Agee’s Gospel

Agee’s Gospel

Two new volumes in the Library of America series present the life and work of James Agee, whose flashes of greatness as an essayist, screenwriter, novelist and Nation film reviewer have secured his place in the American literary canon.


In 1958, three years after James Agee suffered a terminal heart attack in a taxicab at 45, his friend and fellow film critic Manny Farber wrote an essay called “Nearer My Agee to Thee.” The title captured Farber’s characteristically mischievous attempt to wrest the real writer from his pious followers. “Even when he modified and showboated until the reader got the Jim-jams, Agee’s style was exciting in its pea-soup density.” In retrospect, Farber’s effort to forestall sanctimony by objective assessment seems doomed, because Agee was such a prime candidate for literary sainthood: Handsome, tortured good looks, a cross between Montgomery Clift and Robert Ryan; body-punishing habits (alcohol, cigarettes, work jags, insomnia); a rebellious streak; many loves; obsession with integrity; and an early death. He belonged to that bruised, vulnerable, too-good-for-this-world poster club of actors, writers and rock stars whose authenticity was vouchsafed by premature passing.

The canonization of James Agee now appears to be complete with Library of America’s two-volume set, which brings together his major works of fiction and film criticism, plus some high journalism and the Night of the Hunter screenplay. In a way, Agee is a perfect fit for the LOA, which, having published the obvious national classics by Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, etc., has since branched out to include “major minor” writers like Dawn Powell, H.P. Lovecraft and Carson McCullers, whose careers can be polished off in a volume or two. If these forays have exposed the LOA to criticism for diluting the house’s founding standards, they have also provoked fruitful reassessments of marginal literary figures, while putting into readers’ hands impeccably edited and elegantly printed texts that might otherwise be scattered or out of print.

Beyond his thanatoptic mystique, Agee’s reputation rests on three claims: a hugely peculiar nonfiction tome, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; an impressive body of movie criticism; and a beautiful, heartbreaking novel, A Death in the Family. Having now bolted down almost 1,600 pages in the two volumes, I find it easier to agree that Agee’s overall achievement merits inclusion in the LOA’s list than to know what to make of my lingering ambivalence toward this literary charmer.

Agee was born in 1909 and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. When he was 7 his much-loved father, Jay, died in an automobile accident. This tragedy, and the grief and longing that ensued, helped shape his consciousness for life. His mother placed him in the St. Andrew’s School, where his Anglo-Catholicism deepened under the influence of a teacher, Father James Flye, who became a surrogate father, mentor and friend. Agee, an excellent student, enrolled in the Phillips Exeter Academy and later was admitted to Harvard. At some point early on he developed that high-minded, solemn, strutting rhetorical style that would be his calling card and his nemesis. His literary gods were Joyce and Faulkner, and like Faulkner his first love was poetry.

While still a senior at Harvard, Agee wrote a parody of Time that landed him, after graduation, a job at Fortune, the business magazine recently started by Henry Luce. It is significant that Agee’s entry into the Luce empire should have been by way of parody, because it epitomized his own troubled relationship to the journalistic teat. Sometimes he was Luce’s fair-haired boy, sometimes the independent Joycean who refused to compromise with the media’s expectations of clear copy. His journalistic bona fides gave him access to the larger world but also required him to feign an interest in business affairs. Sent to cover the Tennessee Valley Authority, he came back with crème de la crème descriptive prose that delighted his bosses. Agee, a fan of Pare Lorentz’s documentary The River, with the orotund poetry of its voiceover (“Down the Rock, the Illinois and the Kankakee, the Allegheny, the Monongahela, Kanawha, and Muskingum….”), began his own piece with “The Tennessee River system begins on the worn magnificent crests of the southern Appalachians, among the earth’s oldest mountains, and the Tennessee River shapes its valley into the form of a boomerang, bowing it to its sweep through seven states.” Fortune sent him out again, with the great photographer Walker Evans, to report on cotton tenant farmers in Alabama, and he returned with hunks of the impenetrable rock or uncut diamond that would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. His editors rejected it.

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.

Between 1942 and 1948, Agee juggled regular film critic chairs for Time and this periodical, sometimes filing conflicting reviews of the same film. His reviews in The Nation tended to be lengthier and more essayistic; those for Time were shorter, breezier and more pinned to celebrities. Before he quit to write Hollywood screenplays, he left a substantial record of moviegoing that has inspired many reviewers since, while irritating the hell out of others.

