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Although James Agee produced journalism, review essays, and short nonfiction pieces throughout his career, his reputation as an essayist derives primarily from his book with Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a long study in prose and photographs of the lives of three Southern sharecropper families. Agee both documents the lives of his human subjects—families with whom he and Evans lived during the summer of 1936—and reflects on the problems of documenting without either inventing or concealing. Because Agee confronts the philosophical problems of truth-telling so directly in this work, because he enacts these problems stylistically, and perhaps above all because these have been critical, recurring questions for the essay throughout the genre’s history, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men holds great interest for students of the essay, as well as a place of increasing importance in the canon of 20th-century American literature.
For Agee, as for Montaigne, the essay was not a form for conveying a whole and universal truth clearly perceived; on the contrary, it was useful for highlighting both the partiality of any one observer’s vision and the great difficulties involved in perceiving the world and communicating one’s experience of it to an audience. A form of truth is possible, says Agee, if one is as faithful as possible to one’s own knowledge and experience of the world, but it will, of course, be at best a relative truth. Moreover, it is no simple thing to confront that world in an immediate way, “without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands”; to do so an observer must strip his or her consciousness until it stands “weaponless” before its subject. This confrontation of two existents, observer and subject, is crucial to Agee’s understanding and use of the nonfiction essay form because the meaning of his real, human subjects does not derive from the writer’s work (as it does in fiction); both the subject and the writer’s writing about this subject have their meaning in the fact that subject and writer both exist. Thus the essayist’s responsibility is not to “art” but to that experience, the confrontation of living people. The essay is a form that Agee uses to reveal himself as a “spy,” one with the specific goals of observing, recording, and exposing the lives of these families. He uses the reflective, questioning, and self-revealing aspects of the essayistic persona to give voice to the moral and ethical problems of his position—that of an anxious, indignant, and sensitive person, alive to his subjects and at times agonizingly self-conscious about what he is doing.
Agee’s style is sometimes called “baroque”; critics have often found his syntax and vocabulary dense, mannered, even “tortured.” Certainly his inversions of word order, the intricate syntax of some of his clauses, and his occasionally unorthodox punctuation make careful reading imperative; Agee himself cautions that the reader will have to listen carefully to his prose. But the effects of this are to draw attention to the prose as a thing composed, constructed; thus the reader is discouraged from seeing the writing merely as a transparent “screen” through which to read the world, and encouraged to see it as a reconstruction of the original experience—perhaps a problematic one at that. Although one reviewer of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men doubted Agee’s ability to write a clear sentence, Agee had certainly developed a range of styles from which to choose. Much of his writing, here and in his journalism, displays a simple, more “transparent” style, one in which verbs do more of the work and prepositions less. In such “straightforward” passages, however, Agee often makes heavy use of figures of speech to mark the experience as distinctly his.
The critical reception of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been varied. Reviewers both praised and criticized its variety and stylistic innovations; some found Agee’s tour de force “dazzling,” brilliant in its very failure to satisfy conventional expectations, “a distinguished failure,” while others thought it self-indulgent and self-important.
Commercially the book was not a success, but it did attract a certain following among the literary establishment after Lionel Trilling’s favorable review in 1942. It was not until its reissue in 1960 that it began to gain in popularity and influence; it was embraced by young activists eager for social reform, and had a particular impact among practitioners of New Journalism, who, like Agee, questioned the possibility of objectivity, favored recreations of personal experiences, and pushed their craft to stylistic extremes.
Of Agee’s other nonfiction, the journalistic pieces he wrote for Fortune reveal flashes of the style and voice of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but the articles are, for the most part, journalism rather than essays; he allows himself (or his editors allow him) no reflective excursions from the facts at hand. One exception to this is “Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes” (Collected Short Prose, 1968); tellingly, the piece was never published by Fortune, for whom he was working at the time. The film reviews he wrote for Time and the Nation are more essayistic in their occasional meditations on art, philosophy, and the American culture of the day. Much of Agee’s fiction is autobiographical; the novel A Death in the Family (1957) drew so heavily on his childhood experiences that at least one reviewer called it a memoir, and two of the early stories anthologized in the Collected Short Prose, “Death in the Desert” and “They That Sow in Sorrow Shall Reap,” both feature the intercutting of narrated experience and reflection characteristic of the essay, as well as being stories which, according to editor Robert Fitzgerald, were based on real occurrences. Yet for all the essayistic elements and overtones of his other work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men stands as Agee’s preeminent work of nonfiction prose. In no other work of nonfiction are his voice, his style, and his ideas about writing given freer rein or clearer expression. In itself, the book has made Agee’s reputation as one of the great writers of nonfiction in this century.
James Rufus Agee. Born 27 November 1909 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Studied at Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire, 1925–28; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he edited the Harvard Advocate, 1918–32, A.B., 1932. Reporter and staff writer, Fortune, 1932–39. Married Olivia Saunders, 1933 (divorced, 1937).
Book reviewer, from 1939, and feature writer and film reviewer, 1941–48, Time magazine. Married Alma Mailman, 1939 (later divorced): one son. Film columnist, Nation, 1942–48. Married Mia Fritsch, 1946: one daughter. Codirector of the film In the Street, 1948.
Pulitzer Prize, for A Death in the Family, 1957 (posthumous).
Died (of a heart attack) in New York, 16 May 1955.
Essays and Related Prose
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, photographs by Walker Evans, 1941
Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments, 1958
Collected Short Prose, edited by Robert Fitzgerald, 1968
Selected Journalism, edited by Paul Ashdown, 1985
two novels (The Morning Watch, 1951; A Death in the Family, 1957) and several screenplays (including The African Queen, with John Huston, 1951; The Night of the Hunter, 1955).
Moss, Mary, “James Agee: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources,” in James Agee: Reconsiderations, edited by Michael A.Lofaro, Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1992
Barson, Alfred, A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972
Bergreen, Laurence, James Agee: A Life, New York: Dutton, 1984
Hersey, John, “A Critic at Large,” New Yorker, 18 July 1988: 72–82
Kramer, Victor A., James Agee, Boston: Twayne, 1975
Kramer, Victor A., Agee and Actuality: Artistic Vision in His Work, Troy, New York: Whitston, 1991
Larsen, Erling, James Agee, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971
Lofaro, Michael A., editor, James Agee: Reconsiderationsy Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992
Lowe, James, The Creative Process of James Agee, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994
Madden, David, editor, Remembering James Agee, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1974
Maharidge, Dale, and Michael Williamson, And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South, New York: Pantheon, 1989
Moreau, Genevieve, The Restless Journey of James Agee, New York: Morrow, 1977
Ohlin, Peter H., Agee, New York: Obolensky, 1966
Seib, Kenneth, James Agee: Promise and Fulfillment, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969
Spears, Ross, and Jude Cassidy, editors, Agee: His Life Remembered, New York: Holt Rinehart, 1985
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