Commentary Magazine


What James Agee Achieved

Some failures make a bigger impression than most triumphs. The failures that marked the career of James Agee (1909-1955) assured him a legendary status in his own lifetime that he could never have attained had he been merely a good writer—or perhaps even had he been merely a great one. He published only three books before he died: Permit Me Voyage (1934), a slender volume of poetry; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a long meditation on the lives of Alabama sharecroppers during the Depression; and The Morning Watch (1951), a novella about youthful religious infatuation and its abrupt extinction.

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Agee's sixteen years of service to Henry Luce, turning out anonymous pieces on such things as orchids and steel rails for Fortune, and movie reviews and political features for Time, earned him consideration as a sort of sharecropper himself. Some people thought these and other freelance pieces of his were brilliant—W.H. Auden praised Agee's movie column in the Nation as “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today”—but deplored his having to do them at all. Such wider fame as he enjoyed came from screenplays (including one for John Huston's The African Queen), yet even that was modest. As for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which Lionel Trilling called “the most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation,” it sold 600 copies before being remaindered.

In short, Agee's life was the classic parable of American genius left to founder by an indifferent public and mourned by those who knew what he had in him but could never get out. Only after his death of a heart attack at forty-five did his literary fortunes begin to soar. His unfinished novel, A Death in the Family, was published in 1957 and won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1958, a collection of movie reviews and articles, Agee on Film, made his reputation as the Coleridge, or Dr. Johnson, of the silver screen; in 1960, a companion volume of five screenplays appeared. That same year, Houghton Mifflin reissued Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; by the mid-1980's, it had sold nearly a half-million copies.

Also in 1960, a theatrical adaptation of A Death in the Family was a hit on Broadway and won another Pulitzer; a film version, All the Way Home, followed in 1963. In 1962, the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, his correspondence with an Episcopalian priest he had known since his Tennessee boyhood, scored a critical and popular success. The Collected Poems, most of which had been written over 30 years earlier, came out in 1968, and The Collected Short Prose soon afterward.

Now the Library of America has published two volumes of Agee's work,
1 thereby certifying his eminence. But since such certification comes rather more cheaply than it once did—the Library of America has devoted quite a few volumes to the works of the plainly undeserving—questions remain. What did Agee's life and work amount to? Is he one of the great American writers?

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James Rufus Agee was born and grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, where, he would write in A Death in the Family, “I lived . . . successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

2 His father, Jay Agee, came from rough-hewn mountain folk, but despite a limited education and youthful drunken indiscretions, he looked to have a promising future with his father-in-law's construction company. James's mother was something of a holy roller in a decorous Anglo-Catholic way, who nurtured her husband's turn toward sober respectability. But their glorious future never arrived: one night Jay drove his car off the road and was killed instantly, the only mark on him a small cut where his chin had struck the steering wheel. James was six.

The fatherless boy cultivated a taste for barbarity, stoning baby robins, placing toads on trolley tracks to watch them get crushed. His savagery was persistent enough for his mother to move the family to the grounds of St. Andrew's, an Episcopalian boarding school for boys near Sewanee. There, the eight-year-old James took to the sage guidance of Father James Flye, who fed his hunger for books and music. He also soon developed religious cravings, mostly of a penitential cast and sometimes running to the lunatic. (He thought of building a large cross in the school's woodshop and having himself crucified, so that pilgrim multitudes would gape in amazement at his holiness.)

At fifteen, James won a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy, and from there went on to Harvard, where his furious energies drove him at a breakneck pace. He took to the stage, road-tripped to New York for orgies of movie-going, called regularly on a high-school sweetheart now living in New Hampshire, dated Radcliffe girls on the side, frequented the services of bootleggers, and smoked till his fingers glowed orange. Bored with most of his classes, he nearly washed out academically, but read passionately on his own and wrote stories and poems that made him a local hero. He also sized up the competition: Walt Whitman “seems generally half-assed to me now,” Robert Frost was floundering haplessly in “sweetie-pie channels,” and the Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe (You Can't Go Home Again) had “stolen my whole childhood.” There were a few writers worth emulating, however, as he told Father Flye: “I'd like, in a sense, to combine what Chekhov did with what Shakespeare did. . . . I want to write symphonies.”

