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JOHN HILGART Valuable Damage: James Agee's Aesthetics of Use James âgée called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men a "corrective" to the huge body ofwork that had already represented Southern tenant farmers to the American public (xlvii). As early as 1937, the subject had been treated in upwards of twenty books, hundreds of articles, a "March of Time" film, a Hollywood melodrama, a "National Sharecroppers Week," and a commemorative stamp by Rockwell Kent (Stott 216-18). In that year, interest in tenant farming was given its popular culmination by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White in You Have Seen Their Faces. Those two had done their field work at the same time as Agee and photographer Walker Evans, and during the five years it took Agee to decide that his book was adequate, You Have Seen Their Faces—which quickly went into a popular paperback edition—served as his primary model of what not to do. Bourke-White's photographs were staged to catch her subjects at unrepresentative and preconceived moments, while Caldwell's prose and the captions the pair unselfconsciously made up for the photographs emphasized ignorance, naïveté, and lives entirely devoid of control and pleasure. In Agee's view, this and other treatments oftenant farmers had more to do with satisfying liberal and middle-class notions of what the rural poor must be and of how utterly unlike themselves those people were, than with conveying the lived reality of their situation. Pity and condescension were methodically evoked by the documenten, and those were the reactions readers were expected to have. Obsessively rewriting his own book into World War II, Agee supplemented a passage written early on attacking the stylishness of the subject with a footnote pointArizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 4, Winter 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 86John Hiigart ing out how interest had "tactfully" vanished "now that we are busy buttering ourselves as the last stronghold ofdemocracy" (208). In a perceptive early review, Lionel Trilling put his finger on the dead-end that liberal sympathy tended to hit, saying that thirties' understanding of such matters as rural poverty lacked "contradiction"—was too trapped in the "drawing room," where "pity . . . wonderfully served the needs of the pitier." He recognized that Agee's book "poses this question: How may we—'we' being the relatively fortunate middle class that reads books and experiences emotions—how may we feel about the—and the word proclaims the difficulty—underprivileged?" (Trilling 99-100). Trilling, of course, enacts the very problem, placing "emotions'' exclusively in the bourgeois camp. Such was the audience Agee hoped to influence: already wellexposed to treatments of the subject, comfortable in the anesthetizing distance of unfocused guilt and pity, and "kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South" (Agee 14). Indeed, the rhetorical difficulty of his book and its economically- and educationally-dependent points of comparison (Cezanne, Kafka, tennis-court chalk markers) would seem to construct the only possible readers of Praise as an educated middle class. Such an audience might be curious about tenant farming, sufficiently educated to bear with Agee's variously baroque, Jamesian, and stark prose, and patient enough to put up with his conundrums of perception, representation , and aesthetics. At the outset of his field-work and book, Agee finds himself to be very much a member of this group. A hundred pages into Praise, a section titled "Colon" announces a full-stop and prefaces the vast project of reportage that follows. But there must be an end to this: a sharp end and clean silence. . . . Herein I must screen off all mysteries of our comminglings —all these, all such, must be deferred—and must here set in such regard as I can the sorry and brutal infuriate yet beautiful structures of the living which is upon each of you daily: and this in the cleanest terms I can learn to specify: must mediate, must attempt to record, your warm weird human lives each in relation to its world. . . . (Agee 99) James Agee's Aesthetics of Use87 What Agee is most immediately shutting down as a false start is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 85-114
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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