Sunday, 15 December 2013
Just one book
Not ten books, as a current meme(?) calls for, but one: James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). (Impossible to choose a favourite book? Not always. I was asked to suggest one by someone I was having coffee with a few months ago, just as as we were getting up to leave – and this came into my head, and we needed to sit down again and talk about it, and I stand by it.) If there wasn’t the Bible and you had to invent one, this for me would be very much it. It includes riffs, narratives, lists (exhaustive inventories of clothes, animals, tools, furniture, among them), photographs (Walker Evans), transcripts, impassioned essays on the ethics of journalism, work & economics, aesthetics, vernacular architecture, education, language; the occasional poem; and passages that are a form of prayer. It is also a coming-of-age book (Agee was in his twenties) that refuses to come of age: it is fuelled throughout by rage (at how the world works; at himself) and by love. ‘What, what is it has happened? What has been happening that we are living the way we are?’
‘The nominal subject is North American cotton tenantry as examined in the daily living of three representative white tenant families’ (Preface). In the summer of 1936 Agee and Walker were commissioned by Fortune magazine to write a piece on sharecroppers (tenant farmers who pay their landlords a share of the crops on their land) in Alabama. Agee is, to say the least, conflicted: ‘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), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money, and for a reputation for crusading …' But he writes (even though ‘I’m not capable of it; and if I were, you would not go near it all. For if you did, you could hardly bear to live’), and result is this book, a book that ‘is a book only by necessity’.
There’s a late section (‘Inductions’, pages 361 to 407 at the core of it in my 1988 Picador edition; I don’t know about about the current Penguin Modern Classics edition, though that one does have a fine intro by Blake Morrison) that I go back to most years, in which after having met the people he’s going to write about he drives away into an intensity of aloneness – heat, sexual longing and frustration, death-wish, ‘I could my foot to the floor right now and when it had built up every possible speed I could twist the car off the road, if possible into a good-sized oak, and the chances are I would kill myself, and I don’t care much about doing that either’ – and then he drives back, to the house of one of the families he has met (‘its side porch and all the the filthy lard cans and the hard dirt scattered with hen turds; nobody there’) and then the children suddenly materialise, ‘feet on the running-board and quick bodies clamped close against the hot flank of the car, panting with the grinning look of dogs, their eyes looking straight, hard, and happy into mine. (Jesus, what could I ever do for you that would be enough.)’
Walker Evans, in a 1960 foreword (included in most editions of the book, I think; Agee himself died in 1955, in his forties), recalls Agee: ‘His hands were large, long, bony, light, and uncared for. His gestures were one of the memorable things about him. He seemed to model, fight, and stroke his phrases as he talked. The talk, in the end, was his distinguishing feature. He talked his prose, Agee prose. It was hardly a twentieth-century syle; it had Elizabethan colors. Yet it had extraordinarily knowledgeable contemporary content. It rolled just as it reads; but he made it sound natural – something just there in the air like any other part of the world. How he did this, no one knows.’ And: ‘His Christianity – if an outsider may speak of it – was a punctured and residual remnant, but it was still a naked, root emotion. It was an ex-Church, or non-Church matter, and it was hardly in evidence. 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.’
The original text that Agee submitted to Fortune magazine, lost for decades, was published in the US this year (Cotton Tenants: Three Farmers, The Baffler/Melville House). From the introductory part: ‘a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea’. That Fortune, a business magazine, didn’t print it is hardly surprising.
A review (in NYRB) by Ian Frazier of Cotton Tenants adds some background and perspective. ‘The reason he left out black tenants from the main part of his story was simple: Fortune had no interest in them. Black people in poverty weren’t news.’ He adds information from And Their Children After Them, a 1990 book whose authors followed up survivors and descendants of the families that Agee came to know. He notes that Cotton Tenants is a like a dam from which Famous Men (with all its ‘confessions, declarations of love, passionate divagations and occasional incoherencies’) burst: ‘Freed from a magazine article’s bounds, the energy that Agee aims at his target often goes flying off into space; but when it strikes something real – the way a breeze moves through trees at the edge of a cotton field, the looks men give to a woman of bad reputation in a general store – the energy is so abundant that every tiny pixel blooms.’ He writes that ‘if Famous Men is sometimes not a good book or a sensible book, it is also, inescapably, a great book’.