James Agee at the Dangerous Edge – Guardian
James Rufus Agee, born a hundred years ago today, is one of the most interesting and neglected authors of mid-century America. In his lifetime it was film writing he lived by, and was best known for. W. H. Auden was so moved by the “astonishing excellence” of his reviews in the Nation that in 1944 he wrote to the journal’s editors telling them he “looked forward all week to reading him again” and calling the column, “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today”. Agee’s output, though, like his ‘hell-for-leather’ personality, was prodigal: as well as film criticism and screenplays (The African Queen, Night of the Hunter) he wrote poetry, letters, essays, novels, short stories, journalism and a work of ‘documentary’ non-fiction. So in a time when we like writers branded and tidily packaged, it is perhaps his ubiquity that best explains Agee’s obscurity.
Out of fashion for so long, there are signs his star may be rising again. The recession helps. In a recent Newsnight special about the economy’s bearing on the arts, Simon Schama was seen banging a book on the table in front of him, insisting it was “the greatest novel of the twentieth century”. Of course, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a record of Agee’s encounter with Alabama sharecroppers in the midst of the Depression, is not a novel at all, though it is, as Schama intimated, one of the most extraordinary, unconventional and important books ever to come out of America: sprawling, immense and immature, like the country it hails from, a work so wayward it veers close to eccentricity.
This risk, like those of being high-flown, “slow going”, or unfashionable, was one Agee dared to take. After a series of preambles (there are post-ambles too, the book is hedged with qualifications) – Walker Evans’s sparse photographs, a dedication and Preface, epigraphs from King Lear and the Communist Manifesto, an extract from a geography textbook, cast list, title, ‘Design of the Book’, and a poem dedicated to Evans – finally the opening lines read: “I spoke of the piece of work we were doing as ‘curious’. I had better amplify this.”
If the centrepiece of his body of work is too singular, too sui generis, to have become canonical and yielded literary offspring, the film criticism – his bread and butter work – has been influential. It was his uncondescending recognition of film as the American art form of the twentieth century that made Agee such a pioneer, unlike the attitude of many in the book world who reviled or patronised the medium even as they wrote for it, taking its wages; or sat in the back row and were happily seduced; or, like Auden, thinking it “rather unimportant”, admiring Agee’s writing on film precisely to the degree that it “transcends its ostensible…subject”.
Beyond this, what made Agee such a spur to later cineastes like Pauline Kael and David Thomson was the particular tenor of his work. His reviews were morally demanding of both film and its audience (“Huston’s pictures are not acts of…benign enslavement but of liberation, and they require, of anyone who enjoys them, the responsibilities of liberty”), but also conveyed intensity of reaction (“Every minute [of Ivan the Terrible] is exciting, but springing as it does against the tensions of near stand-still, it is exciting as if a corpse moved.”)
It was Agee’s style Kael and Thomson tried to emulate in their reviewing, a style, Auden felt, that combined profundity with “extraordinary wit and felicity” – though he sensed how easily it might be misinterpreted: “One foresees the sad day, indeed, when Agee on Films will be the subject of a Ph.D thesis.” Catching something of Agee’s manner, Kael called her first collection of reviews, I Lost it at the Movies. In the same vein, Thomson’s tribute to Agee in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, notes how intimate he was with the language of cinema – its speed, seduction, danger and dark. Agee, Thomson thought, “reviewed movies as if they were girls he’d been out with, drinking with, driving in the night with.”
When Agee on Film was reissued in 2000 as part of Martin Scorsese’s Modern Library series on film criticism, David Denby, writing in the Introduction, made roughly the same point: no amount of dry theory could produce, for instance, the marvel of Agee’s description of Orson Welles playing Rochester in Jane Eyre, “his eyes glinting in the Rembrandt gloom, at every chance, like side-orders of jelly.” Such a phrase was “unprecedented and inimitable” Denby thought, “worth more…than ten academic essays about ‘the male gaze’”.
