ON LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN
In 1936, James Agee went south with photographer Walker Evans on an assignment from Fortune magazine to create, in Agee’s words, “a photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers” (IX). Agee’s ambitions ballooned from there, until he imagined a trilogy to be called Three Tenant Families. Fortune magazine passed on printing the prose and photographs Agee and Evans returned with. Agee himself only ever wrote the first volume in his planned trilogy, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and the material in this book can be found in a variety of formats, with and without the photographs, and under a couple different titles.
But as varied as the publishing formats of this material, the prose styles Agee uses are even more various. The differences between narrative sections, like “At the Forks” where Agee and Walker Evans encounter some local farmers, or the more poetic listing of “Clothing,” or the straight-up self-analysis cum artist’s statement of the three “On The Porch” sections, but especially section 2, unsettle our experience of what “non-fiction” looks like. In this long strophe, Agee is at his most revealing about his project, telling us about the real circumstances of his writing (“We lay on the front porch to the left of the hall as you enter” (197) and also his spiritual progress toward joy (“It is our consciousness alone, in the end, that we have to thank for joy" (199)), notes on his artistic aims (“the hearing and seeing of complex music in every effect and in causes of every effect” (204)), and interrogations of those aims (“Granted that beside that fact it is a small thing, and granted also that it is essentially and finally a hopeless one” (206)), as well as playing with language and its formal concerns ("George Gudger is a human being, a man” (205) becomes “George Gudger is a man, et cetera” (211)). The mercurial flash of styles and ideas in the book as a whole are all present in “On the Porch 2,” and vice versa.
One needn’t wait till halfway through the book to witness the variety and Agee’s play with forms. Rather, it is already on display in Agee’s “Design of the Book,” this book’s table of contents, which mixes sections titled “Verses” or “Preamble,” which suggest a written document, with sections like “Intermission: Conversation in the Lobby,” which imply an ongoing, real-time performance, and other sections with titles like “Money,” “Work” and the aforementioned “Clothing,” which suggest an inventory of sorts, whether commercial or philanthropic or sociological. In other words, Agee’s book takes place between different modes and styles, and you see this long before you realize that the “Notes and Appendices,” traditionally the last section of a report, precedes the book’s final significant strophe.
What about Agee’s own confrontation with Bloom’s “strong poet”? In other words, who is Agee writing through and against? In “Notes and Appendices” (395), he namechecks Faulkner for the first time. And a reader, in 1941 when the book was first published or now, when s/he hears that this book documents an encounter with sharecroppers in the deepest parts of the Deep South, is likely to think of Faulkner and the shadow he must cast. Let me tell you, Agee’s writing overlaps with Faulkner’s as little as possible. There’s an internal boundary you find in Faulkner’s monologues, the sense that for Benjy or Quentin or whoever is talking, they soon meet the limit of what they can say, and that for that reason the articulation is always incomplete. Agee’s ear is tuned more to external forces, to what has been said over the course of human history, through our literature. At one point, he even admits his discomfort at writing in dialect. If his voice is rooted in anything, it is in his own cosmopolitan, hyper-literate self, which has already shown itself to be kaleidoscopic.
Agee credits other writers in his work, including William Blake, Jesus Christ, and Sigmund Freud in the “People and Places” family tree he gives us near the start of his book, and he interpolates a review of Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White’s book You Have Seen Their Faces in his own book, a similar volume to the one Agee has produced, if maybe more indebted to journalism than whatever literary trip Agee is off on. And Caldwell’s name does crop up a couple times in this book, though when it does it is usually in counterpoint to what Agee thinks he is doing.
Instead, the writer Agee never mentions but who feels most influential is Henry David Thoreau, especially Walden. In fact, I think the best test to determine if you’d enjoy Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is to ask how you feel about Walden, how you maintain your readerly equilibrium in the shifts between “Economy,” where Thoreau outlines the exact costs for his plan to live by the lake and the more visionary/ philosophical/ lyric section “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” In fact, Agee’s book owes a lot to Walden, even though Walden really has only the two registers and Agee’s book has both of Thoreau’s and four or five all his own. Thoreau, if we strip him from his rooted historical consciousness, makes observing itself an act of praise, and this stripped-down listing is one of Agee’s rhetorical strategies. But like Thoreau, Agee can lift off from this quotidian listing into something empyrean at a moment’s notice, without troubling about that leap. But where Thoreau has those two primary modes, Agee has five or six to speak through.
