(Antioch Review Winter 1999)

The Deceptive Anarchy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

by Bruce Jackson

The Stammerer

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, originally published in 1941, was long out of print when I was a senior at Rutgers in the spring of 1960. People talked of it as if it were the Grail: brilliant, redemptive, universally inaccessible. James Agee's text was said to be as visionary as Blake's, and Walker Evans's photographs were the ultimate visualization of the rural southeast at the heart of the Depression. The college library did not own a copy; I knew no one who had read it let alone owned it. When the second edition was published that year, I bought it immediately.

I got as far as Agee's third or fourth insult to the reader, which is about the third or fourth page of the text proper, and assigned it to one of those piles of book to be read when there was a lot of time to spare. Usually, that means books I never look at again, but for some reason, a year or two later, I did return to it and that time I read it transfixed. The book was the same; I can't tell you what had changed in me between the two readings. I remember only that this time I began reading it in the dark of night and when I was finished it was long after the morning light had overwhelmed the reading lamp by my chair.

It is a difficult and in some ways an intimidating book. Agee is offensive in the early pages, and deliberately so, but I'm certain that the last thing in the world he wanted was to be opaque. I now think he's rather like a stammerer, trying to get it out faster than he's able. He was exquisitely sensitive to the problem confronted by every serious writer about the real: the printed word is serial, one word follows another, as does every sentence and paragraph and page and chapter. But the world of human experience is multivalent: in the same instant we are fully capable of experiencing all five senses and a range of passions as well. He was trying to sing a multivalent song in a serial world. Little wonder he got surly and crazy from time to time.

Doing It

Work on the book began in 1936, a time of extraordinary literary energy and experimentation. It was the year of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind--but it was also the year of Djuna Barnes's Nightwood. It was the year of Faulkner's masterpiece, Absalom, Absalom!, one of a series of novels each of which explored radically different modes of narrative and voice: The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying. Hart Crane's The Bridge had been published in 1930, with photographs by Evans, who was Crane's friend. Ulysses, in which James Joyce utilized a score of narrative modalities, had been street legal in the United States for three years, a decade after its publication in Europe. Both Agee and Evans early on owned copies of the European edition.

James Agee was working as a staff writer for Fortune Magazine, when, in June 1936, the magazine's managing editor assigned him a piece on tenant farmers and agreed to let him have Walker Evans as photographer. Evans was then documenting the Depression for the federal government's Resettlement Administration. Roy Stryker, who headed the photographic section of the RA, agreed to let Evans work on the Fortune assignment, so long as the negatives belonged to the government.

The two young men--Agee 26 and Evans 32--went south in search of tenant farmers. After a series of preliminary adventures, a few of which are narrated in the book, they wound up in Hale County, Alabama, where they spent a month or so with three families named Burroughs, Tengle, and Fields (in the book Agee calls them Ricketts, Woods and Gudger). Evans later said that he and Agee had little to do with one another while they were deep in the work and there is no reason to doubt him. Evans took photographs, mostly with an 8x10" view camera, and also with a Leica 35mm camera and maybe with a 4x5" view camera as well, and Agee filled notebooks with impressions, dialog, descriptions of what he saw.

I don't suppose you could have two more different collaborators: Agee couldn't work without making himself part of the subject; Evans couldn't work without getting his self out of the frame. Agee insists on what Evans hides: the presence of the first person singular. Evans obscures the first person singular like his master Flaubert; Agee imposes it like his master Walt Whitman. A student at the University of Michigan in 1971 asked Evans to describe what makes a good photograph. He responded, "Detachment, lack of sentimentality, originality." Agee would insist on the last, he'd pretend to believe in the second, and he wouldn't even pay lip-service to the first. He was no more capable of detachment than he was of unaided flight.

Agee delivered to Fortune a manuscript ten times longer than anything the magazine could possibly use. After a year, the editors gave up trying to edit it and released it. So far as I know, no copy of that manuscript exists and I don't know anyone who has seen it. Neither do I know which photographs Evans sent with it. In 1938, a friend got Harper and Brothers to offer a book contract. Agee delivered the manuscript in the summer of 1939. They asked for some changes, he refused, the deal collapsed.

