Neutered Valentines

David Bromwich

  • ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’, ‘A Death in the Family’, Shorter Fiction by James Agee
    Library of America, 818 pp, $35.00, October 2005, ISBN 1 931082 81 2
  • Film Writing and Selected Journalism by James Agee
    Library of America, 748 pp, $40.00, October 2005, ISBN 1 931082 82 0
  • Brooklyn Is by James Agee
    Fordham, 64 pp, $16.95, October 2005, ISBN 0 8232 2492 9

Intentions are in one way more satisfying than works. They can grow and change without limit, and, lacking the certainty of a completed thing, will never entirely disappoint. James Agee had a fortunate career on the face of it, as a New York freelance for almost two decades and then as a screenwriter. One of the large talents of American writing in the 1940s, Agee was a Southerner, from Knoxville, Tennessee, who came North, stayed and prospered. The story that these details suggest, of exile and nostalgia, is more pertinent than the data of Agee’s education, employment, marriages. He enjoyed wide recognition and often enough he finished his projects. Yet the things he wished he could do – ‘a dozen Chekhov-Shakespeare novels’, as one of his editors, Robert Phelps, summarised a characteristic resolution; a life of Jesus; a novel about the atom bomb – were to become an almost public constituent of his writing life. His criticism is marked by the same mixture of yearning and disappointed hopes. Agee’s special province as a movie reviewer was the perception of purpose – the honourable failure is a frequent subject with him, more congenial than the rare masterwork or the latest specimen of amusing or abject trash. Whatever genre he tried, he seemed to be working at a role that had no name: critic, prophet, consoler, moral historian.

His first book, omitted from the Library of America edition of his work, was a volume of lyrics, Permit Me Voyage, its title drawn from a line by Hart Crane with a tougher edge than the borrowing may indicate; an accomplished book, marred by an over-abundant proffered delicacy of sentiment – ‘the Chamber of Maiden-Thought’ shining sweetly but with too constant a glow. Agee soon found a regular job writing for Fortune, where in the mid-1930s he published articles on the Tennessee Valley Authority, the marketing of the commercial orchid, and other topics of interest to literate businessmen. Sent on assignment to Alabama in 1936, with the photographer Walker Evans, to do an article on tenant farmers, he returned with unorganised pages and sections of finished prose, prose-in-the-rough, poetry, extended captions and descriptions, none of them reducible to an article in Fortune. Agee’s manuscript kept soaking up new trains of thought and recollections (unlike Evans’s pictures, a finite and perfect sheaf). Five years later – an era later – the book was published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Between 1942 and 1949, he worked steadily as a film critic for the Nation and Time – often reviewing the same movie for both magazines, in the first with a byline and freedom to ramble and interpose sermons, in the second under the control of a minimally flashy variant of Time-style. His two reviews of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and a friendly profile of its director in Life, led to an invitation to work for John Huston. He wrote an adaptation of Stephen Crane’s story ‘The Blue Hotel’, which Huston did not use but liked enough to give him another project, The African Queen. Later Agee collaborated with Charles Laughton on the screenplay of Davis Grubb’s extraordinary novel about the discovery of evil in childhood, The Night of the Hunter. He died in 1955, of a heart attack, aged 45, leaving behind several manuscript chapters of an autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family. That, paired with his short novel of 1951, The Morning Watch, convinced many reviewers that Agee had been chiefly a writer of fiction all along. But this late impression was accidental, and among those who knew him, the puzzle remained: a born writer, but of what? Walker Evans, Dwight Macdonald and Robert Fitzgerald in their memoirs of Agee all describe an enchanting talker and an inspired observer of people. Also of cities, houses, symphonies, books, movies; one who lived hard, drank hard, and knew the force of his own feelings unremittingly.

