Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Let Us Now Praise James Agee

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Let Us Now Praise James Agee

Article excerpt

The format of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men consists of sixty-one uncaptioned photographs of rural Alabama in the Thirties followed by a one-hundred-fifty-thousand-word prose poem on the same subject. The poet, James Agee, explains in his Preface that "The immediate instruments [of the book] are two: the motionless camera, and the printed word." They are "coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative." (1) To emphasize the parity of image and text, the sections are denoted `Book I' and `Book II,' and the authors' names are lined up together on the title page without a connective, as if on a marquee: JAMES AGEE WALKER EVANS.

Agee and Evans were reacting against the slick photo-documentaries of the period. In their view, these generally did violence to the integrity

of text or image or both. Either the text was little more than extended captioning for the pictures, or the pictures were, in the double sense, mere "pretext" for the written material. The ideal was presumed to be some perfect integration of image and text into a seamless whole. But for Agee and Evans, there could be no amalgam that did not weaken the effect of each element alone. Their radical separation of the two mediums is designed to confront us with this. They want us to be aware of the aesthetic insolubility of words and images, to exploit the dialectical tension between them. If their work is collaborative, it is also intensely competitive. If each medium were successful on its own terms, the reader might come away more richly informed than from either alone, but the specifics of his consciousness, the precise unity formed, are the reader's alone to judge; his is the final synthesis.

But the interrelationship between image and text goes far deeper than would thus appear. Just as in Evans's photographs language is reduced to iconic/decorative forms, (2) so Agee takes the camera as a prime symbol and principal structure of his text. It appears to him as a potential instrument of truth and an actual weapon of socio-political invasion, the image of his divided consciousness and the possibility of its ultimate wholeness.

To fully comprehend this, we must recall the circumstances out of which Famous Men grew. In the spring of 1936, Agee and Evans, employees of a magazine called Fortune, were assigned to investigate the lives of some of the most wretched and impoverished people on the North American continent. Agee not unfairly saw himself as a carpetbagger who would win the confidence of his subjects to exploit their misery. This is his meaning when he calls himself a "spy" in the book. But he also intended to be a double agent. For if he must be hateful to those he spied on (at least if they judged him as he judged himself), it could only be borne if he made himself equally hateful to his employers, subverted their intentions, and worked ultimately for purposes of his own.

But the equation was not that simple. He would not be hateful to the subjects of his inquiry; he would charm them, as indeed he must. As he received their love, as perhaps he gave his own, he would be false: for though he could see the totality of their lives, they could not see his. They could not see, nor possibly imagine, the calculations of profit, hypocrisy, and guilt that had brought him into their midst; nor would they see (he would keep it well hidden) the ambitious young man for whom the Alabama assignment was "the best break I had on Fortune," (3) and who would make more money watching tenant farmers work for six weeks than the farmers would earn in six years.

Agee in short was not merely the agent of exploitation but an exploiter himself; it was his own interests as well as Fortune's he had to work against. Divided from his subjects by every stricture of history but common humanity, and even in that walking a tightrope of betrayal, divided from his employers and his New York life, half Village radical, half uptown liberal, divided above all against himself, neither cynical enough to believe no genuine encounter with the tenant families was possible nor foolish enough to imagine what it might be, he was bound to experience Alabama as the crisis of his twenty-seven years, the touchstone by which his fitness to pursue his calling, his moral existence as a writer, would be judged. …

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