional gems – they, and the vivid language that surrounds them, are results of a sustained attempt to see the world and to find ways of verbally articulating it that are not only true but startling, in the way that the world itself might startle you if only you looked at it long enough. This kind of phrase, both the backbone and the lion’s share of Agee’s work, is not the work of a mere talker – it’s the exertion and success, simultaneously visible in the crystallized form of words on a page, of a first-rate noticer and a talented writer.
Agee constantly strove for that startle, for a combination of classical beauty and innovation. He searched for it not only on the level of the sentence but in the entire composition of each of his works. The awed surprise that accompanied my initial reading of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has now become a part of the excitement that comes with delving into any of his writing – motivated by a kind of hopeless passion for whatever his subject happens to be, he’ll try startling tacks and techniques to convey the entirety of whatever he’s attempting to get at: a temporal shift, an alteration in form, or some other odd thing on the page. The effect of this is most striking to me in his fiction, which can find its way at length into a distinctly traditional mode, but which inevitably struggles free into something new and strange.
The early short story “They That Sow in Sorrow Shall Reap,” written while Agee was still at Harvard, begins with a beautiful description of the boardinghouse in which the narrator has just taken a room, moves like a sketch artist through the place’s inhabitants and the beginning of the story’s central conflict – and then the narrative halts and we come up amid sentences such as “The true sum of experience is, as a rule, an inconceivably complex interpenetration of subjective and objective experience.” Where are we – the story is suddenly gone, the narrative is in the present tense – and how did we get here? Our protagonist doesn’t know, either. “I am far from my beginning,” he reflects. “I wonder how, or if, I can return to it.”
It is only after pages that the past tense arrives again and illuminates what we have been immersed in: “I read carefully what I had written; carefully, and slowly, tried to clarify the ideas, to give them some proper connection, to discover any coherent thought. When I finished I was sick with exhaustion and self-contempt; I wanted to beat my face to bits.” In other words, everything between the end of the first section and this return has been writing that the protagonist has done within the time of the story, unmarked and unintroduced. And, in an attitude deeply characteristic of the story’s author (the narrator here is almost identical to Agee in biography and background), he considers his writing inadequate – but he cannot quite discard it: “I crumpled the sheets into a fistful and looked for a match; and stopped. It was the only attempt I’d ever made to get at the bottom of anything. It was a horrible failure – but in another mood something might come of it, something might be clear in it.”
The story jumps back into straight description and dialogue, but this interlude opens the door for a series of wonderfully writerly moves within the rest of the text. A moment before supper in which the boarders sit patiently expands suddenly into their waiting “for the next evening, and for a Sunday, and for another week and Sunday; for autumn and for winter, for spring and for summer…for the slow chemistry of change and age…for the silencing of all clamor and the sealing of all sight; for the final leveling of all desire, of all despair, of all joy, of all tribulations.” A fight scene, when it rises icily out of a quiet moment on the porch, exceeds prose’s speed and is rendered as a kind of poem of fragmented actions. And yet the writing doesn’t trick the reader, and it feels nothing like virtuosic boasting – it’s only that Agee is trying to render things as closely as he can within the considerable constraint of words.
He goes to great, grandiose lengths to get around these constraints; we see this in everything he writes, even A Death in the Family, which is to me his most refined work but which still cannot help, on occasion, devoting more than a page to something like a phonetic rendering of the sound of a car that cannot quite start. But Agee, in his own way, is measured in his tactics. “They That Sow in Sorrow Shall Reap” ends like it began, with a silent and almost painterly scene – because the end does not need to tell itself in an unconventional way. The variety of techniques in the piece feels like variety borne of necessity, and its effect exemplifies the way in which the most successful moments in Agee are those in which rigor and difficulty are made visible, made manifest in the order of the words themselves.
There is something oddly conversational about this method – the circling round, the speed and urgency of the attempts to make clear, and also the vulnerability and camaraderie that, in his best moments, Agee’s boldness and honesty elicit from his reader. Despite all my doubts about Updike’s article, it does point to an intriguing theme in Agee’s work: talk. Over and over, in letters and finished pieces alike, we find him referring to his writing as speaking. His first film review for The Nation explicitly (and intriguingly) links amateurism to an interest in an ongoing dialogue with the reader: “It is my business to conduct one end of a conversation, as an amateur critic among amateur critics. And I will be of use and of interest only in so far as my amateur judgment is sound, stimulating, or illuminating.” And in only one of scores of statements framed in such terms, he writes in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
And I keep talking so much about it simply because I am respectful of experience in general and of any experience whatever, and because it turns out that going through, remembering, and trying to tell of anything is of itself (not because the Experience was either hot or cold, but of itself, and as a part of the experience) interesting and important to me: and because, as I have said before, I am interested in the actual and in telling of it.
