Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Returning South: Reading Culture in James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Returning South: Reading Culture in James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men

Article excerpt

Despite the obvious differences between Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men (1935) and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), these two ethnographic texts share important and striking similarities, particularly in the ways in which their narrator-reporters not only represent their subjects and their surroundings but interact and perform with them. These remarkable performances dramatize the conceptual challenges both authors faced in reading and representing culture in light of their own goals and existing sets of expectations and conventions. Hurston's text presents a model of culture that is participatory, egalitarian, and collaborative, and hence able to adapt in response to both internal divisions and external influences, while Agee's text suggests a model of culture in which hierarchical categories can never be fully erased and interpretation remains an intensely personal process of individual consciousness. If Hurston's text reads like a celebration and a reflection of a living, dynamic community triumphing over circumstances, Agee's reads like an individual lamentation for a disappearing community whose most visible artifacts are the by-products of brute survival in a world of profound inequality. The intersection of these two texts produces an important theoretical space that reflects their moment of composition as well as the possibilities and inescapable realities that continue to shape cultural readings today. In the idiosyncratic performances of their narrator-reporters, Agee and Hurston reveal the persistent desire for cultures that are at once open-ended and evolving in their social relations and cultural productions, yet recognizable and comprehensible to the individual observer.

Both texts have been received in terms of their imputed genres. Writing in the popular Depression-era genre of documentary reportage, Agee produced a difficult text which has often been criticized for emphasizing his seemingly self-absorbed observations rather than more meaningfully engaging with his tenant-farmer subjects. More sympathetic critics have praised the text on similar grounds, as a demonstration of the ways in which a hyper-perceptive, modernist consciousness transcends its surroundings as the text itself transcends the generic constraints of journalism and documentary reportage. (1) Writing in the apparently academic genre of the ethnographic study, Hurston's text was initially criticized for eschewing academic analysis in favor of dramatic storytelling and a journalistic eye for colorful detail. (2) In general, though, her text has come to be read more generously, in part because critics have generally separated the author Hurston from the reporter figure in the text, a character named "Zora" who enacts Hurston's intentions rather than records her experiences. Although it is less conventional, the same strategy can be applied to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in distinguishing a reporter figure named "James," a textual construct who is not an historical figure but a reflection of Agee's intentions, doubts, and changing perspective. Looking at "Zora" and "James" in this way underscores the impressive literary attributes of both texts, as Agee and Hurston navigate their fraught relationships with their subjects, their likely audiences, and their own personal histories to produce strikingly original characters and multivalent perspectives on reading and representing culture.

Although neither Hurston nor Agee ultimately fulfilled the expectations of their initial sponsors, their personal backgrounds helped to authorize their writing projects and ultimately shaped their final forms. As a young Harvard-educated writer for Fortune magazine and with many unresolved issues involving his family and his childhood in Tennessee, Agee leapt at the opportunity the magazine gave him to go south in the summer of 1936 and investigate the economic reality of tenant farmers (Bergreen 158). Likewise, as a young Bard-educated anthropologist with unresolved family issues of her own back in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston embraced the chance to return to her community when she won funding for ethnographic field work from the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1927 (Boyd 145). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.