All my life, it seems, I have known of James Agee's masterwork Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but only now, in the third month of my 77th year, have I actually read it, and I find myself awed by the overpowering rush and torrent of Agee's sonorous meditation on the lost lives of three families of Alabama tenant farmers in the year 1936.
Agee, a poet, film critic, and screenwriter, and the photographer Walker Evans were sent by Fortune Magazine to explore the lives of tenant farmers in the South. Agee erupted in a jeremiad of love and anger, a document beyond 400 pages so truly religious in its tone and length that there was no way that Fortune could publish it. It was published elsewhere in 1941 and immediately became a part of the American canon.
Agee is a self-loathing, self-confessed spy on these subsistence farmers, their feet wrapped in rags and wearing flour sack garments, and nothing escapes his enraged eyes. Single sentences chockablock with colons and semi-colons, commas and dashes, meander and sprint and trundle for whole pages, an ecstatic clamorous poetry that a friend has compared to the Southern religious phenomena of talking in tongues. But, God, what inspired tongues!
I truly never knew anybody could write like that, could open his heart so fully that every moment of his life is compressed into each living sentence. Let me open the book randomly, run my finger to a sentence, and copy it here: “The road splits round it between tall drenched weeds and meets itself at the far end where, still close within the cold, dark, early shade, are the soot-black scaffolded structures of sawmill machinery and of power; the tall black candle of stack torched-off with clear curling heat beneath the stained flag of rust-lighted smoke; and a negro waiting, glancing frequently at his watch with a little left in him, after years of habituation, of a child's excitement in responsibility and in power; and the space is meanwhile struggling full of more and more men, not really many, yet in this woodland and keen morning quietness they seem a crowd, drawn in on rattling wagons and by truck and afoot through the chill hickory smell and fronded shade of the morning forest; and the sun is strong." Damn.
Sentences can be long trails of startling diction and syntax, wild, aberrant, the reader challenged to follow the kernel of meaning through the twists of Agee's poety-drenched text. Agee recommended that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men be read aloud, and there is in that recommendation an awareness of the almost hypnotic play of words and images and thoughts, as if he has created a new chanting of creation and the earth. There is anger, but there is an overriding love and reverence for the downtrodden people he chronicles and for all the world's wronged angels.
Agee, a Southerner himself, understood the hard basic economics of tenant farming and hated them with a Christian/communist passion (he was an avowed communist in those more pure days) that was only equalled and perhaps surpassed by the unfettered love he felt for every member of the families whose lives he shared during that hot, endless, hopeless summer.
Set pieces spread beyond the brutal acres of the dreaded cotton fields and encompass the whole of the South, captured in a rapturous telling of the languor and shining darkness of a small-s sunday afternoon shared by millions of stunted sharecroppers, whose town clothes are worn so thin and so frequently patched that, although cleaned for the day, they bring out an inherent shame in all who wear them and fix their eyes ever downward.
This is a book of stunning honesty and self-awareness and inspired observation. Its humanity is as blinding and magnificent and humble as its prose is magisterial, laced with Biblical and Shakespearean cadences and sonorities, bent and shaped to the needs of a sorrowfully modern poet-scribe. It is big writing, at times close to overwrought, but finally guided and reined by an instinctive artist, a term Agee detested.
The text is preceded by Walker Evans's matchless black-and-white images: faces, families, landscapes, townscapes, a visual rendering of the lives and places that Agee so meticulously recounts. Evans was a preeminent photographer of his time, and his almost stark work here is the perfect foil for Agee's fevered prose. I turn time and again to one long shot of a sharecropper woman and her child taken from the back. She is holding a bucket in one hand and the child's hand in the other, and there is an incredible grace in the cant of her body, set off against the ramshackle cabin and outbuildings and foreboding woods that are the weather of her life. But finally it is the faces, the dirty, poverty-ridden, accepting faces — dashed and strangely noble — that are the heart of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
In our times, when poverty is often leavened by cell phones and cable television and stupifying drugs, and families are fragmented and splintered by the chase for personal happiness, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men harkens back to a time when millions of Americans lived a truly subsistence existence, and their families were the one buttress against an eternal winter of silent despondency.
Thomas Wolfe, a contemporary of James Agee and another Southern writer of gargantuan vision and voice, might have penned an epilogue to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with this sentence from Look Homeward, Angel: "O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost!"
Photo above right: Summer 1936. Roadside stand near Birmingham, Alabama. Walker Evans for the Farm Security Administration.