The next year another friend hooked him up with Houghton Mifflin which had only one condition: that the text not include any words for the publication of which you could be arrested in Massachusetts. This cost Agee about eight words, all of which could be inferred anyway. He agreed to the condition and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published in August 1941.

I can hardly imagine a worse time. Two years earlier John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath had cornered the poor farmer market. The Depression was over and the war effort was underway. Slightly over three months after Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the 1930s were over. The book sold a few hundred copies and quietly went out of print in 1948.

Evans became a book reviewer for Time, then a staff photographer and later associate editor of Fortune. He stayed with them until 1965 when he became a member of the Yale faculty. He died in 1975.

Agee wrote articles for magazines, film reviews for Time, better film reviews for The Nation, several film scripts (the best known of which is The African Queen, for which John Huston wrote the end because Agee was in the hospital getting over a coronary), And he wrote fiction. He drank too much, smoked too much, did everything too much except take care of himself. He was only 45 when he died of a heart attack in a New York City taxicab in 1955. "In the end," wrote his friend John Hersey in an article included in the 1988 reprinting, "he jumped to his death by indirection; he was defenestrated from the upper stories of his life, as if in slow motion, by alcohol, nicotine, insomnia, overwork, misused sex, searing guilt, and--above all, we can guess--by his anger and want and despair at finding that with all his wild talent he had never been able to write the whole of the universe down on the head of a pin.".

His novel A Death in the Family was published in 1957; it won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize. At the time, none of his other books were in print. Within two years they all were. The 1960 edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was immensely popular. The psychiatrist Robert Coles tells of black and white civil rights workers in the south in the early '60s carrying it as a bible or talisman. My friend Charles Hainie, who was one of those civil rights workers, said, "We grew up in a world where it wasn't all right for men to be emotional about things. Women could, but we didn't know how. Agee taught us it was okay to feel. All those feelings of his about intruding in people's lives, it was important for us to know that it was okay to have those feelings. We went into people's houses when we did voter registration. That book taught us how to go into someone's house."

Ducks Aren't Supposed to Fly

As soon as you open the book you know there's something wrong. There's no title page, no words at all: just a blank page followed in the first edition by 31 photographs arranged in three groups. The photographs have no captions or locating information of any kind.

Books have an order of access, just as do movie theaters and churches and concert halls. In the movie theater, for example, we obtain and hand over our tickets, usually we pass through a lobby and then perhaps a corridor. We sit in an auditorium, often next to people we do not know and whom we never look directly in the face. The lights dim and we sit in the dark with those strangers whose faces we do not know. There may be trailers and other messages, then the film itself begins in the darkened hall. By the time we see the first scene, we are psychically a long distance from the street and we've traversed that distance by a process that is fully familiar to us, which is why we're comfortable sitting in the dark with those strangers and why we are able to enter the narrative world of the film almost immediately.

In the non-fiction book we look at the cover, then open the book to a blank page which is followed by a half-title page, which is followed by a full title page, which is backed by copyright information, which is followed by a dedication page, which is followed by a contents page, which is followed by a foreword and/or introduction, which is followed by the book itself. That's the way books are made. Our familiarity with that structure is what lets us know where we are in them, how to read the words before us.

Agee was perfectly aware of this. In an early design for the book, there was to be a table of contents, a list of persons and places, then Book I, which would be photographs, Book II, which would be text, and finally a section of Notes and Appendices. Sometime between that design and submission of the final version, Agee and Evans decided to be far more radical. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men begins with the images, which were shifted so they appeared before all words--before the title, before the copyright, before the table of contents.

Agee and Evans agreed on that positioning of the pictures, but it's an arrangement that has Evans's fingerprints all over it. He loved good writing, he often said that the most important influences on him were Flaubert and Baudelaire, and his closest friends were writers, but he never liked to let words get too close to his pictures. When he was hired to provide illustrations for Carlton Beals's book The Crime of Cuba in 1933 he insisted that his photographs be printed as a group at the end of the book without captions. In the book version of his 1938 Museum of Modern Art show, American Photographs, he arranged the pictures in two groups and at the end of each group he provided a list of sparse identifying lines: "Sidewalk in Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1936," , "Main Street of County Seat, Alabama, 1936," "Lunch Wagon Detail, New York, 1931," "Roadside Gas Sign, 1939," "Faces, Pennsylvania Town, 1936," "Main Street Faces, 1935." He placed the introduction to that book by his good friend Lincoln Kirstein after the pictures, not before them.

