Grievous Angel: the unruly James Agee

Dwight Garner – Harpers

Copyright 2005 Harper’s Magazine Foundation
Harper’s Magazine
November 1, 2005
James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, & Shorter Fiction, edited by Michael Sragow. Library of America, 2005. 818 pages. $ 35. James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism, edited by Michael Sragow. Library of America, 2005. 748 pages. $ 40.
If he had been born a few years later, and if he hadn t died at the age of forty-five, James Agee (1909-55) might have had a chance of grabbing Terry Southern’s spot–the literary maverick’s spot, right next to Dylan Thomas–on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. Of course Agee, who was more talented and more tortured than Southern, didn’t live long enough to hang out on the set of Easy Rider or to wear huaraches and beads, but both men were unclassifiable writers with jumbo-size personalities who ended up in Hollywood. Agee made his own kind of proto-counterculture.
On the page, Agee was a chameleon. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957, posthumously, for his novel A Death in the Family. He wrote the kaleidoscopic text (Walker Evans supplied the photographs) for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), one of the least anodyne nonfiction works of the twentieth century, praised by Lionel Trilling as “the most realistic and important moral effort of our generation.” In Hollywood, Agee collaborated with John Huston on the screenplay for The African Queen and with Charles Laughton on The Night of the Hunter, the film that sent a demonic Robert Mitchum crashing through the brush with “L-O-V-E” tattooed on one set of pitiless knuckles, “H-A-T-E” tattooed on the other. In the 1940s, writing for The Nation, Agee was the rowdiest and most agile film critic alive–and this country’s first towering one. He also happened to be an accomplished poet: his first and only collection of poems, published when he was twenty-five, was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Series. Agee contained bickering multitudes.
Off the page, Agee was even more unruly. He was married three times, had four children, and took multiple lovers. His bruised intensity led Dwight Macdonald to compare him to James Dean, and he had a kind of genius for immoderation and overkill. Nearly every writer chain-smoked and drank hard in Manhattan in the decades before and after World War II, but Agee’s iron-man capacities crossed over into barfly legend. He was an insomniac with a gift for generous, whiskey-fueled conversation: he could talk until final call. Once it arrived, he’d roam the city, pounding on the doors of alarmed friends, looking for that congenial soul who might get him through until dawn. “Many a man or woman has fallen exhausted to sleep at four in the morning bang in the middle of a remarkable Agee performance,” Walker Evans recalled, “and later learned that the man had continued it somewhere else until six.” Sometimes those sleepy souls were Diana and Lionel Trilling, and they weren’t amused. “It was dangerous to invite agee to our apartment for a visit,” Diana said, “because he never went home.”
Agee’s doomed quality, his appetite for destruction, was balanced by an almost complete lack of pretension. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, he grew up in a lower-middle-class family and went, as a boy, by his easily mocked middle name: Rufus. His father died when Agee was six, in a single-car accident on a deserted rural road–an event Agee would ruminate over in his novel A Death in the Family. After attending an all-male Episcopal boarding school in Tennessee, Agee managed to get into Exeter and in 1928 arrived at Harvard, where he began to publish a series of precocious poems and stories. About the latter, Clive James would note how “the emotional wisdom that other men must strive to attain seems to have been present in Agee as a gift.”
After Harvard, James Agee probably would have become a fiction writer, but another kind of success got in his way. As the president of the Harvard Advocate, he put together a special issue, a canny parody of the young Time magazine, which caught the eye of Time’s co-founder, Henry Luce. When Agee graduated in 1932, Luce–on the advice of Dwight Macdonald, who had already begun a correspondence with Agee–hired him as a staff writer at Fortune, Luce’s new magazine. It was the middle of the Depression, and Agee felt lucky to have a paycheck. “He was grateful,” Macdonald wrote later, “but shouldn’t have been.” Agee would spend most of his adult life writing brilliant but unsigned pieces for Fortune and Time, while fighting, often in vain, to carve out time for his own work.
Once Agee arrived in New York, he quickly became, as one colleague put it, “a sort of hippie a generation prior to the hippie era.” In a buttoned-down period, Agee rarely cut his hair, almost never wore a tie, and often held his dress pants up with a piece of rope. When Luce sent a memo ordering Agee to clean himself up, Agee went out and bought an absurd roll-brimmed hat with a green feather in it, crammed it onto his head, and kept it there. Once, to tweak the finicky Walker Evans, he dragged a goat up and into the photographer’s Upper East Side apartment.
But all this manic exuberance had a dark, depressive side. As Laurence Bergreen reported in his 1984 biography of Agee, a colleague once walked into Agee’s Fortune office in the Chrysler building and found the writer dangling from a window ledge 600 feet above the pavement.
