Thinking about Jack’s recession book reminded me – and why the connection took so long, god knows – of one of the great books of the last century, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
How to describe it? Not fiction, nor non-fiction as it’s commonly understood, and definitely not journalism (which Agee despised: ‘The very blood and semen of journalism is a broad and successful form of lying’). Agee and the photographer Walker Evans were commissioned by a magazine in the 1930s to write a piece on sharecroppers – white tenant farmers – in the southern US. Aged 27, diffident, idealistic, rebellious, Agee was deeply uncomfortable with the whole project: ‘It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of “honest journalism” (whatever that paradox may mean) . . .’
My edition (Picador, 1988) runs to around 500 pages and includes some 60 photographs by Walker Evans. In a 1961 preface Evans says that it was ‘largely night-written’, and ‘some of the sections read best at night, far into the night’. It is a book, Agee says, ‘only by necessity’: ‘The effort is to recognise the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis and defense.’ There are intimate and intricate catalogues (of buildings, furniture, clothes, materials, and the effects on these of time and light and work); there are prayers and poems and impassioned riffs on beauty, symmetry, language and writing, education, land and geology and ownership and justice. The language moves between the deadpan plain and an Elizabethan baroque. It’s a deeply personal but reverberating act of solidarity and rebellion. Does the recent Penguin edition include the Evans preface? I’ll assume it doesn’t, which will excuse more quoting. Evans remarks on Agee’s Christianity: ‘a punctured and residual element, but it was still a naked, root emotion. It was an ex-Church, or non-Church matter . . . All you saw of it was an ingrained courtesy, an uncourtly courtesy that emanated from him towards everyone, perhaps excepting the smugly rich, the pretentiously genteel, and the police. After a while, in a round-about way, you discovered that, to him, human beings were at least possibly immortal and literally sacred souls . . . Agee’s rebellion was unquenchable, self-damaging, deeply principled, infinitely costly, and ultimately priceless.’ One particular section of the book I swore to myself ages ago that I would re-read every year, and most years I do.