- ‘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.
The whole essay is in this key. And in a certain phase of life – with male adolescents it may come from a reading of Thomas Wolfe – the gratification of such writing can be immense. How much of Agee is like this? Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the most ambitious and fully worked of his books, and the solemnities of diction, circumstantial proofs of localism, and care transmitted by the lavished and superfluous detail, are essential to its always impressive and mixed effect. Paragraphs at a stretch will track Agee’s changing thought and mood as he tries to summon a language equal to the lives of his subjects: the Ricketts, Woods and Gudger families. Sometimes, against his declared purpose, his love overwhelms these people with words and will not let them breathe. The self-depreciating asides (on a middle-class writer’s privilege and complicity) are only a little dated and anyway in line with expectations of this form of pastoral, but they sink the subject in a different way. So does a self-conscious literary motif which crops up in the dedicatory verses, comparing the mission of Agee and Evans to that of Edgar in King Lear: ‘Edgar, weeping for pity, to the shelf of that sick bluff,/Bring your blind father, and describe a little.’ But they are not much like Edgar, not on the scene to show and expound suffering to the sufferers; and one of Agee’s truest points will be that what looks like suffering is patience or endurance; so that we are right to admire but must not pretend to ‘feel for’ the subjects.
The confusion of purpose comes out also in first-person digressions; so, in the tenant farmer’s house, Agee thinks of an earlier house:
I remember how in hot early puberty, realising myself left alone the whole of a cavernous and gloomed afternoon in my grandfather’s large unsentinelled home, I would be taken at the pit of the stomach with a most bitter, criminal gliding and cold serpent restiveness, and would wander from vacant room to vacant room examining into every secrecy from fungoid underearth to rarehot roof and from the roof would gaze in anguish and contempt upon the fronded suffocations of the midsummer city.
Here the pastiche of Faulkner (from the Quentin chapter of The Sound and the Fury) obscures the attempt at honest praise of the labour of George Gudger.
Why did Agee fluff and pamper this conventional theme of the writer as criminal? The enigmatic figure of Edgar had somehow become for him an image of the suffering artist – the character possibly getting entangled with a memory of Lear’s speech about ‘God’s spies’. All this looks strange. It will look stranger when the Depression has withdrawn a generation further away and intentions count for less. Agee’s first-person treatment suffers particularly by comparison with Orwell’s documentary work a few years earlier in an essay like ‘Hop-Picking’: ‘Most of us slept in round tin huts about ten feet across, with no glass in the windows, and all kinds of holes to let in the wind and rain. The furniture of these huts consisted of a heap of straw and hop-vines, and nothing else.’ You are brought close, there, to the thing itself, and the author is part of the scene. By contrast, Agee seldom leaves the matter of fact to offer its own indications. Orwell, a more experienced observer, may have been readier for the discipline, but the larger difference is one of temperament: he does not suffuse the human subject with evidence of his own humanity; and what is true of ‘Hop-Picking’ is also true of the first half of The Road to Wigan Pier. Agee, by contrast, competes with his subject, even as he asks you to notice his restraint. One difference between Evans’s photographs and Agee’s text is that you might show the photographs to the persons portrayed, but you could never think of showing them the text. They would find its presumption a trespass.
The author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is pestered by the thought of his superiority (in the eyes of respectable society) to the families he writes of. The Gudgers and Rickettses are ‘innocent of such twistings as these which are taking place over their heads’. At the same time Agee feels legitimately superior to the middle-class reader he imagines looking into his book. Such a reader is protected and complacent; the author, at least, is not ‘one of your safe world’. This hypothetical reader, Agee suspects, will never know the truth of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or Schubert’s C-Major Symphony (touchstones which reveal a depth his writing aims at). It is hard to know what is being compared to what, but Agee would surely want to claim for his own record of feeling what he says of Beethoven and Schubert’s music, that it ‘is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.’