James Agee died young, and he didn’t stay pretty. “Vanity wasn’t in him,” John Huston said. “I doubt whether he had any idea of what he looked like, or whether he ever looked in a mirror except to shave.” His teeth had gone bad, and he couldn’t be bothered to fix them. He had put on weight. Agee had had his first heart attack at the age of forty-one, at a resort ranch in California, while working with Huston on The African Queen. It was a jolt, but it barely slowed his addictive intake; he all but ignored doctor’s orders to knock off the smoking and the booze. In the final months of his life, he was reeling from as many as seventeen small heart attacks a day, which he helplessly tried to ward off by popping nitroglycerin tablets.
When his battered heart finally did give out, on May 16, 1955, in the back seat of a Manhattan taxicab, Agee was already a cult figure. But the veneration was based as much on romantic notions of his perceived failure–his “pained incapacity,” in John Updike’s phrase–and on his spectacular flameout as on anything else. Updike and others felt that Agee, a Southern boy steeped in the oral tradition, had simply talked more, and talked better, than he had written. Publishers seemed to agree, at least for a while. At the time Agee died, not one of his books was in print.
Fifty years later, the Library of America has arrived with two thick, elegant slabs of Agee’s best work a chance to see him plain. It makes sense that the Library of America invited a film critic, the estimable Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun, to compile and edit these books; Agee had been obsessed with the movies since he was a kid in Knoxville and his father took him to Charlie Chaplin’s films, which were considered somewhat disreputable at the time. Clive James noted that, for the rest of his life, Agee would write like “a frustrated director: the page was a wrap-around screen with four-track stereophonic sound.”
It’s a good bet that Agee–the young, angry Agee, at least–would have shuddered at these books. “Official acceptance,” he declares in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas… It is a disease.” The combined cover price of these editions, $ 75, would have horrified the hillbilly in him; they can’t be bought by a full day’s pay at minimum wage. The older Agee, who worried that his critics were right, might have welcomed them–but only, I suspect, after yanking out the dainty ribbon bookmarks that the Library of America has laid into the bindings.

Without Fortune magazine, however, Agee would not have left us his cracked masterpiece, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It was for Fortune that Agee traveled to Alabama with Evans, in the summer of 1936, to report on poor white sharecroppers. What Agee experienced in Alabama was, he recognized, too intense to be prettified and distilled for Fortune’s clubby, well-to-do subscribers, and he filed a rambling story he was sure the magazine would not print. It didn’t. Agee took the material back and worked on it for the next five years. His manuscript grew–metastasized is probably the better term–into a 470-page burnt offering that became a blistering forerunner of the New Journalism of the 1960s and ’70s.
Agee’s magpie sensibility in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men–the volatile blend of reportage, satire, political dissent, Joycean wordplay, and autobiography–push the book past the usual boundaries of genre and style. It’s a document that reads, to contemporary eyes, as if the author had packed Henry David Thoreau, Bob Dylan, Jacob Riis, Karl Marx, and Dave Eggers onto the back of a flatbed truck and sent them all careering over a cliff.
The scorching prose is balanced by the cool, almost alien detachment of Evans’s accompanying photographs. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is sui generis: part pratfall, part sustained howl of pity, insult, and rage.
Agee wanted the book to hurt, and he hectored readers right from the beginning:
Get a radio or a phonograph capable of
the most extreme loudness possible, and
sit down and listen to a performance of
Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or of
Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I
don’t mean just sit down and listen. I
mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can
get it. Then get down onto the floor
and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker
as you can get it and stay there,
breathing as lightly as possible, and not
moving, and neither eating nor smoking
nor drinking. Concentrate everything
you can into your hearing and into your
body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts
you, be glad of it… Is what you hear
pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable
in polite or any other society?
Lionel Trilling jammed his ear close to Agee’s speaker and called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men “a great book.” Almost everyone else who read it tended to file it under: What the hell was that?
“The very blood and semen of journalism … is a broad and successful form of lying,” Agee writes in Famous Men. He had particular antipathy for most of the products of the documentary movement of the 1930s, believing that photographers such as Margaret Bourke-White, to give just one example, turned the rural poor into roadside attractions, freak-show novelties for elite consumption. And he wasn’t any easier on himself or his colleagues at the magazine. When he describes his car running off the road and getting stuck in a ditch, Agee scorns it as worthless as “a new dealer, a county dietitian, an editor of Fortune, or an article in the New Republic.”
The book features, right at the front, a dramatis personae–one that includes Agee himself (as a “spy”) and Evans (as a “counter-spy”), along with Blake, Celine, Jesus, and Freud as “unpaid agitators.” Agee wanted the thing to be anything but a refined literary production. “If I could do it,” he wrote, “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 excrement. Booksellers
would consider it quite a novelty; critics
would murmur, yes, but it is art; and
I could trust a majority of you to use it
as a parlor game. A piece of the body
torn out at the roots might be more to
the point.