Aesthetically omnivorous, wary and susceptible, with a solid interest in the ideas of his age, Agee in person and print excelled at monologue: an idiom of half-public rumination, in which the swell and drift of his words could come close to the drive of his inward energy. His writing brings that quality some way into the life of a reader who cannot be a friend and listener. His prose, when it is not preening to excite or overbear, is sometimes as near to familiar speech as writing can get; and it maintains contact with fugitive feelings that may elude speech, such as the sense of a boy’s freedom the morning after his father’s death:

The air was cool and grey and here and there along the street, shapeless and watery sunlight strayed and vanished. Now that he was in this outdoor air he felt even more listless and powerful; he was alone, and the silent, invisible energy was everywhere. He stood on the porch and supposed that everyone he saw passing knew of an event so famous.

The reserve and control of such a passage are less frequent than one might have expected of Agee’s writing generally.

An early and persistent model was Archibald MacLeish, the judge of the Yale Younger Poets series when Agee’s volume was published there. With the intellectual-populist Agee, as with the bankable rhetorician MacLeish in his poems of the 1930s and verse dramas, too often the reader senses the writer nudging point after point to carry his audience. Agee is watching for reactions and wants to feel the pleasure of his success. The prose breathes an eager solicitude, an earnestness and aspiration that do not let up, a palpable yearning for the good, the affecting, the decent, the true (and a friend to tell it to), which Agee asks that his reader share implicitly. The fiction, reviews, prose poems and journalism included in the two Library of America volumes all inhabit the same atmosphere of conviction, and the road through Agee’s books is paved with sincerity and honesty: two of his favourite terms of appreciation, which he bestowed with the firmness of a parent and the thrift of a provost.

Here is a passage, characteristic of Agee with all the stops out, from an essay on Brooklyn:

Canarsie, that full end-of-the-world, that joke even to Brooklyn, its far end; the abomination of desolation, the houses thinned to nothing, the blank sand, the shattered cabaret with the sign, ‘The Girl You Bring is the Girl You Take Home’, the new cabaret in the middle of waste silence, with ambitious men aligning the brilliant trims; the shades along the last street and at its head a small young brick apartment, its first floor occupied; the row of dark peaked shingles which across a little park faces the declining sun and the bare land with the look: ‘somehow we have not been very successful in life’; and this park itself, brand-new, a made-island of green in all this grave ocean, and in this silence, a little noise. The leaves are blown aslant and in their shade a few lie prostrate on young grass, mothers, young girls, two boys together; and meditate, or talk inaudibly; on benches, men without colour sit apart from one another in silence. A girl bounces a fat ball on the cement over and over and over. The wind is freshening and the sloped light is turning gold. Birds speak with each other in the hushed leaves and in the wind there are the soft calls of children, but these noises are blown by the wind and are finally almost impossible to hear.

The writing is capable, brilliant and lofty, to the last conspicuous stroke of diction and of rhythm. The essay, ‘South-East of the Island: Travel Notes’, was commissioned and rejected by Fortune in 1939, when Agee was rewriting Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but it has lately been reprinted as Brooklyn Is, and the performance typifies one side of his method and manner. The words are all choice, yet the writer’s effort has been poured into stretching the charm of words, and it is not clear why he should ever stop. The catalogue-montage, a device inherited from Dos Passos and Joyce, was a favourite technique of Agee’s from his first writings to his last, but one may consider the information it does and does not yield. ‘Shattered cabaret’ – marvellous phrase, but are we to picture a house blown to bits by a storm or something vaguely run-down and dilapidated? ‘Ambitious men’: workmen with a wide reach, or workmen brave to be working so high above ground, or are they just entrepreneurs? ‘The leaves are blown aslant’: starting here, sound becomes the occasion for sense, but even so the ‘fat’ ball is an attention-getter that does not pay its way, and the phrase ‘birds speak with each other’ exudes a biblical gravity that comes on Agee in moods of too imposing tenderness. The ‘soft calls of children’ belong to the same mood and not to reality. The calls of children out of doors are never soft.

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