restricted access American Silences: The Realism of James Agee, Walker Evans, and Edward Hopper (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
J. A. Ward. American Silences: The Realism of James Agee, Walker Evans, and Edward Hopper. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1985. 210 pp. $20.00.

Ward's insightful study of fiction, photography, and painting isolates a recurrent characteristic of realism usually ignored in American art. This characteristic derives from the recognition by artists that silence reflects need for withdrawal. Although often not expressed by fiction writers, this seems to be an aspect of importance to American art. It is appropriate that Agee stimulated this extended study: Ward wrote two essays about A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and was astonished to discover that Agee's "obsession with silence" provided an aesthetic that shaped his major work. He sought to find other American writers whose enthusiasm for silence was similar but realized finally his subject "was not silence in literature but silence in realism."

The closest Agee affinities proved to be Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway, subjects of Ward's second chapter. Through examination of early short fiction he demonstrates how these artists were fascinated with the difficulty of communication and the need of characters for silence. They created characters who attain silence (for example, Nick of "Big Two-Hearted River") that is not to be found in their earlier fiction. Both this chapter and the preceding one about Poe, Melville, James, and Adams serve as background for the studies about Agee, Evans, and Hopper. In this background Ward demonstrates that earlier major artists also expressed a need for withdrawal from the world to silence. These speculations might be further extended.

Ward's isolation of a quality in art that is "a passivity approaching a nearly inhuman humility" is a thread that ties his separate chapters together. A difficulty [End Page 753] in a study such as this, which ranges from Poe to Hopper and which covers three genres, is that we cannot expect more than loose parallels between artists.

The chapter about Agee's writing is the core of Ward's speculations. He does a precise job of showing how Agee evokes silence in Famous Men. Many of his insights are, perhaps, debatable; yet Ward illuminates Agee's text, such as the concluding sections about foxes' cries when he provides extensive analysis with suggestions of parallels to Keats's "Ode to a Nightengale," to Whitman's "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," as well as to Thoreau's loon. Whether so many allusions are present and whether this section is a "failure" remains doubtful. Ward does insist that Agee's success is in his subjectivity, and there is no doubt that Agee's writing is meditative. In Famous Men Agee builds an awareness of what it means to be isolated, alone, without speech. Ward makes the point that silence in A Death in the Family can even be embarrassing to characters, yet "provide immense comfort." The unresolved problem for Agee (and Ward?) is that silence can only be observed in relation to sound. Excellent points are made about "Knoxville: Summer, 1915," called "prefatory" to that novel (textually not part of the novel, except by accident because Agee's editor posthumously chose it).

The analysis of Evans' photographs examines American Photographs and the second edition of Famous Men (1960). It is odd that Ward does not allude to the fact that the first edition (1941) contained only thirty-one photos and that about a third of these did not appear in the 1960 edition, which doubles the number of photographs. The insights are useful, but for the assertion to be made that the "photographs are not just complementary or reflecting parallels to the text but are, almost literally the original text themselves" is problematic. Ward asserts, "Certainly they are . . . distinguishable from the text, though in the collaborated volume inseparable from it." What we have are shrewd insights into Evans' second edition grouping of photographs following his elaborate expansion, while Evans' awareness of silence is basic to all his work.

The chapter about Hopper's paintings that convey an "unnatural stillness" is the natural extension of the investigation preceding. Although Ward does not force his astute analysis of visual art back on...


pdf