One finishes Famous Men having been alternately bored (Agee includes endless lists of the family’s possessions), charmed (who else would note a dog’s resemblance to Andre Gide?), and exasperated by his mythopoetic idealizing of what he saw as the purity and honesty of these sharecroppers’ blighted lives. He repeatedly pokes his finger in the reader’s chest–“she has suffered at your hands”–but offers few plausible solutions to the problem he describes. His book isn’t political; it’s penitential. In his attempt to describe the intractable social injustices he perceived in the Deep South, Agee, the guilty Manhattan liberal, all but nailed himself to a cross of his own devising.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has always appealed to connoisseurs of literary failure. In its missteps and even in its occasional idiocies, it is a book that is more interesting and valuable than dozens of congenial “classics.” Agee may have been guilty of tossing off, in Roland Barthes’s words, an “explosion of language during which the subject manages to annul the loved object under the volume of love itself,” but his words still feel alive and wriggling on the page. The book is the most singular literary testament to what Greil Marcus has called “the old, weird America” that’s left in this country.
When it was issued in 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold a miserable 600 copies. The book would find its audience later, when it was republished in 1960 and the roiling culture had caught up with this anarchic narrative. Young civil-rights workers in the South carried the book around like a buzzing secular bible. It was a kind of talisman, as Robert Coles has written, “a sign, a symbol, a reminder, an eloquent testimony that others had cared, had gone forth to look and hear, and had come back, stood up, and addressed their friends, their neighbors, and the entire nation.” It couldn’t have hurt that the book probably reads beautifully after you’ve swallowed a tab of LSD.
Agee left Fortune in 1939 to work for Time, where he shared an office in the magazine’s book-review department with another manic night owl, Whittaker Chambers. (Later, during the topsy-turvy years of the Alger Hiss case, Agee would loyally stand by his friend, even though his own politics ran hazily to the far left.) Agee’s book reviews, some of which are reprinted in these Library of America editions, were smart but unmemorable. He found his real critical voice in the fall of 1942, at the age of thirty-two, when he became Time magazine’s film reviewer. Agee’s film pieces, like everything else in Time, were unsigned and larded with the magazine’s painful neologisms–“cinemactress,” “Hollywoodians,” “cinemaddicts”–but they were vivid enough to attract the attention of Margaret Marshall, The Nation’s culture editor, who offered him a signed film column in the magazine later that same year. At The Nation, Agee joined a stable of critics that included Clement Greenberg on art and Diana Trilling on books, and it was here that his stuff began to attract a crowd. W. H. Auden would soon call his column “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.”
Agee’s film reviews are jittery performance art; they show him at his funniest and most alert. David Thomson has observed that Agee wrote “like someone who had not just viewed the movie but been in it–out with it, as if it were a girl; drinking with it; driving in the night with it.” His reviews leaned closely into the reader’s ear: this was the shaggy genius in the next seat talking, not the foghorn drone of opinion handed down from above.
Agee was never the guy to go to if all you wanted was a reliable taste-tester. He overpraised too many stinkers. He called Story of G.I. Joe an “eternal work of art” and declared that the color combat scenes in the documentary The Fighting Lady would be “the envy of good poets and painters for the rest of time.” Agee also fell too hard for tiny moments in otherwise forgettable films. As Dwight Macdonald recalled, Agee would always badger him (and readers) with questions such as: “But didn’t you notice the beginning of the fourth reel–that great scene where he picks up his toothbrush?” And he tended to be all for a movie or all against it, sometimes in the same review. Agee didn’t straddle fences; he leapt wildly back and forth over them.
But it’s still enormous fun to watch him uncork his enthusiasms and complaints. He liked comic movies more than sophisticated ones, and scorned Hollywood’s earnest “prestige” products. He wrote that the 1943 film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls “has all the suspense of a clothesline swaybacked with wetwash.” Of Ingrid Bergman’s performance in the same movie, he observed: “She seems never to have dreamed that a young girl who has seen death and suffered gang rape cannot in all reason bounce into her role looking like a Palmolive ad.” And here’s what he said after being forced to sit through the 1947 film Tycoon: “Several tons of dynamite are set off in this movie; none of it under the right people.”
A good deal has been written, as Paul Fussell does in Wartime, about the “intellectual damage wrought by the war”; about how, under the guise of keeping morale high, critical discourse all but vanished during the early 1940s in this country. Fussell, apparently, missed Agee. For the first half of his tenure at The Nation, Agee was a wartime critic, and he was merciless about the nauseating sentimentality and the “sugartit treatments of death” in American war movies. He deplored the way audiences were incited to laugh at dying German soldiers, and how the Japanese were referred to as “cockroaches.” Disgusted with Hollywood, he offered some advice: “Write your congressman, if he can read.”