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Youthful success of the worldly kind—and, no doubt, trepidation that he might never write the great work he knew he had in him—diverted him from the Chekhov-Shakespeare route. As president of the Advocate, Harvard's student literary magazine, he had published a parody of Time, writing most of the issue himself. Time, Inc. was so bowled over that it hired him fresh out of college as a staff writer for Fortune, where he was expected to crank out an unsigned, 5,000-word article every month. It was the Depression, and Agee felt lucky to have any job at all, let alone a choice writing position. But a faltering romance and enforced distraction from his exalted vocation brought him to the verge of suicide, in despair, as he wrote to Father Flye, “of everything I want and everything about myself.”

He reconciled himself to life sufficiently to marry Via Saunders, the daughter of a chemistry professor, who had hosted an intellectually tony salon in Cambridge. But supporting a wife in New York meant that Agee's literary dreams were drifting out of reach. “I feel the well-known prison walls distinctly thickening,” he wailed to Father Flye, “but if I should tell [the editor of Fortune] honestly that side of the story, I'd be out of a job very soon. And then where? And how would I live? And what would happen to Via?”

The publication in 1934 of Permit Me Voyage, in the Yale Younger Poets series, exhilarated him briefly; but almost nobody reviewed it and almost nobody bought it. One day, a colleague walked into Agee's office in the Chrysler building and saw him dangling by his fingertips from the window ledge, 50 stories above the pavement. Agee eventually climbed back in, peculiarly composed, and thoughts of suicide gave way to fantasies of assassination: he told anyone who would listen how delicious it would be to stroll into Henry Luce's sanctum and blow him away.

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Meanwhile, Agee was liberating himself from the bonds of religious faith. In 1936 he wrote to Father Flye that he had become an unbeliever and a man of the Left, leaning toward Communism but not yet committed. A few months later, Fortune gave the budding Communist his dream assignment: to write a story about a family of Southern tenant farmers, much-despised poor white trash, living at the borderline of subsistence. Walker Evans would accompany him to Alabama and take photographs for the story. The charming Evans proceeded to get his foot in the door with three penurious families; Agee came to know them all and spent three weeks living with one of them. Fortune never ran the story he wrote, but he knew he had found the subject he was born to write about. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which he worked on for the next three years, would be his finest work.

Nothing else in his life went quite so well. He fell out of love with Via and took up with another woman, while Via had an affair with Walker Evans, who had become her husband's best friend. Agee married the other woman, Alma Mailman, with whom lovemaking was the purest ecstasy he had ever known. But then he took a notion to share the ecstasy, and convinced Alma to have sex with Evans while he, Agee, sat on the bed and observed. Although he wrote afterward to Evans that “I am enough of an infant homosexual or post-Dostoevskian to be glad” for the experience, evidently he was more normal than he gave himself credit for: an experiment undertaken in the interest of boundless love and supreme knowledge, which seemed so right in conception, appalled him in practice, and gutted his love for Alma.

When Alma became pregnant, Agee found another woman, Mia Fritsch. Alma decamped with the baby to Mexico, where she fell in love with a German Communist writer, and once again Agee cried out of the depths to Father Flye, who suggested he see a psychiatrist. Agee replied that, even realizing he had a drive “toward self-destruction,” and knowing “little if anything about its sources or control,” he could not consent to psychoanalysis: “I prefer at least a painful degree of spiritual pain and sickness.” To this preference he remained true—and since handsome, eloquent, hard-drinking, and chronically unfaithful artist-types usually require a companion in self-destruction, he also married Mia, with whom he would have three children and whom he would betray, inevitably it seems, more than once.

