Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"Practically an American Home": James Agee's Family Solitudes

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"Practically an American Home": James Agee's Family Solitudes

Article excerpt

Father [speaking to his daughter, as he plays the role of conductor in her fantasy of a bus trip around the world] But you mean this to be a round-trip ticket, don't you? You're coming back, aren't you? Caroline (none too sure; her eyes avoiding his) Well, maybe I won't. Father (lowering his voice, confidentially) I'll punch it on the side here. That'll mean you can use it, whenever you want, to come back here.

Caroline [again addressing her father, at the end of the play] Well. ... you see ... you're just people in our game. You're not really alive. That's why we could talk to you.

-- Thornton Wilder, "Childhood"

... but why wasn't he right here now where she wanted him to be, and why didn't he come home? Ever any more. He won't come again ever. But he will, though, because it's home. But why's he not here?

-- James Agee, A Death in the Family

The most deeply felt fantasies of home--even fantasies of revenge--are usually, at some level, appeals for a reprieve: a magical lifting or lessening of a weight of childhood hurt. Sometimes when the hurt has more to do with parental absence than with suffocating presence, one dreams one's way home in order to close up emotional gaps--to impose warmth on spaces one can no longer bear to leave empty. One gathers up all the family love (and family intentions to love) that one remembers and fashions desperately tender images of the world by their reflected light. James Agee, for example, believing that his self never found its proper definition or grew to its full size, because of an early, traumatically abrupt severance from home-images, tries to find in every image that remains to him a potential surrogate for what he has lost.

The rhetorically extravagant visual impressions Agee records in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and in his unfinished novel, A Death in the Family, attain an almost mystical fullness. The images all feel consecrated; the Biblical cadences of Agee's prose lend them an aura of divinity. The eye of the careful observer and the eye of memory are alike, for Agee, in their inability to see into anything far enough. Objects, gestures, momentary sensations regularly expand in his rendering to immense size, as though each were in the process of generating its own world, of becoming a book unto itself. Agee's work contains no causal seeing; one often has the feeling that his alarmingly intense gaze, once it has made contact with something, is almost afraid to relinquish it. The act of choosing to look elsewhere might constitute a breach of faith, as though whatever engaged the eye now was no longer sufficient for it. Repeatedly, in Agee's world, a sense of shame or betrayal grows out of the need to avert one's gaze.

At one point in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Agee declares that "Words cannot embody; they can only describe." He goes on to suggest that there is a type of artist who "despises this fact about words" and who "continually brings them as near as he can to an illusion of embodiment" (215). Agee is being transparently self-descriptive here. Words must take on bodily form for him, I think, because he is seeking the strongest possible sensation of inhabiting (and being inhabited by) what he sees. Ideally, words will open up and admit him like the "culvert" he remembers crawling into as a child, where he sat, protectively enclosed, in perfect peace (390). Paul Auster speaks eloquently about this "tightly sheltered" condition in The Invention of Solitude. An elderly friend that Auster knew in Paris lived in a space so small "that at first it seemed to defy you, to resist being entered" (89). In order to move at all in this room, one had to contract one's body "to its smallest dimensions" and at the same time to contract one's mind "to some infinitely small point within itself."

   Only then could you begin to breathe, to feel the room expand, and your
   mind explore the excessive, unfathomable reaches of that space. … 
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