In 1949, Agee delivered one final, beautiful piece of film journalism: a long essay for Life magazine called “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” in which he lovingly dissected and celebrated the art of many of the all-but-forgotten silent-film comedians–Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Buster Keaton, Ben Turpin–whom he’d grown up watching in Knoxville’s theaters. The piece generated a huge reader response and led to the resurrection of careers. But by that time Agee had already left The Nation for Hollywood to do something he’d long dreamed of doing: writing screenplays.
In California, Agee befriended two of his longtime heroes, John Huston and Charlie Chaplin. Agee visited Chaplin on the set of Limelight and wrote a sprawling treatment for Chaplin’s tramp character, set in a post-nuclear holocaust New York, which was never made. With Huston, Agee helped write The African Queen, based on C. S. Forester’s novel, before Agee’s first heart attack forced him to drop out of the project. The early, easygoing parts of the movie were, to a large extent, Agee’s; the hack ending–Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart’s ludicrous attack on the German warshil–is the work of other men.
Agee wasn’t, at least in the beginning, a natural screenwriter. He piled on too much detail, and he all but directed the film from behind his typewriter. (In her book Picture, Lillian Ross quotes Huston pleading with Agee: “Oh, Christ, Jim. Tell me something I can understand… You can’t have symbolism within symbolism.”) Sragow provides only one of Agee’s screenplays: The Night of the Hunter. The choice is inspired in one regard–it’s a lean piece of work that retains the relentless drive of Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel, so that you almost want to read it aloud. On the other hand, there’s debate about whether the final screenplay was quite what Agee intended: the film’s director, Charles Laughton, is said to have ruthlessly trimmed Agee’s kudzu verbiage.
Save Agee’s fiction for last. It will come as a shock, as it seems to be written by a different, more calibrated man. The work certainly bears out Dwight Macdonald’s contention that Agee’s gifts included “such odd ones, for intellectuals, as reverence and feeling.” Sragow includes two of Agee’s early Harvard stories, which are more than juvenilia: they’re polished and agonized semiautobiographical performances. The two novels are even more autobiographical. The Morning Watch, published in 1951, is set in a religious boarding school not unlike the one Agee attended in rural Tennessee after his father’s death. It’s a slim book–a novella, really–set on the early morning of Good Friday. Agee’s hero, the twelve-year-old Richard, doesn’t just want to stay up in chapel until dawn to suffer alongside Jesus in his final hours; he intends to pray and mourn and self-flagellate more than everyone within 600 miles, and we are made witness to his tortured interior monologues.
The Morning Watch has long been out of print, and its republication here should win it new admirers. The book can be off-putting in its insularity and its ostentatiously liturgical language: if you removed from it words such as “shame,” “contrition,” “humility,” “self-loathing,” “repentance,” “anguish,” and “remorse,” the rest would collapse into a heap of perfumed twigs. Yet it is brave and often lovely in its attempt to climb inside the head of a questioning youth, to remake the arguments for and against faith that bright religious children must make, alone, in their own fractured minds. At its best, The Morning Watch is a supreme act of literary conjuring: Agee summons up the religious baggage of his own childhood one last time, to all but banish it.
Nevertheless, Agee’s reputation as a novelist is likely to continue to rest primarily on A Death in the Family. This semiautobiographical coming-of-age story continues to pop up on high school reading lists; it’s Agee’s most approachable book, his To Kill a Mockingbird, and is cited, to this day, in studies of bereavement. The novel’s ringing first sentence, lifted from a prose poem called “Knoxville: Summer 1915” that he originally published in 1936, is among the most memorable in postwar American fiction: “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”
Agee worked on the novel, off and on, during the last years of his life, but it ultimately had to be pieced together by a friend and editor, David McDowell, from fragments left behind. McDowell did some canny commercial work on the manuscript, placing “Knoxville: Summer 1915” at the front of the book and dropping in the bits that didn’t quite fit into the narrative as italicized interludes. Had Agee lived to see it through the editing process, the book would almost certainly have been quite different. According to Michael Lofaro, a careful Agee scholar who will oversee the publication of a revised edition of A Death in the Family in 2007, Agee planned to begin the novel with a frightening nightmare scene. Sragow gives us the familiar 1957 edition here, which is probably wise; Lofaro’s version, which is almost certainly more accurate, seems unlikely to displace the already published edition of A Death in the Family in the public imagination.
Dwight Garner is senior editor of the New York Times Book Review. He is at work on a biography of James Agee, to be published by Little, Brown.
(Editor’s note – Anyone interested in the subject should read this fantastic essay in its entirety in Harpers magazine’s November issue.)

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