The photographs are followed by some very eccentric front matter: a table of contents that consists of only six words on four lines (Contents, Book One, Preliminaries, Book Two) that doesn't tell you Book One is already over. Unattributed quotations from King Lear and Marx. A page from a child's geography book. A list of characters and places, nearly all of them made up. A "design" for Book II, which isn't a table of contents but, once you know the book, really does tell you how the thing is structured.

After that we get prose, prose poems, poems, catalogs like Whitman, sequences of lines, of voices heard and overheard, the Sermon on the Mount without introduction, newspaper articles, Blake's proverbs of Heaven and Hell. Some of the poetic prose is so dense you cannot read it without pause, and often that is followed by descriptive prose about living space, education, work, and food so precise and specific the lines fairly snap.

Some critics write about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a book out of control, a book that is nearly-great but missed it for this or that reason, a book that suffers from excess. One wrote: "When one first reads Famous Men, many passages may strike one as pretentious, mannered, precious, pompous, pontifical, smug, self-righteous, self-indulgent, willfully obscure, doctrinaire, self-congratulatory, sophomoric, belligerent; even Agee's self-abnegation, self-loathing, and modesty may offend."

Yes, but.

When I was in graduate school in the 1960s I had to read several essays that dealt with the dramatic failure of Hamlet. One was by T.S. Eliot. It's basically an essay that shows us why the play is a failure. I forget Eliot's argument, but I remember him saying that the play just doesn't work. The essay is, as were all of Eliot's essays, erudite, brilliantly written, and well-reasoned.

The only problem, as you've perhaps thought already, is that it's wrong. Hamlet works very well indeed. It works better than nearly any other play in the English language. Every time I see it I am again astonished at what a good play it is. Hamlet is like that old canard about le canard: according to all rational principles of engineering, it should not be able to fly. But fly it does.

Likewise Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. What's wrong with that list of things "wrong" with it is this: The book works. That group of 31 uncaptioned images fires the imagination; those pages of funhouse structure and mad prose make, after a while, extraordinary sense. The funhouse lines turn out to be vertical and horizontal after all, the sentences turn out to have a sublime lucidity.

Some parts don't make sense until the second time around. You don't know that the three parenthetical "On the Porch" sections are really the frame and rationale for the entire book until you reach the very last page. But so what? Several of the key images in the Benjy section of The Sound and the Fury, which comes first, make no sense until you read the Dilsey section, which comes last, and the final half-sentence of Finnegan's Wake is the first part of the half-sentence with which the novel begins.

Agee and Agee

The director Henry King said in a 1976 conference on Western films that he chose to use black and white for his 1950 film The Gunfighter even though color film was no longer monopolized by the army because "it was a film with one idea: a man who wants to quit but doesn't know how." Color, King said, would have complicated the film's exploration of that idea. "Because film is a character, you see."

Every element in a work of art is, in that sense, one of the characters. The frame is part of the picture, the concert hall is part of the symphony. And the "I" of the narrator trying to be direct and honest with us is as much a construct as any character made up out of his or her freakiest imaginative convulsions. The only difference is that "I" looks more like someone we think we know than the character from the freaky convulsion.

"J'est un autre," wrote the 21-year-old Artur Rimbaud. "I is an other." The James Agee who wallows, complains, wails, rails, traces and retraces his eye and his sensibility and his ability to report anything with any measure of truth in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men comes out of the James Agee who made notes in a fine small hand, the one who reworked those notes again and again, but he is not the same entity, he doesn't exist in the same universe. He is a creature existing only on paper. What Agee says of the relationship between his writing and a real person applies equally to himself:

In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you do and as I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist. His great weight, mystery, and dignity are in this fact. As for me, I can tell you of him only what I saw, only so accurately as in my terms I know how: and this in turn has its chief stature not in any ability of mine but in the fact that I too exist, not as a work of fiction, but as a human being. Because of his immeasurable weight in actual existence, and because of mine, every word I tell of him has inevitably a kind of immediacy, a kind of meaning, not at all necessarily 'superior' to that of imagination, but of a kind so different that a work of the imagination (however intensely it may draw on 'life') can at best only faintly imitate the least of it."

