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 odors, 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 a 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.  Only it will be very little.  I’m not capable of it; and if I were, you would not go near it at all.  For if you did, you would hardly bear to live.

-from the preamble, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Cornell Capa/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images May 01, 1949
Cornell Capa/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
May 01, 1949

This year marks the centennial birthday of James Agee, born November 27, 1909 in Knoxville Tennessee.  Since his death in 1958, appreciation for his work and his life have grown.  Assessments of Agee in the 1950s and 1960s tended to portray him as a great talent who never reached his full potential, whose output was limited to two novels and assorted writings, including Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, reissued only after he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his novel A Death in the Family.  The narrative of his life took the form of a sort of romantic tragedy, in which the writer’s genius is expressed in both the intensity of his engagement and in his inability to complete the projects that he started.

But read “Intermission: Conversation in a Lobby” in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and it will be clear that Agee was not interested in the benchmarks of literary success, nor did he break rules for the sake of breaking rules.  For those who would praise Agee, his virtue was his honesty and his refusal to allow conventions to shape either his method or his reasons.  His reasons were always his own, and the themes that drew him- the challenge of conveying with words or imagery the fact of existence; the emotional experience of spiritual uncertainty; the possibility of simultaneously living in a world and describing that world; struggles with biblical themes that bypassed any organized religion – propelled him through his journalism, his poetry, his film criticism, even his screen-writing.

At his death Agee was best known as the film reviewer for Time and The Nation.  His film criticism is now recognized as groundbreaking in his demand for films to be aesthetically and morally coherent.  He respected these qualities in both the cinema of  auteurs like Jean Vigo and in B movies.   His reviews were also famously humorous;  Agee wrote this one sentence review of the John Wayne vehicle Tycoon (1947): “Several tons of dynamite are set off in this movie; none of it under the right people.”  His work as a film critic reveals a native modern appreciation for the possibility of film as mass media, one perhaps not shared by his more traditional critics.  

Walker Evans, Sharecropper wife (Annie Mae Gudger) Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Walker Evans, Sharecropper wife
(Annie Mae Gudger) 1936
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

For many, however, Agee will be best remembered for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  Fortune commissioned Agee and Walker Evans to produce a report on Southern sharecroppers in 1936, as a “Life and Circumstances” profile.  William Stott writes: “The ‘Life and Circumstances’ series treated its subjects in a tone of breezy condescension, probably because the magazine’s editors feared their readers- well-off, hard-headed businessmen- would be bored by the lives of average folk were they not made quaint and amusing… Agee, however, treated  his subjects without condescension and without trying to amuse.” (Evans observed that Agee “half consciously made the article so it would be unacceptable. He saw to it that it would not get into Fortune”) The report was eventually expanded and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941; the book was said to have sold only 600 copies.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was a compassionate critique, a completely original work in both its form and its ambition.  In its form: Evans’ photographs and Agee’s text complement one another, neither as an illustration nor an explanation of the other, but as two media working towards the same purpose, to describe the conditions of the three sharecropper families’ everyday lives.  Agee’s writing shifts mood and tone throughout the book, a characteristic some critics found clumsy and disorganised.  But the book is a kind of stream of consciousness that flows between Agee’s contemplations, very specific structured arguments, and meticulous detailed descriptions of the families’ rooms, clothing, habits; much of the text reads as poetry.

In its ambition: Agee wanted to address the farmers lived experience, as related to human experience generally and as an object of philosophical and spiritual inquiry, but also as a whole in itself and in its detail.  Unable to actually put the reader into the sharecroppers’ heads, he invites us into his own and inserts himself into the narrative, and tries to tell us not what the Gudgers, the Ricketts, and the Woods feel but what he knows about the them.  And not only that but also how it makes him feel, how far away his own world is, and how the night air feels on the porch as he writes his notes; he is introspective but not self-absorbed. 

Walker Evans, Sharecropper's washstand 1936
Walker Evans, Sharecropper’s washstand 1936
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Agee offers his subjectivity not to qualify his investigative method, but as the very thing that makes it possible for him to write anything at all. The sensibility is both modern and romantic. There is an almost transcendentalist attention to the feeling of being in a place; a sociological attention to the reasons that the sharecroppers live as they do; and an existential attention to the fact that they were born into their specific circumstances and the way in which those circumstances shape the way they apprehend the world.

In the book Agee and Evans- another native modern- break ground not with their understanding of the possibilities of their media, but by understanding their limitations and pursuing a project nonetheless that was driven by a need to navigate the pitfalls of journalistic conventions, doubt about the effectiveness of social concern, and the compulsion to produce a work that would not be entertainment or judged by the prevailing standards of journalism, but which would in some way strike in the reader the recognition of truth that Agee describes in the passage above.  For Agee, bad conventions were as much a social problem as bad art or writing, perhaps moreso.

Walker Evans./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images Jan 01, 1951
Walker Evans./Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Jan 01, 1951

James Agee might have been perceived differently at his death had Let Us Now Praise Famous Men been then recognized.  A landmark text, and done before he was 30, the book continues to be unique and effective.  But it’s not surprising that he moved on after it was finished; the book has a sincerity (and rawness) that most would take a lifetime to work up to if at all, and has a new relevance as existing conventions are challenged and exploded and as journalism is redefined through new media practices.  We all need to read this book again that it keep us honest or at least mindful.

– Leo Hsu