Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Romantic Reverence and Modernist Representation: Vision, Power, and the Shattered Form of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Romantic Reverence and Modernist Representation: Vision, Power, and the Shattered Form of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Article excerpt

When John Grierson coined the term documentary, he identified "things to be corrected" as its staple subject: the nascent genre was to be defined in part by its dealing "with conditions that can be changed by human initiative" (qtd. in Stott 9). (1) Effaced in that passive formulation is the power structure that made documentary practice both necessary and ethically troublesome. For the kinds of conditions that attracted documentarians could rarely be changed by the people who inhabited them--who were sometimes themselves identified as the "things to be corrected." Documentarians are usually outsiders, and though seldom possessed of direct political power, they wield at least the intermediary power to represent those who "cannot represent themselves." (2) But observation and documentation of otherness from a position of relative power, as Paula Rabinowitz suggests, always entails a degree of voyeurism and manipulation that, at best, may be reciprocal: "the documentarian is also subject to mockery as an outsider.... The joke is on everyone.... We are complicit in the theft of truth, truth gained as the [documentarian] deceives his lying informant" (7).

While the economy floundered in the 1930s, slipping millions of Americans down into a new powerlessness, documentary flourished. Partly but not entirely under the aegis of New Deal programs, photographers and writers produced a plethora of works documenting the ravages of the Depression across the country. The economic crisis was obviously of political and historical importance, but the mood of the reading public made poverty a marketable subject as well. Thus in 1936 the business monthly Fortune sent James Agee and Walker Evans to produce an illustrated feature on tenant farmers in Alabama. The initial product of that assignment was declared unfit for the pages of the magazine; the ultimate product, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, finally published in 1941, is the strangest documentary work of that era. Agee threw himself into the project with an intensity his editor could hardly have anticipated. He composed an unflinching record not just of his desperately impoverished subjects but of the problems with any such record--particularly the exercise of power it entails and the limits of representational fidelity. Agee interrogates every premise and presumption of documentary practice and condemns his own complicity; he charges himself with violation, betrayal, and abysmal failure, and his readers with sentimentality, fatuity, and bad faith.

The 400-odd pages of Famous Men can be seen as a case study in how modernist self-consciousness hopelessly dissolves political clarity, but Agee's tortured scruples have elicited more respect than dismissal. Academic critics largely accept both his anatomy of the ethical problems of documentary representation and his apparent conclusion about them: that the inevitably fragmentary and distorted representation of the lives of the oppressed for commercial publication "seems impudent, seems traitorous in the deepest: and to do less badly seems impossible" (88)--and yet not to investigate and represent at all is to "betray ... still worse" (89). In short, damned if you do, but damneder if you don't. Assuming, then, that Agee accepts that the violations of social documentary are justified by its potential to prompt remedial action, commentary on Famous Men has been largely devoted to identifying the textual and photographic strategies Agee and Evans use to mitigate the imbalance of power between themselves and their subjects.

This focus, however, leads us to overlook one of the most pervasive concerns of the text. If Agee is working on the premise that documentary representation, though necessarily distorted, may lead to remedial action, why does he spend so much time straining toward representational fidelity, as though perfect mimesis of the tenant farmers and their conditions of life would in itself achieve something significant? …

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