As the straightforward title of this book suggests, James Lowe has two major goals in mind. The first is to cover not just Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but virtually all of Agee’s written work-the letters, minor non-fiction, apprentice stories and poems, plus his less often treated later works of fiction, The Morning Watch and “A Mother’s Tale,” as well as A Death in the Family—in order to trace an overall pattern. Lowe’s second goal is to demonstrate that all of this writing can be understood under the heading of a single creative process-a finely tuned tension between disparateness and unity-which is present not only in Agee’s writing but also in his own life. Agee’s tendency toward chaos coupled with a drive for artistic wholeness produces throughout his work a positive rather than negative quality, according to Lowe, who sees Agee’s constant struggle to keep disparateness and unity in balance as a key to understanding the author’s whole creative process.
Lowe begins with a “A Striking Instance of Disparateness,” a chapter that seems at first to prove his argument false. In this opening he meticulously reads the prose descriptions of the Gudger house [End Page 357] from the “Shelter” section of Famous Men against the Evans’ photographs of the same building (some of which appeared in neither version of the Agee-Evans book). With the aid of architectural diagrams and a consideration of shadows, he demonstrates that Agee’s supposedly accurate accounts actually reverse the arrangement of the rooms as well as the house’s geographical orientation. Lowe argues that these discrepancies in a text thought to be “a nearly flawless rendering of detail” are neither trivial nor harmful to Agee’s sense of unity because, considered as part of his avowed respect for his subject bordering on an assertion of the sacred, they express “the very nature of the infinitude of experience he assembled as part of his creative process and intended to render divine.”
In subsequent chapters Lowe demonstrates that the contradictions between Agee’s attempt, on one hand, to render the precise patterns of the boards of the Gudger house, and, on the other, his distortions of the very structure of the house are no accident but instead are the heart of his creative process. Working against the history of criticism of Let us Now Praise Famous Men, which has sought to explain the book’s apparently over-organized structure (multiple beginnings, divisions and sections arranged in confusing patterns resembling the confused floor plan of the house), Lowe argues persuasively that the design of the book is meant to reflect the tension between disparateness and unity.
The strongest chapters, “The Unity of Disparateness in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and “The Disparateness of Unity in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” as the titles suggest, show the balance between the two operative terms, the tension between constant references to systems of order (symmetries of rooms, exact measurements, parts of church services and hymnals, night and day, seasonal movements, musical forms) and systems of disorder (uniqueness of individuals, a chaotic and malevolent universe, the fragmentary nature of objects, the dissolution of the elements, the gaps between words and their referents, Agee’s contradictory position as spy and foreigner versus intimate participant, and most importantly, his desire to insult and jar the reader into thinking about the consequences of the whole documentary enterprise).
For all of its originality, careful scholarship, and attention to detail, The Creative Process of James Agee would have been even better had [End Page 358] its author fulfilled completely the implications of his title. This fairly brief book only mentions Agee’s other forms of creativity in passing- film criticism, screen writing, and journalism-and after the opening chapter’s consideration of the complicated interrelation between Agee’s words and Evans’ photographs, neither the subject of their collaboration nor the other photographs are brought into the argument again.
Despite these few misgivings, I believe this first...