Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (the title comes from Ecclesiastes) is often glibly described as a classic, but if so, it must be one of the most unread and unreadable classics, one that educated people would rather compliment than suffer through. I tried twice in the past to get through it, and only managed a third time by taking on this reviewing assignment. What makes it so difficult to read is its thick fog of lyrical rhetoric and its total lack of forward momentum. It essentially breaks down into a series of prologues: For 400 pages Agee keeps starting the book, promising and backing away, introducing us to the ostensible subjects and then refusing to describe them. Originally called Three Tenant Families, it purports to be about three interrelated, hardscrabble clans: the Gudgers, the Rickettses and the Woodses. However, Agee had such scruples about any traditional approach that might conceivably exploit, betray or simplify these poor folk--the journalistic, the psychological, the aesthetic, the anthropological--that he was left with his hands tied, reduced to meditative mini-essays about roosters, mules and bedbugs, whose feelings would presumably not be hurt by his speculations. Some of these passages are marvelous, but all leave us frustratingly outside the main drama because he disdains to develop his subjects as characters. "There will be no time in this volume to tell much of their personalities," he says about the farm children, in a volume that seemingly has time for everything else. The book turns out to be more about Agee's shy, reverential feelings toward these salt-of-the-earth farmers, and his hunger to be liked by them, than about the people themselves. (How little he actually knew them becomes clear in And Their Children After Them, a valuable book written fifty years later by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, who studied the families' survivors and progeny and uncovered incest, abuse and other goings-on.)
Despite Agee's reluctance to aestheticize his subjects, he ends up doing exactly that, as though he had come upon a set of intact Doric statues in an Alabama field. Of course he was competing with the daunting success of Walker Evans's photographs, which Agee adored. Even more than treating the tenant farmers as visually uncanny, his response was to imbue them with "sacramental" wonderment. Again and again, Agee has an epiphanic response to the tenant farmers, their "helpless innocence" and "beatitude." (At such moments, he sounds like an early Beat.) "The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet," he wrote, not without a trace of self-parody, about encountering a young black couple on the road. When he is taken in by the Gudgers for the night after his car runs aground, he turns the anecdote into a biblical parable, as though he is an angel and they are hospitable patriarchs.
In a way, Agee remained primarily a religious writer. His Anglo-Catholic faith may have wavered, but his attraction to the spiritual, his attempt to convey the "predicaments of human divinity," as he put it, never faltered. His first book, a collection of poems called Permit Me Voyage, and his first extended fiction, a labored novel called The Morning Watch, about an adolescent altar boy having a crisis of faith, both attest to this preoccupation. But it was in his work of literary nonfiction, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (published in between Permit Me Voyage and The Morning Watch), that he really let loose.
The book is a catchall, with reveries, documents, inventories, surveys (Agee throws in his testy response to a Partisan Review questionnaire about the state of American literature). Though he began writing it when he was 26, there are times when he still comes across as a brilliant undergraduate who cannot stop compiling lists of his favorite enthusiasms, like the list of "unpaid agitators" that includes Blake, Céline, Ring Lardner, Jesus Christ, Freud and blues singer Lonnie Johnson. Alongside his celebration of tenderness, there are sudden, outrageously adolescent outbreaks of hostility against everyone who doesn't understand, especially those intellectuals back up North, who dare to fling around words like "sharecropper" and who have "absorbed every corruptive odor of inverted snobbery, marxian, journalistic, jewish, and liberal logomachia, emotional blackmail, negrophilia, belated transference, penis-envy...." Agee was of course a progressive, a self-described lapsed communist, but he mistrusted armchair radicals who did not go out into the field, as he did. He expresses frustration that he is unable "to blow out the brains with it of you who take what it is talking of lightly, or not seriously enough." Then he catches himself and admits: "Oh, I am very well aware how adolescent this is...."
You have to admire the freedom and wild stubbornness of the enterprise, but Time's reviewer, who called it a "distinguished failure," may have gotten it right after all. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a failure, as Agee himself keeps telling us, but in the end, like Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, it's a fascinating ruin.
Assigned by Fortune to write a short piece about Brooklyn, Agee responded with "Brooklyn Is," a dizzying if pointless Whitmanesque catalogue, again rejected (for good reason) by the magazine's editors and which has only recently resurfaced in a little book put out by Fordham University Press, which optimistically labels it "a New York classic." You would think Luce had had his fill of Agee; but no, the two were made for each other, commerce and culture; St. Jim was Luce's class act, and soon he was back at Time, not only writing reviews but swinging into action whenever Luce needed a valedictorian on staff to strike the right lofty tone.
The death of FDR? The atom bomb? Get Agee. In an August 20, 1945, piece called "Victory: The Peace," Agee concludes: "Man's fate has forever been shaped between the hands of reason and spirit, now in collaboration, again in conflict. Now reason and spirit meet on final ground. If either or anything is to survive, they must find a way to create an indissoluble partnership." This sort of immensely talented blather (you try it sometime) belongs to the history of oratory and hack writing, in the highest sense.