How then, given the means and possibilities of his assignment, does he hope to convey a truth of life in its physical and spiritual dimensions? The method is sometimes ostensive, close to a recitation of a catechism, simply asking, for example, ‘how it can be that a stone, a plant, a star, can take on the burden of being.’ But where all his powers were concentrated, Agee could build to more sustained recognitions; as in the intense rendering of the plain faces of a man and a woman:
The young man’s eyes had the opal lightings of dark oil and, though he was watching me in a way that relaxed me to cold weakness and ignobility, they fed too strongly inward to draw to a focus: whereas those of the young woman had each the splendour of a monstrance, and were brass. Her body also was brass or bitter gold, strong to stridency beneath the unbleached clayed cotton dress, and her arms and bare legs were sharp with metal down. The blenched hair drew her face tight to her skull as a tied mask; her features were baltic. The young man’s face was deeply shaded with soft short beard, and luminous with death.
The impressive writing knows its impressiveness, but probably in this case was meant as caption work. These sentences match the second and third of the book’s great photographs by Walker Evans.
Agee’s largest theme is human dignity – a dignity he perceives in the labour and endurance of the tenant families and which, for him, attains a beauty of transparent legibility in their houses. He would like to convince the reader
that a house of simple people which stands empty and silent in the vast Southern country morning sunlight, and everything which on this morning in eternal space it by chance contains, all thus left open and defenceless to a reverent and cold-labouring spy, shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive, far less impart to another: that there can be more beauty and more deep wonder in the standings and spacings of mute furnishings on a bare floor between the squaring bourns of walls than in any music ever made.
Praise and monstrance of mute furnishings is a usual burden of the mother lode of Agee’s eloquence. He is partial to a discovered patois of blended archaisms and coinages, of ‘advantagings’ and ‘damagements’, of ‘interenhancements’ and ‘fluxions’, all orotund verbal aids to his own ‘transfixions’. And yet what feels artificial on the page may be oddly natural when read aloud. (Agee said that the whole book should be read aloud.) The idea of a rigorous accounting, as if to ratify an oral history that these people cannot speak themselves, is among his strongest motives. So one comes to feel that a hidden drama of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the return of the Southern boy, further down in society and deeper in the country than he ever went as a child. This gives a familiar grace to his discernment of integrity in common things.
Less calculated effects are owing to the credulity of the visitor who is more a stranger than he may know. One cannot quite trust Agee as a witness – his certainty, for example, that the grown-up daughter of a tenant family would like to spend some nights in bed with himself and Evans before she leaves home to get married; and that this was suggested to the men unmistakably by a variety of signals. He is a free conduit for more usual sorts of folklore. Milk snakes do not drink from the udders of cows, and a ‘hoop snake’ does not take its tail in its mouth and roll downhill.
The most original writing in the book occurs among its apparent shallows: in the portrait of the Gudgers’ house, with its ‘odour of pine lumber, wide thin cards of it, heated in the sun, in no way doubled or insulated, in closed and darkened air’; and the catalogue of other smells, ‘woodsmoke, the fuel being again mainly pine, but in part also, hickory, oak and cedar. The odour, of cooking. Among these, most strongly, the odours of fried salt pork and of fried and boiled pork lard, and second, the odour of cooked corn’ – adding as an afterthought ‘the odours of sweat in many stages of age and freshness’, ‘the odours of sleep, of bedding and of breathing’, ‘the odours of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress’, and a last return to the corn which ‘eaten as much as they eat it . . . is of a particular sweet stuffy fetor’.
Better yet, and uncrowded by any commentary, is the list of the Sunday clothes of George Gudger:
Freshly laundered cotton gauze underwear.
Mercerised blue green socks, held up over his fist-like calves by scraps of pink and green gingham rag.
Long bulb-toed black shoes: still shining with the glaze of their first newness, streaked with clay.
Trousers of a hard and cheap cotton-wool, dark blue with narrow grey stripes; a 25-cent belt stays in them always.
A freshly laundered and brilliantly starched white shirt with narrow black stripes.
A brown, green and gold tie in broad stripes, of stiff and hard imitation watered silk.
The particulars neither solicit nor receive celebration, and the end is a return: ‘The crease is still sharp in the trousers.’ The clothes are ready for wearing on Sunday, and this is what they will look like when the man who wears them has gone. The after-feeling is the surer for being subdued. And this goes with the emphasis of Agee’s title, from a passage of Ecclesiasticus, an apocryphal witness of sacred things who dared to connect the famous and the obscure: ‘There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. And some there be which have no memorial . . . But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.’ The message is quietist: not a political movement but this book is their memorial.
What makes a good man? This is the unstated subject of Agee’s description of the husbands and fathers he admires in the tenant households. In A Death in the Family, the same question underlies the instructions and acknowledgments that pass between members of the family of Jay Follet on the day after his death. Rufus, the son, wants to believe that his father was good, and he comes to believe it, over the murmur of voices with hints and rumours that he was a drinker and a fast driver and a poor breadwinner, and over the priest’s refusal to perform a full burial service because his father was never baptised.
It is a memorable novel but miscellaneous and hard to hold together in one’s mind. Begun as early as 1938 and left unfinished at Agee’s death, it contained a seventy-page section that wasn’t included because his editors could find no place for it, and in the book as it stands, they have had to employ italics to mark the status of several flashbacks. Some of these sections – the relentless teasing of Rufus by a pack of older boys; a visit by the family to back-country relatives – go on too long and hardly fit the narrative. Reading this work of memory and fiction, after Agee’s work of personal inquest and anthropology, one comes to see that he lacked some central clue of compositional economy, and that the problem runs from the sentence to the paragraph to the scene to the book.
Yet A Death in the Family has, throughout, a keeping of tone and an application to its subject that make it unlike any other novel or memoir. The sense of the story lies some way beyond its ending. Rufus’s childhood has been split in two by his father’s death, and all his previous experiences will exist thereafter in relation to it. The most realised portions of the book are the preface, about summer evenings in Knoxville, and two night scenes: the young Rufus and Jay Follet walking home through the city after seeing a Chaplin movie; and Rufus’s memory of his father and mother singing as he falls asleep – the mother’s voice lovely, chaste and clear, the father’s bearing a hint of swing and a shading of the spiritual drawn from Negro voices. Rufus loves his mother but cherishes his father, and at the end there is a glimmer of the father becoming a potent mystery. The trail of accident is everywhere in our feelings: this thought is all over Agee’s work. If Jay Follet had lived a few years longer, Rufus might have resented him as a waster and a scoundrel.
The mode of A Death in the Family is exhaustive naturalism. No redundancy of common speech is scrubbed or spared, no pause is allowed to pass unremarked, no emotion is suggested without being commented on. Here, as compulsively as in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee stands in the margin to guide and tend to the reader. Robert Fitzgerald, in a generous appreciative essay, called the book a novel-length masterpiece in the manner of Dubliners, but Joyce’s stories are what they are because of the author’s parsimony: never were cannier choices made about when to start and stop. Agee has grafted the minute fidelity of the stories onto the one-day plan and the psychology of Ulysses. The design is misjudged. Yet he remembered his childhood well, and what stand out here are certain complicities between Rufus and his younger sister, Catherine. Together and apart, they realise how much they cannot know, and the life of the city is their accompaniment – those summer evenings in Knoxville when
there is never one locust but an illusion of at least a thousand. The noise of each locust is pitched in some classic locust range out of which none of them varies more than two full tones: and yet you seem to hear each locust discrete from all the rest, and there is a long, slow pulse in their noise, like the scarcely defined arch of a long and high set bridge.
Agee’s generation would have called A Death in the Family a novel of sensibility, but it has a strong psychological interest, for it shows the detective passion of a boy who wants to solve the grown-up world without wanting to be part of it. Adult feelings are handled with a certain literal-mindedness. They turn chiefly on beleaguered faith and the rational nuisance of doubt, a dispute in which both sides have articulate representatives in the Follet clan. It is a very talkative book, the talk serving as a documentary marker that never quite blends with the elegiac intent.
The boy in The Morning Watch is called Richard, but he is the same character as Rufus in A Death in the Family, now at the edge of puberty. The death of his father is mentioned and it is the same death: a car accident, a concussion, the mother saying they will not see their father ‘ever any more’. This is the least ambitious of Agee’s three published books, but it profits from being the one that began with visible boundaries and was executed according to a plan. Richard is called on to serve the morning watch on Good Friday and tries to know the depth of Christ’s agony. His effort is broken up by stray thoughts and the slack morale of the boys around him, but he almost arrives at a point of identification. When the watch is over, the boys go out to swim in a pond, not long since cleared of winter ice and almost unbearable to the touch. Richard dives in and goes to the bottom, tempting drowning but coming an inch nearer to the knowledge of Christ’s suffering. As they climb out, a snake in a new skin flashes by, and Richard cries out; another boy crushes it with a rock; and it is left to Richard, because he is fearless, to free the snake from its agony by smashing its head with a smaller rock. This brings him great credit with the other boys; but his killing is misunderstood, as his cry was misunderstood: it was a cry of pleasure and surprise at the creature’s beauty. Richard ironically accepts the human bond he has earned by unwitting persecution; and in the snake’s suffering, he is able to see the Passion from an unexpected angle. At the end he knows himself as both betrayer and deliverer. The episode of the snake is finely managed, and it is the only description of a dramatic action anywhere in Agee’s writings.
His love of the movies was connected to the romance of his childhood, and the deepest part of that love went back to the silent days. None of his reviews soars as high as the essay ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era’, with its individual portraits of Chaplin, Keaton, Harry Langdon and Harold Lloyd. What moves Agee most about the silent comedians is their capture of a chivalry and a gentleness amazingly suited to the rhythms of modern life:
In A Night Out Chaplin, passed out, is hauled along the sidewalk by the scruff of his coat by staggering Ben Turpin. His toes trail; he is as supine as a sled. Turpin himself is so drunk he can hardly drag him. Chaplin comes quietly to, realises how well he is being served by his struggling pal, and with a royally delicate gesture plucks and savours a flower.
By comparison, Buster Keaton was an abstract artist:
He used this great, sad, motionless face to suggest various related things: a one-track mind near the track’s end of pure insanity; mulish imperturbability under the wildest of circumstances; how dead a human being can get and still be alive; an awe-inspiring sort of patience and power to endure, proper to granite but uncanny in flesh and blood.
The minimal self-presentation of Langdon is admired to the last inch of inscrutable pathos; so are the rigged but entirely satisfying acrobatic sequences of Harold Lloyd; and the pie-fight in a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler, where ‘the first pies were thrown thoughtfully, almost philosophically. Then innocent bystanders began to get caught into the vortex. At full pitch it was Armageddon.’ And yet, Agee says, with the memory of a connoisseur, almost to the end ‘every pie made its special kind of point.’ He recalls as vividly the final exchange of glances, of surprise and acknowledgment, between the millionaire tramp in City Lights and the shopgirl whose blindness he has cured; a sequence of shots ‘enough to shrivel the heart to see’ and ‘the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies’.
Very little in this rhapsodic and aphoristic vein will be found in his reviews of the 1940s. His style now is that of a journalist doing his job, walking around the subject, sometimes a short walk, sometimes a full-scale peregrination in two parts (Henry V, The Best Years of Our Lives) and once, for sentimental reasons, three parts (Monsieur Verdoux). The prose is nicely adapted to allow for both humour and gravity, and for something in between, a wry or sombre thoughtfulness: a surprising instrument alike for what it includes and what it omits, in view of Agee’s previous work. Intellectual allusions are held as possible cards to play but not his proper weapons as a critic. Agee was not interested in teaching his audience, as Shaw and Mencken and Edmund Wilson were interested, and as his colleagues at the Nation Clement Greenberg and B.H. Haggin were. He does not drive home an argument and avoids underlining the implications of a perception. Rather, he will broadly sketch a chosen compliment, travesty, explosive summary or elaboration. The one-liners come as fast and sure as they have to: ‘Mel Tormé reminds me of something in a jar but is, unfortunately, less quiet’; ‘The picture deserves, like four out of five other movies, to walk alone, tinkle a little bell, and cry “Unclean, unclean”.’ Over longer stretches the tone is agreeable, modulated, full of resources, the voice of a man who has had plenty of time to think, but it can be indolent to the point of nervelessness. Thus of Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, he remarks:
So far as I can see on an exceedingly cloudy day, I wouldn’t say she is particularly gifted as an actress. She seems, rather, to turn things off and on, much as she is told, with perhaps a fair amount of natural grace and of a natural-born female’s sleepwalking sort of guile, but without much, if any, of an artist’s intuition, perception or resource. She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful. I think she also has a talent, of a sort, in the particular things she can turn on: which are most conspicuously a mock-pastoral kind of simplicity, and two or three speeds of semi-hysterical emotion.
Accurate enough, but the manner is a form of flirtation, and the target of the charm is the reader as well as the actress. Such tactics have some unlooked-for effects. A large number of Agee’s reviews leave the reader half-sunk in the queasy satisfaction that comes from listening to a learned authority answer every question but the one you asked. Other actresses – Olivia de Havilland, Jean Simmons – were to be recipients of these neutered valentines, a good-bad speciality of Agee’s criticism. The dandyism teeters on the brink of self-parody when he devotes three paragraphs to the child Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St Louis. Then, writing about the same movie for Time, he makes the necessary points without self-indulgence. ‘A musical which even the deaf should enjoy,’ he rightly calls it, and adds: ‘The real love story is between a happy family and a way of living.’ For Time, he remembers to mention that Judy Garland is in the film.
What to make of the felicities, inflations, category mistakes that turn into dredged-up incidental truths about an art? ‘Seldom has more personality walked through American criticism,’ Manny Farber wrote, ‘with such slyly cloaked overpossessive manners.’ One of Agee’s few peers in the imaginative retention of scenes and cinematic styles, Farber was struck by Agee’s ‘three-dimensional use of I-constructions, which seldom aroused the reader to its essential immodesty’. The drifting assurance and ease of the talk can indeed become an irritant, and the upward comparisons to earlier arts a hindrance. But it took Agee to comment on the subtlety of Teresa Wright’s work as the veteran’s daughter in The Best Years of Our Lives, and he added deftly that she shows ‘something of a novelist’s perceptiveness behind the talent’. The preference for dealing in personalities anyway keeps him alive to an energy in movies that few previous reviewers had found a language for. What to say about a film like To Have and Have Not, which on a second and third viewing may get better without growing larger? Agee says he likes the ‘nervy, adolescent new blonde, Lauren Bacall’ and concludes:
About all that Howard Hawks and his writers (William Faulkner and Jules Furthman) and Bogart try to do is to set this arrogant neophyte off to the best possible advantage, to cover up her weaknesses – or turn them into assets – and to toss campstools under her whenever she wobbles. This in itself is a pleasure to watch; so is the way she rewards them; still more, I enjoyed watching something that obviously involved relaxed, improvising fun for those who worked on it.
It is the best imaginable clue to the film – the mood of a performer held and made keener by the joy of the watcher. The main characters are both playing and watching most of the time, and they know it.
There is a traceable emphasis on actresses in Agee’s reviews, probably hard to gauge from week to week, but looked at from a distance the pattern is revealing. Much as he can appreciate Walter Huston in Sierra Madre, or Olivier as Henry V and Hamlet, Agee betrays a certain deadness, evident mostly by omission, to the masculine styles of his time. Neither The Big Sleep nor Casablanca rouses him to say much about the talent and glamour of Humphrey Bogart, and the words he expends on stars like James Cagney, Robert Mitchum and Dana Andrews are almost perfunctory. This, too, was the age of film noir: Agee caught the feel of the genre and, in a sharp-witted review of Double Indemnity, admired Billy Wilder’s tact ‘for the streets and suffocating marriage hutches and calm-lighted Piggly Wigglies and heartlessly resonant offices of his city’. He noticed, more broadly, the way such a movie could dwell without pretence on ‘surfaces and atmospheres’ for the sake of ‘tellable trash’. Agee’s strength as a critic is that he can make such an observation on the spot. Yet he goes nowhere with it. Other films in this line keep coming, Shadow of a Doubt, Murder My Sweet, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and he offers his views, discriminating or occasionally silly, yet he does not see the value in trying to make a generalisation. Even an instance as artful as Out of the Past draws nothing beyond a reflexive reprimand of Robert Mitchum’s attitudes in the love scenes.
