Challenging, Revolutionary And Totally Unreadable

The Book Club just finished James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the New Deal-era assignment (commissioned by Fortune magazine) the writer and photographer took on in 1936 to document the lives of tenant farmers in the Deep South.

It takes a while to discern, especially when you're distracted by the way Agee perseverates on erections and such, but Famous Men is of a piece with Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, another equally unreadable book. With Tropic of Cancer, at least Miller sketches out the philosophy a little more clearly, specifically on pages 239 to 258 and further boiled down to this:

When I look down into this fucked-out cunt of a whore I feel the whole world beneath me, a world tottering and crumbling, a world used up and polished like a leper's skull. If there were a man who dared to say all that he thought of this world there would not be left him a square foot of ground to stand on. . . . If now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defenses left are his words and his words are always stronger than the lying, crushing weight of the world, stronger than all the racks and wheels which the cowardly invent to crush out the miracle of personality. If any man ever dared to translate all that is in his heart, to put down what is really his experience, what is truly his truth, I think then the world would go to smash, that it would be blown to smithereens and no god, no accident, no will could ever again assemble the pieces, the atoms, the indestructible elements that have gone to make up the world.

Meaning, in my mind, if literature, books and writing are about anything, they're to express life and the world as it actually exists, in Miller's case, vis a vis gonorrhea, cunts and bed bugs.

It's an adolescent view, of course — reminds me of the mental gymnastics one goes through before you realize a white lie is sometimes better than the truth — but in an early-20th century artistic milieu that now saw the world as it actually appears (i.e., photography and film), you can see where writers might have felt a little threatened.

Agee is somewhat more interesting in that his writerly worldview was directly challenged on a daily basis, what with Walker Evans working directly beside him. You get the sense from Famous Men that Agee was keyed into this quandary from the beginning, and worked to "out-real" what was real. Thus the erections.

And the bed bugs. The bed bug part (pages 374-377) blows away any of Miller's bed bug depictions. Youch!

And what you perceive as Agee's desire to fuck a bunch of poor Southern whites. Not fuck over, though he does that, too — it's a good thing they're illiterate and Famous Men is so unreadable because it'd be bizarre to see yourself depicted as he depicts them — but literally have sex with them. I admire his honesty here but, geez, really?

The first sentence of Walker Evans' 1960 foreward seems to telegraph that he understands there's an adolescent tinge to Agee's writing: "At the time, Agee was a youthful-looking twenty-seven." It's an explanation of sorts, or at least I read it as such. He also adds that "[s]ome parts . . . read as though they were written on the spot at night." Yes, they do! They read sort of like the kind of idea that seems brilliant at 3:30 a.m. until you look at it the next morning and think, "Huh?" (He also says that Agee actually left out certain passages that were entertaining in an "acid" way; when you read this you can't imagine what he possibly left out.)

For some reason J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye popped into my head this week while I was trying to get through Famous Men. I sort of see James Agee's persona as Holden Caulfield if Holden went on to Harvard and stayed irascible, but of course the timing is off — Holden Caulfield is James Agee spun backward in time. I wonder if Salinger intended to take the "immediacy" of Miller and Agee and tighten it up a little bit (and comment on the adolescence of it all). If I had more time or inclination I'd look up that lousy idea and see if any other phonies have beat it to death, but not now.

I suppose it's true that without Agee and Miller you wouldn't have blogs, reality television, literary nonfiction and amateur porn, so that's something. And it is interesting to see American literature in its cranky adolescence. But ultimately I wonder who actually read this thing — and I mean cover-to-cover read it. Besides Lionel Trilling, that is.

Seriously though, as a think piece, it's good. The best part of the book is in the "Notes and Appendices" section at the end where Agee reprints an article about Margaret Bourke-White photographing life among the tenant farmers, I guess around the same time. Where you get the sense throughout Famous Men that Agee beats himself up for deigning to contain a pathetic human life in a volume of words, it's funny to see the breezy way Bourke-White is depicted in whatever article it was — how whipsmart she was and how deftly she captured these supposedly off-the-cuff images. It's a big fuck you — like Agee is saying, "Yeah, you did that? I doubt it."

One big missed opportunity was Agee not going further and questioning the motives those who gave them the assignment to begin with and the implications thereof. It would have made his philosophical point clearer at least and would have hammered home the idea that when it comes to literature, we are all guilty.

Between the Wikipedia and the Library of Congress you can basically figure out who is who in the pictures. The guy on the cover is Gudger. A tidbit even more ironic than the title itself: You can buy a fine art print of Gudger's kitchen for $85. I say if you do so, you should be forced to read Famous Men before you get the thing matted.

And then there's this: Fortune returned to Hale County in 2005 and found that the descendents were pissed. Agee died in 1955, so why not give these people the last word? First Ricketts' daughter:

Laura Minnie Lee Tingle. Elizabeth's younger sister. The wide-mouth girl with side-swept hair who appears in several Walker Evans photographs. She stands before me now, fearful and alone, her dog at her feet, with eyes that say plainly what she's too polite to speak: She wishes I had not come. "This is my momma, right here," she confirms, looking at the book of pictures I have brought. "That's my baby sister … that's my mother … this is my two older sisters … that's my two brothers right there … that's me and my sister."

Laura Tingle, who as a girl liked watching the grownups boil sorghum and skim the brine to make sweet syrup, and found occasional pleasure even in the backbreaking labor of picking cotton ("Well, yes, sir, I liked it. It was something to do"), and remembers well the arrival of two strangers from up North. "They was down in Greensboro," she says. "They come out to the house with my dad. What did I think?" She snickers. "I didn't think. I really wished they hadn't a showed up. I just wished they hadn't a showed up. After they published that book. They called my mama a liar and ever'thin' like that. I didn't like it." She snickers again. "They told a lot of things that was wrong. They just said they was making pictures. They didn't say they was reporters."

And then Gudger's grandson:

Another Burroughs, Phil, son of Floyd Jr., grandson of Floyd, lives in Moundville, maybe five miles as the crow flies from Mills Hill. Phil is a big man, works in maintenance for the city of Tuscaloosa, is still wearing his blue work pants and blue work T-shirt when I arrive in the early evening at his house out on the quiet edge of town, where the neighbors keep horses and grass grows in the pasture across the fence. Phil has those gray Burroughs eyes, but with a pinch of blue. He sits sideways in the porch swing, that's his spot, with his wife, Patti, a schoolteacher, and their two sons, Andrew and Jedadiah, seniors at Hale County High, silent and respectful, completing the circle. Phil is cordial but reserved, not exactly sure why I'm here, even less sure at first that he wants me here.

So your father would talk to you about the book?

"He would."

He was angry about it?


Purely angry about it?

"No doubt. And to be honest with you, I think he had a right to be. I honestly do. You were looking at people that were struggling to put food on the table, you know? It was a simple life. They didn't have anything. Everybody wants something. That's probably the American dream. Everybody wants something. So it kind of left a bad taste in everybody's mouth. Maybe that's hard for a lot of people to understand, but it absolutely did. It made him upset, it really did. They were cast in a light that they couldn't do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant. How would you feel if somebody cast your folks, your parents, or your grandparents in that light? Even though I know they were real poor, no doubt about that, but they weren't ignorant, and they definitely weren't lazy."

Posted: September 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , ,