James Agee: Selected Journalism

Article excerpt

James Agee: Selected Journalism. Paul Ashdown. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2005. 166 pp. $19.95 pbk.

Fans of poet, journalist, novelist, and scriptwriter James Agee will be pleased that this slightly revised collection of selected articles has been published and is available in paperback. Readers hoping for much more than renewed availability and a chance to reread Agee's essays, however, will be disappointed.

The first collection of these essays, written by Agee from 1933 to 1947, was published in hardcover in 1985 by Paul Ashdown, professor of journalism and electronic media at the University of Tennessee. Ashdown has added two articles, "The Scar" and "The Moving Picture," which Agee wrote in 1926 when he was seventeen years old. Ashdown said the two articles demonstrate that Agee, who was born in Knoxville and raised in the area that became known as the Tennessee Valley Authority, had already developed his creative, energetic writing style while he was still in school. According to Ashdown, Agee's early prose is "remarkably similar" to the style that became the trademark of his essays in the 1940s.

Reading these two articles written by a seventeen-year-old Agee and rereading the essays previously published in Ashdown's 1985 book is a treat. Even though the other seventeen articles in this collection of articles are the same ones Ashdown selected for his first edition in 1985 and are published in the same order, Agee's mastery of the English language is reason enough to republish this collection of spell-binding journalistic essays, which paint vivid pictures of life during the Depression and World War IL Agee is writing about events that happened in the first half of the twentieth century, but his work will never go out of style.

His articles are heavily researched and full of essential background, but Agee's journalism reads like fiction. For example, Agee describes an agriculture bureaucrat at the Tennessee Valley Authority thusly: "He is an authority on artichokes, bugs, cats, dogs, eggs, fish, geraniums, hay, iguanas, jam, and so down the alphabet. He is also, by dint of years of study, an authority on agriculture and industry in his valley. To balance industry and agriculture is his assigned task."

Such description might be stricken today by a zealous copyeditor, but Agee's writing seems effortless, sending floating images into our minds. …

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