28 June 2012

James Agee / Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)

A unshaven man dressed in a crumpled shirt and overalls stares from the front cover of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The photo was taken by Walker Evans and the reader will later learn that the man is George Gudger, although that isn't his real name. The beginnings of the book go back to when James Agee and Evans were employed by Fortune magazine during the Depression in 1936 to write an article on poor white sharecroppers in the South. They spent eight weeks with families pseudonymously called the Gudgers, the Woods, and the Ricketts, and Evans (whose photos are shown at the beginning of this work) divides his photos into four sections: the three families mentioned (in that order), and a more general, broadly more external collection that includes the local school, post office, store, etc. Their work was never published by Fortune, although this far wider-reaching study came out in its own right in 1941.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is not just a journalistic work, in fact it's not conventionally journalistic at all: the parts where Agee describes the families and the homes they live in (especially the Gutgers) are minutely dwelt on, the furniture and the objects hung on walls almost photographically detailed. This is obviously Agee's main intention: to give as realistic a description as possible; but he also sees the written part of the book as a problem, something almost extraneous to it:

'If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.'

Agee says this at the beginning of the book, and it sounds as though his ideal is a kind of experimental work, which in fact is just what he creates in his writing: a wild helter-skelter of a book that doesn't just document but also philosophizes, politicizes, poeticizes, rambles, deconstructs itself, psychoanalyzes the narrator: digression is the norm. Sentences are often very long and frequently there are a number of semi-colons in them, but it is mainly the eccentric use of colons, often ending several paragraphs at a time, that stands out. Agee was an alcoholic and drowned himself in booze at the age of 45: parallels with Kerouac are obvious. I often asked myself if Agee wrote drunk, because surely that's exactly what fuels this long book which resists all categories and takes the reader on a mystery tour in which the narrator often seems oblivious to anything other than his own obsessive self-questioning, torturing himself with brutal honesty.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a book of love and guilt, struggling hard to get to the marrow of its subjects. It is not just a major Southern work, it is a major work of literature, although I suspect that it is often abandoned by readers in the same way that William Gaddis's The Recognitions – with which it shares a few things – must also be.
'James Agee’s Unconventional Use of Colons', by Anna Maria Johnson

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