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By 1948, when he was thirty-nine, Agee had saved enough money to kiss Henry Luce goodbye, write his last movie column for the Nation, and light out for Chekhov-Shakespeare territory. The Morning Watch and A Death in the Family were glints in his eye, and he was eager to embrace his long-overdue greatness.

Impediments arose, however. He had become a thorough alcoholic, routinely draining a fifth of bourbon during a convivial evening. The work on his cherished projects slowed. He fled again, this time for Hollywood, going at first for the money but by and by convincing himself that movies were the supreme art of his time. Somehow, between blackouts and adulteries, work got done, some of it, like The Morning Watch, serious.

But the rampaging abuse took him down. His first heart attack in 1951 slowed him, if only briefly. As he proclaimed to Walker Evans, every man worthy of the name “has the right, even the obligation, to write (or other vocational work) and to f—as much as he can and in the ways he prefers to, even if doing so shortens his life or kills him on the spot.” But it would be neither work nor sex that did him in; the drinking and the smoking beat them to it. Repeated minor heart attacks became part of the drill; one May morning in New York in 1955, taking a cab to his doctor's office, he jackknifed with his final heart attack. The New York Times obituary mentioned that he had been a “poet, critic, and sensitive writer in many media.”

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Nowhere was it said that he had written one of the most extraordinary works of non-fiction prose by an American in the 20th century, to be measured beside the literary summits of Henry Adams, William James, and George Santayana. But that was indeed Agee's achievement in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, whose bitterly ironic title is taken from the book of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus, in the Apocrypha. The plight of farmers reduced to virtual serfdom in the preeminent capitalist democracy sounds like the choicest opportunity for a leftist screed: the gasoline is just waiting for the match. Agee, however, was no mere political incendiary. What he was after was the truth of these battered lives as “the whole of consciousness” might apprehend it, and neither Marxist boilerplate nor conventional literary imagination fit his intention.

In 400 pages, Agee sketches the feudal arrangement between landlord and tenant; details the tenants' houses, furniture, and clothing with an overflowing heart and a camera's disinterested exactitude; describes the routine ordeal of planting, tending, and picking cotton that “goes on each day from can to can't”; explores the complex dynamic between himself and the people he is writing about, including their warming toward his citified strangeness and the erotic charm his novelty and gentle manner exert on a young girl; deplores the habitual triviality of journalists and the spiritual destitution of intellectuals; declares himself “a Communist by sympathy and conviction” and then proceeds to excoriate the terrible pride of revolutionaries, a mortal sin as sure to ravage human hopes as capitalist greed; flagellates himself for his unworthiness as a man and an artist to approach the alien tortured souls he is writing about; and keens, rants, sighs, frets, effuses, and speculates about the dire glory of living on this earth.

Despite its subject, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men can hardly be called a work of sociology. Only by breaking down the categories of sociological and economic and political classification, Agee believes, can one begin to see the living man. In addition to the usual taxonomies of social science, the usual confusions and incomprehensions of ordinary living must also be seen through and surpassed, so that that each individual and each moment might be known under the aspect of eternity. For Agee, who illustrates this point in prose of soaring fire, there is “no beauty less” in the homely than in the hieratic. In a shack unfit for human habitation, breakfast rituals acquire, for him, the holy glow he knew as an altar boy in chapel.

Thus he makes the reader understand even these wretched lives as sacred. But so brutally wretched are they that one must also recognize how deeply their sanctity is violated at every turn. The farmers' poverty reaches a depth of misery and deprivation unthinkable for the working poor in America today. Ceaseless grueling toil to no end but animal survival—and barely that—leaves human bodies used up in what ought to be the prime of life. Those with no choice in the matter and no knowledge of anything better grow accustomed to the intolerable. The texture of life is oily, clammy, grimy, and phlegm-encrusted. Vermin have the run of the place. Despite any efforts to make their homes less unpleasant—and most have already given up trying—foulness permeates every inch:

The odors of sweat in many stages of age and freshness, this sweat being a distillation of pork, lard, corn, woodsmoke, pine, and ammonia. The odors of sleep, of bedding and of breathing, for the ventilation is poor. The odors of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress. Odors of staleness from clothes hung or stored away, not washed. I should further describe the odor of corn: in sweat, or on the teeth, and breath, when it is eaten as much as they eat it, it is of a particular sweet stuffy fetor, to which the nearest parallel is the odor of the yellow excrement of a baby.

