- Off-Stage Voices in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Reportage as Covert Autobiography 1
“ . . . Another form of relative truth is any person’s imagination of what he knows little or nothing of and has never seen”.(Agee 1970, 161)
While speaking to a class at Harvard just two days before his death, photographer Walker Evans mentioned that, although he was in “close sympathy” and “impressed” with the writer James Agee’s mind, he nevertheless “disapproved of a whole lot too.” As to artistic aim, Evans felt that Agee was “very subjective. He used to shock me. I have inhibitions about exposing the personal ego and feelings, and he seems to think that is the material and that that is one of the functions of an artist—exposing obscure and hidden parts of the mind and so on” (Caplan 1976, 25).
Evans went on to call Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—Agee and Evans’ portrayal of 1930s Alabama tenant farmers—“a very big and large and daring undertaking” (25). Many others agree, especially about the book’s “daring” qualities. For instance, Dwight Macdonald said of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (abbreviated FM hereafter) that “there’s more of Agee in that book than anything else he did” (Spears and Cassidy 1985, 115). Robert Fitzgerald, Agee’s college roommate and life-long friend, evidently shared Macdonald’s opinion, adding that Agee was well aware of the extent to which writing a book on the disadvantaged would “electrify a great deal of his nature that had not been given an opportunity for full expression” (Spears 1985, 56). To Fitzgerald FM represented the “centerpiece” in Agee’s life and writing (Introduction to Agee 1970).
Those are impressive, emphatic sentiments which, partly because of their emphasis, seem oddly suggestive. After all, what made the writing of a book about (of all things) tenant [End Page 75] farming so signally important for Agee? Why were his experiences in Alabama so intense? Did reportage truly metamorphize for some reason into covert—and sometimes not-so-covert—autobiography?
I begin with a consideration of context. What exactly was FM, under what terms did Agee write the book, and how did the writing of it affect him psychologically?
Preparation, Purpose, Process
What became FM began as an assignment for Fortune magazine, luxurious track record of the noteworthy rich, with Agee and Evans travelling to Alabama in search of an article on tenant farming. Neither Agee nor Evans felt comfortable with what Agee called this “curious” arrangement, and so from the beginning publication—in any form Fortune could use—seemed only a distant possibility. The magazine had in fact considered a similar proposal several years earlier by photographer Horace Bristol and John Steinbeck, but Steinbeck eventually vetoed the arrangements due to Fortune’s clear and shameless celebration of capitalist ideology (Sacramento Bee. April 5, 1989), a style in direct contradiction to the spirit of the project.
In planning his work on FM, Agee set himself an almost life-absorbing task, writing to Father Flye that to do the job correctly and conscientiously he would finally have to address “the whole problem and nature of existence” (Agee 1962). The highly unconventional character of the book—stridently idiosyncratic and subjective, confessional, hyper-realistic, philosophical, moral—provided Agee with a forum in which to outline his feelings about, really, almost anything. The book consists of sections on the question of art and the artistic process, journalism, the nature and function of words and meaning, photography, religion, and, of course, on the lives of the tenant farmers themselves, their work, their shelter, their education, their love life, their clothing, their land, their beds, their crops. FM also includes a three page free-association at the end of the book over what Agee calls “Anglo-Saxon monosyllables,” as well as a satiric reprinting of a newspaper [End Page 76] article on photographer Margaret Bourke-White, whom Agee apparently held to be morally and artistically despicable. Maybe more than anything else, what the book amounts to a fiercely thorough investigation of what it means to portray reality. In his now famous application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, Agee...