Agee’s inimitability meant there was a moment when he looked like one of his country’s brightest hopes, a writer of such energy and audacity that to a small band of admirers he seemed nothing less than an American prophet. What they saw in his restless life and various work was a kind of ur or authentic American, someone they sensed had within him the amplitude, receptivity (even a legendary macho like John Huston was impressed by his unique “regard for other people’s feelings”) and skill to deliver that Great American Novel, the encapsulating work that would sum up the United States.
He had the look and gait for the part. In photographs by Walker Evans, his fellow “spy”, he appears ruggedly handsome and reflective; while, Huston, for whom he wrote The African Queen, said Agee never looked in the mirror, having little regard for his body or appearance – indeed, that its destruction was “implicit in his makeup”. Evans, too, thought it was Agee’s lack of vanity that disarmed the prickly, “wounded” families they scrutinised in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
He was prodigious as well as diffident – talking and writing copiously, marrying frequently, drinking excessively (“A little bit of too much is just enough for me”). But there was also in this self-description a provocation, an insistence on the appetite and curiosity that made him compelling and explained his many-handedness, while at the same time intimating the cause of his failure. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men missed its moment. Problems in getting such a difficult, unwieldy and unexpected book published meant that although he and Evans worked from material they garnered in the summer of 1936, the book did not appear until 1941, by which time war was looming and the Depression seemed like yesterday’s problem. Nor did Agee live to see his unfinished, autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, published and win the Pulitzer Prize. He ran out of time, dying from a heart attack in a New York taxi cab at the age of 45, thinking he had never produced the one irrefutable work that would confirm his heady talent.
His refusal to settle down as a writer and as a man can be read as profligacy. Dwight Macdonald, an editor of Partisan Review, thought “The trouble was he couldn’t say No. He let people invade him – all kinds, anyone who wanted to. He thought he had time and energy enough for them all.” But this ruefulness, with its implied admonishment (a writer should not spend himself so freely, should be self-protecting) missed the point. Agee is more interestingly considered as a study in enthusiasm and “unquenchable” rebellion (Evans), suffering from the existential drama such openness implies, yet still declining the narrow road to success, having the nerve, rather, to be passionate, headlong, un-guised. There is about all his work (even the most lyrical or still) a sense of danger, a thrill at the charge he invests it with and the pitch at which he plays it out, making the writing strain to go beyond itself – something Samuel Barber recognised in Agee’s tender nocturne, ‘Knoxville: Summer 1915’, leading him to set it to music so warmly and sympathetically.
It is this Whitmanesque sense of uncontainability and multitudinousness, and a corresponding endowment, self-awareness, that makes him so particular a writer. The pages he left behind engage with ideas of transcendence and materialism, poetry and politics, seem crafted from a sensibility that is both masculine and feminine, and, in a very modern way, ceaselessly analyse their own predicament: the possibility of their treachery to the person being rendered, the insufficiency of words to meet or dress the world.
“‘Description’ is a word to suspect”, he observes in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and perhaps it was his wariness with language that drew Agee to silent cinema. A Death in the Family, opens with a young boy, Rufus, and his father, strolling “downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic” to see Charlie Chaplin. “So vulgar!”, Rufus’s mother complains, making them squirm, “with his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty walk!” It’s a characteristic note from Agee, elegiac in remembrance of a father almost unbearably tentative and unforthcoming, whom we sense will soon be gone from the boy’s life, yet brilliantly antic in descriptions of Chaplin’s expressive, though equally silent, film routine (anticipating by three decades the virtuoso cine-games of Robert Coover and Angela Carter).
Among the best pieces in Agee on Film (they were written throughout the Forties and published in Time as well as the Nation) is a three-part defence of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, 1947, a work made when he was already under investigation by McCarthyites (he was exiled to Switzerland in 1952). It is a brave film, attuned to the times, that turns the beloved Tramp into a serial-killer, a redundant banker who marries and murders wealthy women then plays the market with the proceeds: “Verdoux is a business realist;” Agee argues, “in terms of that realism the only difference between free enterprise in murder and free enterprise in the sale of elastic stockings is the difference in legal liability and in net income.” The following year, he published an obituary of D. W. Griffiths, containing a line that could stand as self-assessment: “He was at his best just short of his excesses, and he tended in general to work out toward the dangerous edge.”
