Sunday, April 27, 2008

Thinking about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

In 1936, Fortune magazine assigned its reporter James Agee (then only twenty-six) and government photographer Walker Evans to study the lives and work of tenant cotton farmers in the Deep South. Agee and Evans settled near the rural Alabama town of Cookstown (a pseudonym for Moundville, near Tuscaloosa), and for several weeks they stayed with the Gudger family (also a pseudonym), observing them as well as two other nearby households. By all respects, it was a wonderful career opportunity for both, but Agee became dissatisfied with attempting to craft a story to Fortune’s liking. After he refused to work on a second draft, the magazine terminated the assignment, and he began to expand upon his findings.

Agee’s efforts would turn into the first edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. The book went out of print after selling around 600 copies, and Agee went on to become one of the most important film critics of his generation, working for Time and then The Nation. Agee died from a heart attack (and hard living) in 1955, and won a posthumous Pulitzer in 1958 for his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family. But it wasn’t until 1960 that Let Us Now Praise was re-released and found a widespread audience. Today, it stands as a landmark journalistic achievement for Agee’s combination of innovative self-reflexive accounts, literary sensibility, and thorough fact-finding, along with Evans’ simple yet evocative photographs.

It is also a book that, for all of its accomplishments, is notably divisive. Even during the nominating process for the Top 100 Works of Journalism list, committee member Madeleine Blais derisively referred to “the usual knee-jerk worship of this volume,” arguing that only Evans’ photographs made it worthy of inclusion. Let Us Now Praise’s structure is a particular target of criticism. As Agee writes, “the ‘truest’ thing about the experience” is not to create a chronological account, but to record the experience “as it turns up in recall…If this is so the book as a whole will have a form and set of tones rather less like those of narrative than like those of music” (215).

And indeed, this is what we get. The chronological “beginning”—when he meets for the first time George Gudger, Bud Woods, and Fred Ricketts, the patriarchs of the three families he observes—occurs about three-quarters through the book. Highly poetic and existential reflections are sandwiched between thick slabs of description on Agee’s spatial surroundings (such as the Gudger’s house and land). This is why David Denby is right to suggest that “it’s one of those books which many people read parts of when they were in school but never got around to finishing.”

Agee’s writing style often isn’t helpful, either. Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda finds in a 2005 review that Agee “keeps talking about what he's going to talk about, and the pages roll by, until the reader eventually arrives at the book's very last sentence. And there our author announces that he is finally turning to the story ‘which I shall now try to give you.’ ” Along the way, Agee’s intense attention to detail and reverence for human experience arguably results in overwriting, particularly within his philosophical vignettes. He defensively postures himself in the book’s beginning (see page 8: “If I bore you, that is that”), yet later decamps in his repeated efforts to convey his earnestness and sincerity. He oscillates between a hard-bitten realism and what Denby characterizes as a “stargazingly wide-eyed” stance, as well as a range of positions in between. And for all of his incredible insights—and there are plenty—he also is contradictory and confusing at points.

On the other hand, I think Bruce Jackson’s 1999 essay for the Antioch Review provides some welcome insight that is more positive. Jackson admits that “[i]t is a difficult and in some ways an intimidating book,” but he also is able to clarify what Agee and Evans were attempting, and why the results are so important. Two of his arguments particularly stand out.

First, he identifies that “[t]he structure of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is grounded in the relationship between the words and the pictures.” As I would come upon certain sections while reading Let Us Now Praise, I would flip back to Evans’ photographs at the beginning, connecting them with whom or what Agee was discussing at that point. The photographs adhere to what Evans would call a “transcendent documentary” style, presenting their subjects in an austere and unsentimental manner that is notably resonant. As Jackson argues, they act as a type of anchor that helps ground and provide context for Agee’s descriptions, allowing us “a vision of the reality he’s writing his way toward.” Although the photographs’ placement at the beginning may be contradictory to what we assume is “normal,” I think this serves as a preparation for what we are about to encounter. From this perspective, it’s easier to view the arrangement of the book for what it is—innovative—instead of puzzling.

Secondly, Jackson makes the following contention about Agee’s writing:

“This book is no more and no less about cotton tenant farming than Moby Dick is about whaling. Which is to say, there is no way Let Us Now Praise Famous Men could exist without cotton tenant farming and you'll learn a lot about cotton tenant farming reading it and if you want to read it just for the cotton tenant farming parts you'll learn many good things. But probably not the most useful things. And what you'll miss entirely is precisely the experience of what matters…

“He can't explore the consciousness of the people he and Evans met in rural Alabama, nor does he really try. He explores the surface of their world and what he can see of the depths of his own in an attempt to show you not himself, but to help you see as if through his eyes. To do that, we must understand the limitations of those eyes, that mind, that sensibility. He uses the first person not to tell us what to see, but how to see. It is as if he is saying, ‘You think you are standing here and seeing this? Well, you're not, because you are this and this and this’ ” (emphasis mine).

Agee struggled in writing the original article for Fortune because he felt that a standard factual account of cotton tenant farming was impossible. So although Let Us Now Praise contains thick descriptions of the Gudger’s home, land, and daily activities (as well as other areas), the primary goal isn’t to provide readers with an “objective” investigation. In fact, it is the opposite—he is telling us how little we can know about the farmers and their lives. This is why, as Jackson notes, we should think about how Agee places human experience as the central focus of his writing. As Agee writes in a flowing sentence:

“All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent…”

Instead of providing answers, Agee seeks to raise more questions—about what it means to live and interact within a culture different than your own, about describing the actions of others, and even about what it means to do journalism.

This barely even makes a dent into the complexity of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And to be honest, I’m still wrestling with my opinion of it in light of the shortcomings I mention above. Yet with Jackson’s essay in mind, I’m trying to remain open to the richness of Agee’s dialogue and Evans’ photographs, and what they might teach me.

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