I consider Agee one of the five major American film critics, the others being Otis Ferguson, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. He is always stimulating to read on the movies, but of the five I disagree with him the most. It may well be a mistake to evaluate a critic on the basis of whether we share his judgments today, since we tend to forgive, in the name of period charm, certain melodramatic or sentimental false notes that would have rubbed a discerning contemporaneous viewer the wrong way. Still, again and again, he seems to get it wrong: “Welles has little if any artistry,” Billy Wilder makes pictures that are like “a good Ph.D. thesis,” Ida Lupino’s great performance in The Hard Way has an “expression of strained intensity [that] would be less quickly relieved by a merciful death than by Ex-Lax.” He has little of Farber’s visual/formal acuity. Compare Farber’s and W.S. Poster’s complex appreciation of Preston Sturges with Agee’s schoolmaster grading of Sturges as “a never-quite-artist of not-quite-genius.”

Agee was always on-the-one-handing/on-the-other-handing in his movie reviews. His torturous judgments, particularly on the typical Hollywood product, became almost comic in their whirling-dervish pivots. Frequently he would settle the matter with a series of fuzzy, decorous moral encomiums such as “noble,” “healthful,” “pure.” For instance, take this assessment: “I very much like Olivia de Havilland’s performance [in The Dark Mirror]. She has for a long time been one of the prettiest women in movies; lately she has not only become prettier than ever but has started to act, as well. I don’t see evidence of any remarkable talent, but her playing is thoughtful, quiet, detailed, and well sustained, and since it is founded, as some more talented playing is not, in an unusually healthful-seeming and likable temperament, it is an undivided pleasure to see.”

Agee could never quit bemoaning the sorry state of filmmaking in the 1940s, which in retrospect looks like a pretty good era. He lacked Otis Ferguson’s savvy enthusiasm for the collective craft of the well-made studio picture. More and more, Agee seemed dead set against commercial filmmaking, period. “Quite a few Hollywood people amused themselves as best they could in their captivity by making such nostalgic and amusing, if far from original, melodramas as The Killers, The Big Sleep, and The Dark Corner. Such harmless little slumming parties were treated by a number of critics, reviewers, and editorial writers as if they were a sinister mirror of American morals, psychology, society, and art.” So much for film noir.

While reviewing the film at hand, Agee always seemed to be willing another kind of movie into existence. He wanted, he said, to see pictures “made on relatively little money, as much at least by gifted amateurs as by professionals,” shot on location, using nonprofessional actors, eschewing music scores, not “hindered by commercial work in studios.” Impatient with set-building artifice, he became the prophet and avatar for a shoestring, independent cinema of social themes, which he found at the time in war documentaries and Italian neorealism. (He also lent his energies to this type of filmmaking, participating in Helen Levitt’s In the Street and Sidney Meyers’s The Quiet One.) Not surprisingly, Agee championed Open City and Shoeshine when they first debuted, mounting a very high horse indeed for the latter: “The elementary beginning of true reason, that is, of reason which involves not merely the forebrain but the entire being, resides, I should think, in the ability to recognize oneself, and others, primarily as human beings, and to recognize the ultimate absoluteness of responsibility of each human being. (I can most briefly suggest what I mean by a genuine recognition of human beings as such by recommending that you see the Italian movie Shoeshine and that you compare it in this respect with almost any other movie you care to name.) I am none too sure of my vocabulary, but would suppose this can be called the humanistic attitude.”

It’s astonishing that he could get away with this arch, Elizabethan style in a movie review. W.H. Auden famously applauded Agee’s column in The Nation as “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today,” while acknowledging that “I do not care for movies very much and I rarely see them.” No doubt Auden liked it that Agee was sticking it to Hollywood, while sustaining a formidably literate tone that the great poet placed “in that very select class–the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw are the only other members I know–of newspaper work which has permanent literary value.”

Agee thus became the darling of an educated middle-class readership that was suspicious of popular culture and cinephilia. He had little feeling for genre and little willingness to make excuses in its name. Nowadays, we might judge Minnelli’s The Clock to be as fine a humanistic statement in its way as Shoeshine. But Agee, while pulling for it, could only see its virtues as hopelessly compromised and derided the “softness” of its intrusive music score and a romance plot he judged safe and saccharine.

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.”

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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