“Talking,” “telling,” “as I have said” – all of this points to an investment in the process of narration, not merely in the static narrative itself. Agee’s interest in making his nonfiction both like a series of photographs and like a film tells us a great deal about his paradoxical ambitions: he wanted the still truth of the one and the conscious motion of the other. “I am interested in the actual and in telling of it,” in the context of Agee’s particular work, is no mere statement of what every writer wishes to do, but a kind of declaration of the war within the work itself. As in the passage concerning the description of the street, the “failure” in Agee’s work is in part due to his knowledge that writing and reading are both temporal acts, and that their temporality is out of joint with the reality they wish to record and represent. Talk at least admits of this failure: whereas written work, in its stillness on the page, dissembles, chattering away is ephemeral, forward-tending, and firmly grounded in “real” time. Agee writes that “trying to tell of anything” is “a part of the experience,” and this, perhaps, is what makes him different from more measured writers – all this unnecessary, or digressive, explanation of narration itself.
Yet Agee anticipates criticism of this approach, and even agrees with it. He writes: “And if, anti-artistically, you desire not only to present but to talk about what you present and how you try to present it, then one of your first anxieties, in advance of failure foreseen, is to make clear that a sin is a sin.” What’s to say, however, that this “anti-artistic” tactic is not itself a new method of making art? Conversation, which can comment on itself, which can shift its meaning and tone as quickly and sensitively as the call-and-response of the foxes heard in the last section of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is a model for not only the weakest but also the strongest moments in Agee’s texts: anxious, impassioned trying to tell. The effort is visible. So is the dynamism – and so is the “sin,” and the consciousness thereof. But isn’t that the glory of his work, a particular and peculiar glory found in few other places – explicit, anguished eloquence and eloquent despair? And love, embodied by trying. Let us not forget about love.
Maybe in my enthusiasm for Agee’s books I am only what Dwight Garner, in a 2005 retrospective of Agee’s work for Harper’s, calls “a connoisseur of literary failure” – a type for whom, he argues, Agee holds perennial appeal. It’s true that many of my other beloved authors – the ones I’ve mentioned as sharing qualities with Agee – are messy, rambling, perhaps excessively ambitious, unable to stay distant from what it is they write. And it is not that I find each sentence Agee writes a revelation. I agree with (or concede to) Updike that there are moments of overblown delirium in the books. There are grating rants and occasional absurdities of description, and there are certainly slow moments, deliberate and not. Why, then, should Agee, with all his flaws and demands and garrulousness, warrant our attention and be seen as striking, still?
It’s these doubts and these questions that have prompted me to write this essay, as well as my love for his work, itself half-posed as a question. And in writing it I’ve come to find some answer, some affirmation. Agee’s acknowledgment of failure as an intrinsic element of writing – and as part of the beauty of trying – is tied to a kind of honest risktaking that’s always relevant to speak about, but which seems more so now because fewer and fewer artists seem (to me) to embody that spirit of experimentation for the sake of clarity and sincere expression. And perhaps this is only one tradition, but it is one that asks questions at the heart of artistic practice, and one that should, I think, be emphasized as virtuous and interesting. Excellent style, linguistic deftness, aesthetic veracity – all of these matter, but so, too, does failure, and the struggle, fluid as conversation is fluid, to overcome it. These traits are not mutually exclusive; they coexist in the best books, in tension and in harmony, and they ask us to ask questions as we read them, to both enjoy and be aware of the flawed alchemy of words on a page.
Consciousness of these frustrations, and perpetual hopeless attempts to vanquish them – this is not a sickness in American literature, but a strain of hardiness and florid health. And Agee, perhaps more than any other writer, said it straight:
To come devotedly into the depths of a subject, your respect for it increasing in every step and your whole heart weakening apart with shame upon yourself in your dealing with it: To know at length better and better and at length into the bottom of your soul your unworthiness of it: Let me hope in any case that it is something to have begun to learn. Let this all stand however as it may: since I cannot make it the image it should be, let it stand as the image it is: I am speaking of my verbal part of this book as a whole.
“Let this all stand however as it may”: the “this” of that phrase is not only the subject of which Agee is speaking, but the shame and unworthiness he feels as he tries to speak of it – and the willingness to admit that, and to despair of it, and to keep on writing anyway and to try a million things to right that fundamental wrong – that is a legacy worth remembering, not an “undoing,” as Updike terms it. “It is something to have begun to learn.” This is why James Agee still matters – because we, too, are still learning.
Liza Birnbaum lives in Ucross, Wyoming.