Agee’s span as a reviewer covered much of the Second World War, and on films about the war his tastes again are unexamined, peculiar and consistent. He gives a lot of time to documentaries such as The Battle of San Pietro and The Memphis Belle by skilful directors like Huston and Wyler who would emerge with greater independence after the war. He is surprisingly cool and fastidious towards A Walk in the Sun, the ballad structure and demotic portraiture of which he might have been expected to care for – yet Agee was at once attracted and repelled by the Popular Front, and this reaction plays out in unpredictable ways. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp he appreciates for the acting, but he misreads the tone of the gentle satire completely. The wakefulness needed in a critic is as regular a demand as any exertion of the arts, and Agee practised it in a middling way, as if he were saving it for better things. The portrayal of the war he seems to have respected most was The Story of GI Joe: a fiction based on the articles of Ernie Pyle, whose naturalism could not but remind Agee of his own attempts at prose documentary. Yet these are ‘grateful’ notices, and limited in their claims. Olivier’s Henry V sends him over into exultation. Why? Part of the reason is that a spectacle attainable in movies alone and a language possible in talkies were fused in a way that pointed to something beyond themselves. In a casual phrase that one might easily miss, Agee also confesses that he has seen only a few stage productions of Shakespeare, none of them any good. The speaking of these lines by actors who could say them naturally came to him as a revelation.
Agee had been exhilarated, like others in the generation after T.S. Eliot, by the prospect of a modern alliance between high art and popular art, and like others he later grew pessimistic about the likelihood of such a rebirth. In an essay of 1944, ‘Pseudo-Folk’, he cast his eye over the New York scene and pronounced American jazz a dead art – when the last five years had seen the Commodore recordings of Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry and a year ahead lay Gillespie’s ‘Groovin’ High’ and ‘Dizzy Atmosphere’. In the same way, an affecting review of Shoeshine, in 1947, turns in its second part to lament that, after a promising start in this film and Open City and Paisan, the new spirit of the Italian cinema ‘is already fading . . . audiences are wanting and movie people are preparing costume dramas and screen operas.’
The worst enemy of a critic is incuriosity, which is another name for insensibility, and the greatest abettor of incuriosity is the assurance that you are seeing everything because things are being brought to you. There is a particularly disheartening moment in the postscript to ‘Pseudo-Folk’, in which Agee concedes that he has not seen two of his main examples of the degradation of American culture, Paul Robeson’s Othello and the musical Oklahoma, but that friends he trusts have told him all he needs to know. A second cause of the failure of perception here is the fetish of greatness. ‘Great works of art, and the best hopes of good living’: these radiant and appalling companions Agee drags with him on all occasions. The Marx Brothers may be a ‘great act’, but he would not say they have touched true greatness. Shoeshine is ‘one of the few fully alive, fully rational films ever made’, and ‘all that a work of social art ought to be’, ‘almost uniquely moving’, with ‘a kind of rashness, magnanimity and deep, wise emotional directness’, yet it is ‘not a great . . . work of art’. It is hard to exaggerate the consistency with which the aestheticism and moralism of this critic march together – as in his denunciation of Preston Sturges, ‘the most gifted American working in films’ but a comic talent whose wildest binge, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, ‘fails through snobbery, cynicism, cowardice and a radical lack of love’. Agee’s hates were exactly proportioned to his hopes. The Christian and democratic virtues that he preached and tried to practise were trust, courage and a radical depth of charity.
He got his chance to portray them for a last time when he worked on the screenplay of The Night of the Hunter: the only movie work reprinted by the Library of America, but the right piece to choose. The quality of Davis Grubb’s novel at all levels, including dialogue, left far less gruelling work than an adapter often has to wrestle with; but there is something uncanny in this novel being handed to Agee in his final years: the story of the wrenching loss of a father, a boy’s proprietary care for his mother and sister, the ineptitude of the mother’s friends in solving her loneliness and the coming of a demon stepfather to exploit the family’s need for love. Against the conventions of the 1950s, indeed by a strange reversion to the silent years (and in Laughton’s production a silent star, Lillian Gish), it is not a police detective or the ingenuity of the boy that saves them but a feminine figure of charity, striding out from the shadows and sitting all night on her porch to guard the little ones with a shotgun across her lap. The climax comes as the foster-mother and the stepfather sing a Baptist hymn whose refrain is ‘Waiting on the everlasting lamb’. The fight is strong yet the voices harmonise. If Rufus, in Agee’s own novel of a split childhood, could have dreamed through the night his reverie of his mother and father singing together, one of its later episodes might have looked like this.