More painful than the damage done to bodies and the insult to the senses is the unconscionable wastage of mind. Some of the farm folk are illiterate, while some can read and write a bit; some are mentally feeble, some capable of better things but destined never to know them: “these intellects died before they were born; they hang behind their eyes like fetuses in alcohol.” And among these poor an intractable moral coarseness defies any reformist zeal for a new dawn:

Here I can only say that in the people of this country you care most for, pretty nearly without exception you must reckon in traits, needs, diseases, and above all mere natural habits, differing from our own, of a casualness, apathy, self-interest, unconscious, offhand, and deliberate cruelty, in relation toward extra-human life and toward negroes, terrible enough to freeze your blood or to break your heart or to propel you toward murder. . . .

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As Agee does not concoct imaginary virtues for his downtrodden subjects, neither does he demonize the landowners who exploit and despise the tenant farmers. In one remarkable passage he declares—contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the time—that the rich are not to be hated even for their vast indifference to the sufferings of the poor.

Agee seems to conceive of the human condition as so blighted by original sin that all sinners deserve absolution, in a world so hard that one man's life, whatever his station, is essentially as painful and ultimately as blameless as the next man's. At the same time, he displays a more conventional moral compass: to try to ease the suffering of those on the bottom—knowing all the while that the world is setting you up for failure—offers a long-shot hope of saving yourself. He can thus sound by turns like a hard-shelled conservative, a too-forgiving liberal, a dreamy Communist, and a skeptic who knows how dreams of re-making humanity become waking nightmares.

What he remains throughout is a man trying his own soul and desperate to find some vestige of purity there. Though human cruelty, rapacity, and folly appall him, he fights off his native indignation in the name of love for humanity. This quality alone sets Let Us Now Praise Famous Men apart from the classic literature about poverty in the great capitalist democracies, in which indignation tends to shoulder love for humanity out of the picture.

Friedrich Engels's The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), for example, perhaps the one Marxist book not yet stripped of all moral authority, hardly seems authoritative at all beside Agee's work. The slum-dwellers in whose name Engels professes to write are ciphers, their pains significant only in the aggregate, insofar as they might inspire loathing for the modern industrial dispensation and kindle the wrath that will bring it down. To portray real men would only complicate matters unduly, so Engels prefers to draw abstract proletarians as pitiable brutes who somehow happen to embody all human virtue.

Christian philanthropists can be almost as blinkered and tendentious as Marxists. Jane Addams, the patron saint of American social workers, declares in Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910) that the foundation of her work is a belief in “the solidarity of the human race, a philosophy which will not waver when the race happens to be represented by a drunken woman or an idiot boy.” But her philosophy does not prevent her from—perhaps even provokes her to—a brutal moralizing in the name of public spiritedness: when typhoid fever kills the daughter of a self-sufficient woman who had not joined in “public efforts to secure a better code of tenement-house sanitation,” Addams sees hard justice at work. Dutifully Addams preaches doing good to people you don't like and then condemns those who fail to recognize the superior virtue of such behavior; in uncontrollable heartbreak, Agee simply demonstrates his rapturous love for all the living and his sorrow that he is not good enough to sustain this love at the highest pitch. But then Agee was never a practical sort.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is not without its flagrant excesses. Writing of his own feelings, Agee is given to far too many agonies of conscience over trifles. And the ornate style gets to be a trial when it is not a delight. Adjectives make Agee delirious, and he almost never uses one when five or six will do. Ethereal syntax occasionally seems designed to abolish earthly meaning altogether. Passages of ecstatic precision alternate with others of all but unintelligible gush, where one suspects the whisky is doing the writing.

