Monday, July 22, 2013

Majestic Ruins: The Work of James Agee

My connection to James Agee’s work, particularly his nonfiction, feels deeply personal, and nearly impossible to articulate.  When I write “particularly his nonfiction,” I mean  “particularly his entire oeuvre,” because I’d say that nearly all of it might be considered nonfiction.  His fiction, “A Death in the Family” and “Morning Watch” both highly autobiographical, would be framed as memoir most likely were he to write them today.
Ever since I was sixteen, and attended tiny St. Andrews School, nestled in the mountains of Tennessee, one of the same schools Agee attended (along with Exeter and Harvard), I’ve seen him as a kind of role model, both for good and ill.  My role models have always looked nothing like me and have always tempted me with their wicked ways, both linguistically and temperamentally.  In grad school (I first wrote “grand” school, when I was a “gradual student” to quote John Irving), I identified with my teacher and sometime downstairs neighbor, Barry Hannah.  In High School, it was James Agee, in whose eponymous library on the campus of St. Andrews you could find me studying under the not-so-watchful eye of the librarian Mrs. Gooch on most days.  Unlike most of my fellow St. Andrewsians, I lived for Study Hall, and I immersed myself in Southern literature full of madness and disgrace, my PB&J – which accounted for how thin I was back then.  As in the children’s story in which an alligator is raised by ducks and thinks he’s a duck, too, I somehow forgot that I was Jewish, born in New York, and had nothing in common with possessed Southerners like Hannah and Agee. 
            I had something in common with Agee, besides going to St. Andrews and sitting through Anglican chapel services.  Agee and I had both lost our fathers when we were young, his when he was six and mine when I was seven.  But that wasn’t what forged my connection with him.  By the time I graduated from St. Andrews, I had read absolutely zip of James Agee’s work.  Now why is that, I wonder, in a place that half-prided itself in forging at least part of young Jim’s character?  The only thing that Agee wrote that was pushed on me – I can’t speak for other St. Andrewsians of the time – were the letters of James Agee to Father Flye, a former teacher at St. Andrews who lived past 100 to Agee’s 45, dead of a heart attack in Manhattan in the back seat of a cab on his way to see a doctor.  Not that Agee’s work was discouraged – I remember seeing Agee’s autobiographical novel A Death in the Family on the shelves of the library.  I might have even picked it up.  I might have even stolen it to read later. 
            But Agee wasn’t really Southern Literature as defined by St. Andrews at the time.  When I took Mr. Norton’s Southern Literature class, we read four Faulkner novels.  Couldn’t one of Agee’s works have supplanted one of the Faulkner novels we read?  After all, one of Agee’s works, “The Morning Watch,” took place at St. Andrews, for heavens sake, but Mr. Norton, who didn’t seem to care for Flannery O’Connor either, whose great grandfather had had two horses shot from under him when he was defending against the Northern Aggressors, decidedly preferred the old South to the new, even assigning us a book about Quadroons and Octaroons, The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life, written by George Washington Cable in 1880.  Too late now for me to turn in a negative teacher evaluation for Mr. Norton – not that we were ever asked to fill out such things, but the Grandissimes I could have lived without.  Agee, on the other hand . . . I’m not sure if it would have helped me or hurt me to read LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN at the age of sixteen.  It probably would have confounded and devastated and frustrated and sometimes bored me as it has since I first discovered it years later.  
We’re all ruins in the making, and that’s what I love so much about Agee, that he was a ruin on the page, when he ventured in 1936 with Walker Evans down to Alabama for Henry Luce’s Fortune Magazine and met the three white tenant farm families, forming a kind of ruinous circle of human enterprise and squalor that he found himself in for several weeks, and that he tried, in vain (he thought) to capture on the page.  He wrote:
If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.  It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odor, plates of food and of excrement.  Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust the majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game.
A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.
As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing.

It’s what Walker Evans called “night writing,” and I think it could only be written by a twenty-seven year old who takes himself seriously to the point of pomposity.  Still, I love that – I love all the flaws of this great ruin of a book.  In it, I see all our failures to capture what we want to capture, yours and mine.  I’ve passed the time when I could conceivably write such a majestic failure.  I’m out of grand school though still a gradual student, which means my failures have become increasingly fatal, like a car’s slow oil leak.  
Had Mr. Norton taught James Agee, I’m not sure how I would have reacted, but I would have reacted.  The Grandissimes still sit in me, undigestible. 
I only discovered Agee later when I first read his gorgeous evocation of place, “Knoxville, Summer 1915,” followed by “A Death in the Family,” my stolen copy when Mrs. Gooch wasn’t looking, and “The Morning Watch.”  But first, I acted out “The Morning Watch.”  Although I wasn’t taught Agee’s work, I was taught some good old-fashioned Southern self-destructiveness at St. Andrews: a little drunkenness, a little pot, a lot of pining for sex, and even more conflict about religion.  Jew or not, I had to participate in the high Anglican rituals of the campus along with all the other Agee wannabes.  All of the students were required on the eve of Easter Sunday to participate in “Morning Watch,” a kind of relay prayer in which we were required to pray alone to Jesus in the chapel for fifteen minutes before being relieved by another student.  My watch came at 3 a.m., punishment, I’m sure for being a Jew from New York City, punishment for getting the award from Mr. Norton for best student in his Southern Literature class (“It pains me to give you this award, Mr. Hemley,” he told me when I went to receive it on the St. Andrews stage that May).  What was I suppose to say to Jesus?  Agee suffered spiritual torment during his own stint with Jesus during Morning Watch.  For me, there was only burning resentment at having been awakened so early for something I didn’t believe in.  But there came a reward.  One of the girls I had a crush on – none of the girls were crush-exempted, actually -- suggested that we do what the main characters in Morning Watch did in Agee’s book: ride our bikes out to the lake and go skinny dipping.  She didn’t have to ask twice.  Half a dozen of us Agee Heathen rode our bikes out to the lake and luxuriated in the warmth and freedom of being sixteen and not on the downhill slide.  And from that moment, throwing off my clothes, skinny bones and all, when I hit the water, that’s the time I mark as when I first understood something about literature. 

Listen to Samuel Barber's musical rendition of Agee's "Knoxville: Summer 1915":

ROBIN HEMLEY is the author of ten books of nonfiction and fiction, winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and many other awards for his prose.  From 2004 - 2013 he was Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa, and he is the founder of the biennial conference NonfictioNOW.  A Contributing Editor of The Iowa Review and Publisher of Defunct Magazine (, he currently directs the Writing Program and is Writer-in-Residence at Yale-NUS in Singapore. 

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