- The Immediate World
For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned . . . and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined . . . to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.—James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with words by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans, is a book about seeing deeply into things as they are. It stands as a universal record of a singular place and time, a fundamentally unclassifiable book with a weight and shape of its own that exists in my mind as thing itself, more artifact than book. It shimmers with the profound presence of summer night, of heat and humidity, of human toil and exhaustion, of slow time, and, above anything else, of Agee’s deep experience of the beauty of it all. Famous Men, nominally about tenant farming in the Depression-era South, is an American classic. An accurate description of the book would require almost as many pages as the 450 of the 1941 original. It is part documentary and part anti-documentary. (Agee believed his readers had been desensitized to the plight of the poor by the near-fetishization of them by documentary filmmakers of the day, Margaret Bourke-White in particular.) It could be described prosaically as a pictorial and textual meditation on the abusive conditions endured by those cotton tenants, and equally accurately as a formalist poetic experiment. According to the author and editor Hugh Davis, Famous Men is also part jeremiad, and part anti-journalistic, eloquent screed; he should know, for he has spent the last dozen years of his life rendering the words, details and circumstances of this book and, most distinctly and importantly, the true voice of its author, James Agee.
I have read Famous Men several times, most recently this past year in the cottage that was my summer home at a writers’ colony on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Sewanee (where, incidentally, Agee attended St. Andrew’s School as a boy). I read the book aloud, alone in the close velvet dark of thick Tennessee summer nights. Agee’s gorgeous, cadenced [End Page 520] sentences were designed to be spoken and have never sounder better or more true. Listen as he describes the silence that has overtaken the Alabama cabin where he is living with one of the tenant families: “The house and all that was in it had now descended deep beneath the gradual spiral it had sunk through; it lay formal under the entire silence.” He casts a spell with words as music, ode, incantation. This is further evident in the following passage, which echoes Joyce’s “snow was general all over Ireland”: “All over Alabama, the lamps are out. Every leaf drenches the touch; the spider’s net is heavy. The roads lie there, with nothing to use them, neither man nor beast . . . and not even the hurryings and hoarse sorrows of a distant train, on other roads, is heard. The little towns, the county seats, house by house, white-painted and elaborately sawn among their heavy and dark-lighted leaves, in the spaced protections of their mineral light they stand so prim, so voided, so undefended upon starlight.”
Agee devotes entire sections of the book to single categories of the farmers’ lives, turning the poetry of his language to the mundane. Odes to clothing. Education. Shelter. Nothing within the farmhouse where he stayed escapes Agee’s gaze, from overalls to shoes, to the contents and odors of their rooms, and even their drawers: “In the corners of the pale inward wood, fine gray dust and a sharpgrained unidentifiable brown dust. In a split in the bottom of a drawer, a small bright needle, pointed north.” Writer of seductive sentences, Agee scrutinized the ordinary to get at what he calls the “cruel radiance of what is.” In one almost three-page run-on inventory of ideologies, groups, persons, etc...