Given that he introduces Freud as a “People and Place” early in the book, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Freud, or at least a Freudian mindset comes back at the book’s emotional (?) climax, or at least at that moment where, structurally, something like a climax can be expected. I’m referring here to the “Inductions” section, which is placed at the crucial two-thirds point but which narrates one of the earliest moments in the book, a breakthrough with the Gudger family. Agee’s style in this section echoes high modernist narrative, something from Malco[l—?]m Lowry or Djuna Barnes, and features a very Freudian flashback, to eleven year old Agee masturbating while at his grandfather’s, years before (“I, this eleven-year-old, male, half-shaped child, pressing between the sharp hip bone and the floor my erection… striking over and over again the heel of my bruised hand against the sooty floor and the sweating and shaking my head in a sexual and murderous anger and despair” (335)), this as the prelude to a psychic break in the narrative’s present, when, driven by his erotic reverie to find a prostitute, Agee comments “That would do Via some bad damage, just as continuing to live with her is bound to” (339), Via being Olivia Saunders, Agee’s wife at that time, who has, until this point in Agee’s book, never been mentioned and who will never be mentioned again. It’s as if this eruption of his private life into the public text of the book is some return of the repressed. Looking for a sex worker, Agee gets caught in a torrential downpour, drives his car into a ditch, and he finds himself on the Gudgers’ porch (it’s worth mentioning that previously, he and Evans both have remarked on how attractive Gudger’s young wife is), and then, in a further Freudian turn, Agee is mothered-and-fathered by Gudger and wife and put to bed in the children’s bed. So, Freud, sure. He’s in there.
Every writer, but more so writers of non-fiction, must fear what the people they write about will think of how they are represented. There are uncomfortable moments here, beyond lusting after his host’s wife. Those passages in “Clothing,” for example, where Agee describes what Margaret, age twenty, wears (“It is an elaboration of the sort of dress a ‘well-preserved,’ dark-haired, elegantly well-to-do, middle-aged woman might at some uncertain time during the last twenty years have worn formally” (250) and Paralee’s favorite dress (“exactly of the kind middle class girls of her age wear to town…. [except] in the wish for brilliance and emphasis and propriety, everything is overstepped” (ibid). So, if you’re a Dolly Parton fan, there are moments here that’ll make you cry.
But back to the point: what about Agee’s subjects? What will they think of his bathetic portraits of them?
They are illiterate, and were they able to read, their extreme poverty and distance from cultural capitals means they won’t ever see his book. This gives Agee license to be heartless in his portraits of them, to capture as much of our hearts as he wishes. When, in the 1989 book And Their Children After Them writer Dale Maharidge talks to Emma Woods, she said Agee got it wrong, that he misrepresented her experience so her character could bear the weight of Agee’s fantasy. It’s obviously problematic to say Agee’s fantasy is truer than Woods’ experience, especially in the era of #MeToo, but it’s not a lie to say that his book is pointed at a different goal than merely representing (though that’s surely in there, too).
What of the portraits? This is, after all, a book made from photographs of three families and their living spaces, and as Agee himself worries over repeatedly, his writing cannot quite capture the truth the way a camera can. Talking only about the writing like I’ve been doing here ignores the largest gap between styles, the photographic and the textual. It’s easy to note the disconnect between Evans posed photographs, where people are carefully arranged and often literally framed by their surroundings, doorways and window and the like, and Agee’s discursive, even impromptu prose, that admits no boundary to his interest or language.
And more than that, Evans’ photos in the book lack titles or any identifying information. When the photos are later cataloged in the Library of Congress American Memory Project, Evans identifies his subjects with names that don’t align with the names in Agee’s book. The photos stand in opposition to the text, which seems so particular about who is who and what is what. But maybe the tension here is overstated; maybe the goals of the two media are different. The photos document, while Agee illustrates. Unless I’ve got that backwards.
Matt Dube reads and writes for pay and pleasure in mid-Missouri. He is at work on the Lovecraft-adjacent, haunting-in-a-small-town novel that will either put this region on the map or wipe it out. It changes, day to day.