So instead of looking at Agee as a writer fumbling to get wherever he's going, let's look at Agee the writer placing between himself and ourselves a character named James Agee who is wrestling with problems of representation and truth, who obsesses with questions about what can be known and what can be said. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a documentary twice over, first the documentary of what two young men saw in the American southeast in the summer of 1936, and second the documentary of the struggle to translate that adventure into a work that could be printed on paper, that would be apprehendable to others. Instead of Agee as self-indulgent writer lacking control, what if Agee was in exquisite control the entire time, was using his self exactly as he was using the quotations from the Bible or Blake, the survey from Partisan Review he quotes and attaches, the eccentric structure?

Agee is not disingenuous; he's direct. But Let Us Now Praise Famous Men isn't just a book about; it's also a book of. Just as telling you the subject of a poem tells you only the least important fact about the poem and nothing about the poem itself, a statement about the plot of this book tells you nothing useful. This book is no more and no less about cotton tenant farming than Moby Dick is about whaling. Which is to say, there is no way Let Us Now Praise Famous Men could exist without cotton tenant farming and you'll learn a lot about cotton tenant farming reading it and if you want to read it just for the cotton tenant farming parts you'll learn many good things. But probably not the most useful things. And what you'll miss entirely is precisely the experience of what matters.

It was a book by two men who believed in reality and the possibility, however difficult, of documenting some portion of it. One might mistake Agee for the first postmodern writer, the man who more than any other of his time questioned our ability to know, let alone to say. But unlike the postmodernist, he, like Evans, believed in the real and in our ability to know it and to tell one another about it. He proved that by insisting that Evans was not his illustrator but rather his full collaborator.

And the real is what Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is about: real things in real gardens, a real photographer and a real writer trying to make sense of it, trying to find a way to give some appreciation of the human and physical complexity to strangers miles and years away.

The key difference between documentary and fictive art is this: in documentary the referent is always essential whereas in fiction it's only occasional. In documentary, however good or bad a job you do, there's something out there that is. Those photographs by Walker Evans standing before any words in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men are Agee's insistence to us of his belief in the profundity of the real.

He can't explore the consciousness of the people he and Evans met in rural Alabama, nor does he really try. He explores the surface of their world and what he can see of the depths of his own in an attempt to show you not himself, but to help you see as if through his eyes. To do that, we must understand the limitations of those eyes, that mind, that sensibility. He uses the first person not to tell us what to see, but how to see. It is as if he is saying, "You think you are standing here and seeing this? Well, you're not, because you are this and this and this." You and me, in this together. Perhaps no American writer other than Alan Ginsberg has been so close to Walt Whitman in this regard. "...I would do just as badly to simplify or eliminate myself from this picture as to simplify or invent character, places or atmospheres. A chain of truths did actually weave itself and run through: it is their texture that I want to represent, not betray, nor pretty up into art."

Agee set a deliberately offensive rhythm to the first edition, one that played on our sense of what a book is, how a book is made, on our notion of the order of things. He wanted to make sure that by the time we got to his text proper we were thinking about what goes on in a book, what kinds of things are told to us, what kind of trust is possible, what kind of truth can be told and heard.

Cracking the Structure

The structure of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is grounded in the relationship between the words and the pictures. "The photographs," Agee tells us, "are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative." He means it. He insisted that the publisher not distribute bound galleys without the photographs because reviewers would be incapable of understanding what the book was about if they received only the words. The deceptive clarity of those 31 photographs are the anchor in reality that permit him to fly. He doesn't tell you what the photographs are about until you're more than halfway into the book, but he doesn't have to because they're there all the time. You've already seen them. You have a vision of the reality he's writing his way toward.

The relation of the words and pictures changed radically in the 1960 edition. Agee's part was the same, but Evans's wasn't. Evans doubled the number of photographs and recropped most of the photographs he kept. In going from 31 to 62 photographs in the 1941 and 1960 edition Evans didn't just expand the number of images about the area Agee had written about. He moved outside it: several of the photographs weren't from rural Alabama, some weren't from Alabama at all, and some had been taken before Evans worked for the Resettlement Administration. More important, he wrote an essay, which appeared between the dedication page and Agee's "Preface," and that cracked the structure of the book.

