Agee's Gospel | The Nation


Agee's Gospel

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Agee's distaste for Hollywood smoothness caused him at times to overrate the awkward and unpolished, as in his hype job for an intriguing, clumsy curiosity like Man's Hope, Malraux's semi-documentary about the Spanish Civil War: "The heartsick peasant in the disastrous plane is great movie poetry. The descent of the broken heroes from the desperate stone crown of Spain, as from a Cross, to the maternal valley, a movement so conceived that a whole people and a whole terrain become one sorrowing and triumphal Pietà for twentieth century man, falls possibly short of its full imaginable magnificence, considered syllable by syllable; but in its mass it is poetry even greater. Homer might know it, I think, for the one work of our time which was wholly sympathetic to him."

About the Author

Phillip Lopate
Phillip Lopate is the author of Waterfront: A Journey Around Manhattan (Anchor) and editor of the anthology American...

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Whenever Agee mentions movie poetry, you can bet some crucifixion imagery will follow. Praising William Wellman's fine (now neglected) war film The Story of G.I. Joe, he says of Robert Mitchum's role: "And the development of the character of the Captain is so imperceptible and so beautifully done that, without ability to wonder why, you accept him as a great man in his one open attempt to talk about himself and the war, and as a virtual divinity in the magnificent scene which focuses on his dead body. This closing scene seems to me a war poem as great and as beautiful as any of Whitman's." It is not much of a stretch to see that Agee is conflating here the body of his dead father with that of Mitchum's and Christ's.

In his superbly accomplished autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, Agee got the chance to dilate lovingly over the dead father's body, laid out after a car accident. A Death in the Family is modest in scale but rides a deep current of feeling. Agee had brooded over and tried to write this novel all his life; he knew the setting (the Knoxville of his childhood) and the characters (drawn from his immediate family and relatives) inside-out. In other words, he knew them far better than he ever did the tenant farmers in Appalachia, and he could tap their flaws and humors with far more honesty and without condescension. These are people who read Thomas Hardy, The Nation and The New Republic, agnostics who worry, but try not to show their horror, because one of them has gotten religion. The shrewd aunt who takes the young boy Rufus shopping, the boy's gullibility in letting himself be teased by bigger kids on the way to school, the unthinkable and all-too-real irrevocable loss of the father, whom we have already come to love, the young mother's vacillation between stoicism and hysteria, the alcoholic self-pitying uncle--all these and more are perfectly achieved. Though Agee left the manuscript unfinished at his death, it doesn't need anything else; the emotional arc has more or less been completed. The novel was published posthumously in 1957, two years after he died, and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The book testified to Agee's successful digging-out of his narcissistic gulch and gaining an objective shifting perspective on a half-dozen protagonists. Perhaps the experience he had writing Hollywood screenplays (The Night of the Hunter and The African Queen) had strengthened his sense of structure, even as it made him less resistant to satisfying a bourgeois audience with accessible, vivid storytelling and fully developed characters.

Michael Sragow, the series editor, has done an excellent job selecting the texts and, in his biographical notes, keeping straight all of Agee's similar-named wives, Via, Alma and Mia. He has omitted Agee's poems (no great loss) and his other screenplays (then again, Agee was a much better novelist than a screenwriter). I may have wanted to see some correspondence, especially a few letters to Father Flye and Robert Fitzgerald, but I think we have enough to go by here. The totality suggests a hard-working, self-destructive writer with flashes of greatness and equal expressions of bluff and artist, whose poignant legacy deserves our continued and sympathetic, if unromantic, scrutiny.

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