But! then there are instances of perfect observation and insight:

The young man's eyes had the opal lightings of dark oil and, though he was watching me in a way that relaxed me to cold weakness of ignobility, they fed too strongly inward to draw to a focus: whereas those of the young woman had each the splendor of a monstrance, and were brass. Her body also was brass or bitter gold, strong to stridency beneath the unbleached clayed cotton dress, and her arms and bare legs were sharp with metal down. . . . There was in their eyes so quiet and ultimate a quality of hatred, and contempt, and anger, toward every creature in existence beyond themselves, and toward the damages they sustained, as shone scarcely short of a state of beatitude; nor did this at any time modify itself.

Agee's gift is to hold this hatred in his heart and transform it into a democratic sacrament of compassion, which all who see these persons through his eyes can partake of. Thanks to this reverence for every human life and grief for every pang endured by a suffering creature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men suggests the possibility of intimate understanding among people so alien to each other they might seem to be of different species.

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Agee never wrote anything else of comparable genius, though everything he wrote displays exceptional talent. A Death in the Family, the most celebrated of his other books, relives the accident that killed his father and the family's response to that loss. The novel is rich with remembrance of the simple gestures of familial love, and the predominant note is of rapt, elegiac tenderness, as in the opening prose poem, “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” which evokes an evening like any other for a boy in the bosom of his happy family: “By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.”

3

The Tolstoyan theme of this novel is the effort of selfish and stumbling humanity somehow to show itself equal not only to shattering tragedy but also to the casual beauty of ordinary evenings like this one. Agee's characteristic longing for purity of heart is here once again in tension with his love of life in all its moral variegation, and once again it is hard to tell which he really valued more.

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In A Death in the Family, Agee definitively recovered his childhood from the thieving clutches of Thomas Wolfe, and could also claim preeminence over that rival in the field of provincial Southern lyric heartache. He could rightly claim preeminence in the field of film criticism as well—which does not mean the Library of America was obliged to gather over 500 pages of movie reviews in a second Agee volume. The greatest critics have recorded their engagement with great art; there simply was very little of great art to be found in the movies Agee wrote about, and his reviews themselves are mostly ephemeral notices of ephemera. One would be happy to have a handful of the more interesting full-length articles, like those on silent movie comedies and D.W. Griffith, along with a dozen of the best reviews; less—a lot less—would definitely be more. As it is, Film Writing and Selected Journalism only confirms what Agee's friends and admirers believed during his lifetime: he should have been doing something better.

Of course no one ever accomplishes all he sets out to do in the transports of youth; but James Agee was remarkable for the magnitude of his ambition, the profligacy with which he squandered his gifts, the consternation his failures caused him, and the high quality of the work he managed to produce in spite of his determined efforts at self-destruction. He went at life as though he were a nobleman in the bitterest of operettas who commands wealth beyond all counting, buys caviar and champagne for everyone in the house night after night, breakfasts on the leftovers with a different mistress every morning (only one of whom he loves), and dies bankrupt and alone of a broken heart in a low-rent hotel, his friends amusing themselves elsewhere, a handful of diamonds strewn atop his dresser among the shirt studs and billets-doux. A wiser man could have lived happily on the diamonds for a very long time; but diamonds like these rarely fall into the hands of the merely wise.

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Footnotes

1 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction, 818 pp., $35.00; Film Writing and Selected Journalism, 748 pp., $40.00.

2 In what follows I draw much from Laurence Bergreen's impressive 1984 biography, James Agee: A Life.

3 Samuel Barber, who was a friend of Agee's, set several passages of this prose poem to ravishing music for soprano and orchestra. Barber also wrote the most beautiful 20th-century American art song I know, “Sure on This Shining Night,” to the words of an Agee poem.

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About the Author

Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.




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