- James Agee and the Legend of Himself
The notion that a good writer eventually finds a critic whose sensibility and critical practice perform what Faulkner once called a “marriage of speaking and hearing” may seem old-fashioned. Be that as it may, in Alan Spiegel, James Agee has at last found his. Descrying the mythologizing of Agee’s life at the expense of making a convincing case for the value of his work, Spiegel nevertheless wisely chooses not to separate the two. Rather, he interprets the life in terms of the work, instead of the work in terms of the life, and thus focuses his attention not on the details of the life but on the details of each of the four texts that constitute, in Spiegel’s judgment, the basis for Agee’s importance: The Morning Watch, A Death in the Family, Agee on Film, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Spiegel identifies patterns in Agee’s writing that dissolve some of the boundaries between the genres in which Agee worked—fiction, film criticism, and journalism. Whatever its form, writing for Agee was an opportunity to invent and locate himself within an emotional geography rooted in oppositions he experienced and exploited—between masculine and feminine, North and South, city and country, faith and doubt, individual autonomy and institutional authority. In elegant prose that both celebrates and dissects Agee’s tremulous worry and wonder over his fitness to represent in words his experience of silent movies, Alabama tenant farmers, or his own childhood and adolescence, Spiegel presents a largely psychoanalytic reading of these texts that, while free of jargon, is also keenly attentive to a wide range of theoretical issues. He demonstrates how, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the “eccentric proportions,” “treacherous chronological displacements,” and resistance to reading pleasure are essential to the book’s form and meaning as both a chronicle of Agee’s homeward journey and “a creation of modernist art, critical and self-referential; a dreamlike meditation upon failed embodiment; a rhapsody of chastened and penitential mimesis that strives toward, and fails,” as actuality, “just as it abjures, yet succeeds, as art and artifact.” He demonstrates how Agee on Film is less distinctive for its contribution to the development of film criticism (though “nobody mourned better” for the all-but-forgotten directors of the silent screen) than it is remarkable for its expression of a personal vision of life in which movies “form a vital part,” and he shows how Agee’s fiction resurrects the familiar “to a level of poetic attentiveness” and approaches the commonplace “as neither datum, compromise, nor stratagem for deflation, but unabashedly as a repository of powerful, transpersonal forces swirling through local gesture.” Here at last is a book that could and should expand interest in Agee’s work beyond the cult of personality or literary celebrity to teachers and scholars seeking critical justification and understanding for their deep affection for it. There is no better book on James Agee.