The collection also includes one of cinema history’s most important essays: ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era’ (1949) lovingly rescues the idols of Agee’s youth from the oblivion into which the Talkies had so quickly consigned them – Chaplin, but also Harold Lloyd, Henry Langdon and Buster Keaton. Long before Roland Barthes eulogised the iconography of Greta Garbo, Agee saw that cinema’s romance with the face was something novel. Garbo shared with Keaton, whose never-smiling visage earned him the title of The Great Stone Face, a white-paste, mask-like distinction. “He was by his whole style and nature”, Agee thought, “so much the most deeply ‘silent’ of the silent comedians that even a smile was as deafeningly out of key as a yell.” It was not only that they didn’t speak, they barely emoted, retaining a Sphinx-like impassivity in face of the world’s clamouring. And this meant both were, in a way important for art, non-colluders with their audience.
In keeping with this praise of restraint – present also in film reviews extolling “taciturnity” and “uninsistence”, and in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, where he is beguiled by many of the rural poor who are so withheld as to seem almost mythic – Agee fired off ‘Pseudo-Folk’ (1945). In it, he attacks the schmaltzing of jazz, while lambasting all false heroising of ‘the people’ and their art forms (taking a wide swing at Roosevelt, the Group Theatre, Steinbeck, Robeson singing ‘Ballad for Americans’, and Louis Armstrong’s more souped-up version of ‘West End Blues’). It’s an intemperate piece, and while there is some self-legitimisation going on, this is not just a case of snobbery or purism: what you read here is Agee trying to work out how his folk writing and democratic reverence was different from these other performances, debased, he thinks, by commercialism or a misconceiving politics.
Evidence of such intellectual tussling abounds in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men where, in an ‘Intermission Conversation in the Lobby’, he takes time out to debate with Partisan Review, the magazine established by Philip Rahv in 1934 as the Left’s anti-Stalinist riposte to the Communist Party’s journal, New Masses. Agee, a regular contributor (they published ‘Knoxville’ in 1935) was irked when the Review sent him a questionnaire asking him his views on “Questions Which Face American Writers Today”.
They did not print his furious reply. The questions were so bad and betraying, he told them, as to be virtually unanswerable. But answer he does, and what he says shows, once again, his contempt for language that is lazy and too easily categorising: “God help ‘American’ or any other ‘literature’. Or else let both suspect words become your property and that of your inferiors. The good work will meanwhile be done by those who can use neither word.” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, then, is worldly, engaging with the hot literary-political debates of the day, but it is also profoundly night-inflected; Agee wrote most of it lying on his bed in the dark, the only invading sounds, timbers creaking or bodies breathing in sleep. And this means that the world suffusing the work is more infinite than can perhaps be accounted for in rational argument.
Three times in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Agee describes himself sitting with members of the farmer’s family on the porch of their bony, weathered house. Their talking falls away and they listen, analysing the night noises, catching in the air something new and insistent: “Whereas we had been silent before, this sound immediately stiffened us into much more intense silence.”
What they hear, or think they hear, is the sound of foxes calling to one another. And Agee is reminded of an “old, not especially funny vaudeville act” in which a troupe create a sketch out of nothing more than “different vocal and gesticulative colorations of the word ‘you’”. The foxes, he thinks, are even greater artists, “subtler…more enigmatic and more exciting to [an] audience” left to create meaning for themselves, to “sharpen and calibrate” the infinite sounds echoing down from the hills.
This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the Guardian as ‘Let Us Now Praise James Agee’ and on the Guardian website as ‘In Praise of Film Writer James Agee’ on 11.12.2009.