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Eclectic master
Seeing James Agee whole at last

That James Agee has somehow evaded the status of great American writer is almost certainly the consequence of his eclecticism. He turned out only one novel, A Death in the Family, which was published in 1957, two years after his death, and won a highly deserved Pulitzer Prize. There was a novella, The Morning Watch, as well as a handful of stories. There were five screenplays, three of which — The African Queen, The Night of the Hunter, and The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky — were brought triumphantly to the screen. With the photographer Walker Evans he produced the altogether astonishing non-fiction volume Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an account of the time the two young men spent living with Alabama tenant farmers at the height of the Depression — commissioned and then rejected by Fortune magazine before Houghton Mifflin finally published it in 1941. And amid other journalism, much of his energy in the ’40s was expended on writing about the movies, in the form of a famous weekly column in the Nation and unsigned shorter reviews for Time, as well as two celebrated pieces for Life on silent comedy and — shortly before they became collaborators on The African Queen — John Huston.

As the profoundly gratifying new two-volume Library of America collection of Agee makes clear, this broad range of literary output is unified by several distinctive qualities. First and foremost is the beauty of the prose — lyrical, dense, with a stunning precision of often layered detail, whether he’s evoking the mood of a scene in a film, exploring the psyche of a character — say, the torment of self-doubt in the alcoholic Uncle Ralph, which occasions one of the most extraordinary passages in A Death in the Family — or entering a sense memory. (Both The Morning Watch, which catalogues the thoughts of an Anglo-Catholic schoolboy during Holy Week, and A Death in the Family, about the death of a vital young man and its effects on his family, are autobiographical; Agee was seven when his father died in a car accident.) His style is ruminative, restless, ambivalent, self-interrogating; it acknowledges on almost every page the impossibility of arriving at a final accounting about the way in which men and women live their lives or the art they put out. This insistence on both getting close enough and pulling back far enough to see the whole picture explains the "and yet" factor in all his writing, whether he’s revealing the complicated and unspoken sexual tensions in the home of one of the farmers in Famous Men or attempting to place the achievements of a writer or a director he admires. He concludes an enthusiastic review of Faulkner’s The Hamlet, for example, by proclaiming, "In passages incandescent with undeniable genius, there is nevertheless not one sentence without its share of amateurishness, its stain of inexcusable cheapness."

This attempt at comprehensiveness derives from an ethic that demands that a writer speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. "The very blood and semen of journalism," he protests in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, " . . . is a broad and successful form of lying." In striving to render the lives of the tenant farmers, which he held as precious and inviolable, he chafes against the limitations any professional approach imposes on such an effort, explaining in the preface that he and Evans are "trying to deal with it [their subject] not as journalists, sociologists, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists, but seriously." You can hear a great deal of anger in this denial of traditional ways of looking at the struggles of the poor, ways that demean them and condescend to them. Some of that anger Agee directs at himself as he finds his desire to convey his love for them, and his respect for the way they move through a narrow and thorny existence, impeded by his shame at increasing their toil and his horror at incurring suspicion or misapprehension of his motives. In his foreword to the 1960 reprinting, Walker Evans, whose photographs had become better known than the text they accompanied, called Agee’s contribution "the reflection of one resolute, private rebellion . . . unquenchable, self-damaging, deeply principled, infinitely costly, and ultimately priceless."

One long passage from Famous Men expresses the mixture of gratitude and embarrassment Agee feels when he has to return to one of the families in the dark and beg shelter during a rainstorm. You hear the same tone of mea culpa in The Morning Watch when the protagonist, Richard, tries to abase himself in his prayers and is appalled to find pride in his satisfaction at his own humility. Agee often seems to be caught in this kind of vicious circle, and his conviction to tell the truth — especially about his own inadequacies — gives the writing a tortured purity.

Agee’s devotion to the truth led him to seek it, as a film critic, in those fabled corridors of fraud and compromise, the studios of Hollywood. He paid tribute to the ability of documentary film to record the poignancy of actual experience; he looked for ways in which fiction film might pick up that impulse. No one who has ever written about movies has shown as acute an appreciation for the way in which an incidence, however small, that is reported with unstinting accuracy can fleetingly transform a filmgoing experience. "When Zack and his girl stroll through subdued, snowless winter country," he writes in his Time review of William Dieterle’s I’ll Be Seeing You, "the landscape is photographed with an appreciation of the power and subtlety of weather that most U.S. movie-makers seem to lack." The pages of the Nation permitted him the space to fume at the constrictions of the Hollywood system as well as to discuss at length the handful of filmmakers he admired most fervently — Laurence Olivier, John Huston, and Charlie Chaplin, whose M. Verdoux he championed at a time when escalating anti-Communism made Chaplin unpopular as a result of his politics (which were in fact pacifist rather than socialist).

Most Library of America books require little if any selection on the part of the editor, but the breadth of Agee’s publications means that Michael Sragow had to make real choices here. To A Death in the Family, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, The Morning Watch, and the film pieces formerly collected in Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments — all his Nation columns, many of his Time reviews, and the two Life articles — Sragow has added a handful of book reviews, some features from the 1930s, three marvelous short stories, and more from Time, including news and editorial pieces. The eulogy for FDR ("U.S. at War: ‘A Soldier Died Today’ ") and the two post-war essays ("Victory: The Peace" and "Europe: Autumn Story") are extremely poignant.

Sragow has also included one screenplay — not The African Queen, the conventional choice, but The Night of the Hunter, which Agee adapted from Davis Grubb’s novel and Charles Laughton filmed in 1955, the year Agee died. The long dispute over how much of the shooting script was actually Agee’s has been put to rest by the discovery of the version Agee sent Laughton and letters that confirm his ongoing participation in the process. The restoration of the credit to Agee confirms one’s instincts that only a writer of the first rank could have turned out so evocative and haunting a screenplay. Agee, as these volumes demonstrate over and over, was such a writer.

Issue Date: November 18 - 24, 2005
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