In the first edition, Evans was silent and the pictures were only of things that Agee wrote about. In the second edition, Evans had a voice about the dead Agee and he had images of places Agee hadn't gone, just as Agee had written about explorations inside himself no one but himself could have gone.

Why did Evans insert those alien photographs into this book about a very specific place? I can only speculate. I've never been able to find out anything Evans said about it. One possibility is that Evans decided that the book really wasn't about that very specific place but rather was about a larger slice of human experience and therefore the expansion was legitimate.

Another is more personal: perhaps he realized that this book was where his mark was being made and he had to become more of a presence in it than he had in the first edition. Walker Evans is one of the best-known twentieth-century American photographers now, but he wasn't in 1960. His only major published work then was American Photographs, the book based on his 1938 solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. "Until 1960," William Stott writes, "his reputation was limited, esoteric. In that year U.S. Camera observed that some of the best photographers America ever had worked for Roy Stryker on the FSA, named seven of them, and omitted Evans."

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is not one book--it is two books. When you look at the version available now, try to subtract those excellent later essays by Evans and Hersey that follow the photographs and title page and precede Agee's prose, or imaginatively shift them to the back of the text as they'd be positioned in a French edition. Then you'll have an idea of the book that Evans and Agee really made, one in which the very structure is part of the story.

The Real Thing

Agee and Evans would do further work after Let Us Now Praise Famous Men but neither would do anything as interesting or as important on this scale again. Agee would thereafter write movie reviews and movie scripts and fiction about his own experiences as a boy in The Morning Watch and A Death in the Family. Many credit him with inventing film criticism, for being one of the first people to treat film the same way people treated books and paintings. But he would never rise to this level of complexity, he would never again write a book that defied the definitions of genre.

Evans would take more photographs, mostly suites for Fortune. But the Resettlement Administration work (1935-1937) was his greatest period and this would be his last major project in that period. The literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote of him in a recent issue of Double Take, "Yet Evans's deepest work comes out of the thirties, a time of 'ruin.' Some ages are more conducive to great work than others. The thirties were an age of documentation like never before in American history. The Depression was like the Civil War, a crisis affecting the whole county.... A purely aesthetic and technical study of Evans's career cannot account for the wondrous fact that he found himself in the thirties, and the thirties in him."

Neither can an aesthetic and technical study of the career of either man account for the fact that each found in the other what he needed to create a masterpiece. As Agee's good friend Robert Fitzgerald (the great translator of Homer and Virgil) wrote, "It is a classic, and perhaps the only classic of the whole period, of the whole attempted genre. Photographs and text alike are bitten out by the very juices of the men who made them, and at the same time they have the piteous monumentality of the things and souls represented. Between them Agee and Evans made sure that George and Annie Mae Gudger are as immortal as Priam and Hecuba, and a lot closer to home."

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men ends with the third of the "On the Porch" sections. In none of the three does Agee tell us whose porch it is or where that porch might be found; we can only assume it is in Hale county and that it belongs to one of three tenant families. Agee's assault on our concept of the structure of a book that began with the placement of Evans's photos and the table of contents that told us nothing in the opening pages continues to the very end: "On the Porch: 3" appears after Agee has written that the book is over, it appears after the notes and after the appendices.

What Agee assumes to be two foxes have been calling, singing, to one another in the darkness. Agee and his companion--unnamed, but we take it to be Evans--listen to the music of the night. When it ends, they begin to talk about the work they had each done that day but their words are transcended by the ineffable beauty of the moment and the lingering memory of the music. The final paragraph is the whole book writ small:

Our talk drained rather quickly off into silence and we lay thinking, analyzing, remembering, in the human and artist's sense praying, chiefly over matters of the present and of that immediate past which was a part of the present; and each of these matters had in that time the extreme clearness, and edge, and honor, which I shall now try to give you; until at length we too fell asleep.


 (Copyright by Bruce Jackson 1998)

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email: bjackson@acsu.buffalo.edu