The Collected Short Prose of James Agee
edited, with a Memoir by Robert Fitzgerald
Houghton Mifflin, 243 pp., $5.95
James Agee was so much the American idea of a writer—wild, lunging, unfulfilled; boozy, self-destructive, sufficiently Southern; a refined model from the Thomas Wolfe prototype—that we still keep sniffing around his literary remains for the one work that would clinch it, the missing sonnet.
It will not be found in this book, which is mainly a wastebasket job and published to look like one. But there are some clues and confirmations. The early stories are just early stories, no better or worse than most people’s early stories. Promising. But not terribly promising. The romantic death of feeling is much on hand. “Waning moons and the wind in the trees, etc. [my etc.] …I could no longer get excited over these things; I could no longer even think of them without a slight sickened feeling of shame, without ending by laughing at them and myself.” Amory Blaine could not have put the problem more poignantly.
There is also a burst of near-Benchley humor, suitable to a Harvard man. “[Sex] is my hobby. Sex and Stamps. But Sex is lots more fun. Where would we be without it? Probably off shooting pool somewhere.” Otherwise the stories tell us mostly what we already know about Agee; that his powers of observation were extraordinary, but with a tendency to float free from his purpose, and that his prose was vivid but sometimes pretentious (e.g., pointless inversions: “I told of Maine a lie or two”) and sometimes strangely harsh on the ear.
The two satires that follow are so bad that even a college magazine would hesitate to publish them (and the second has the added burden of being dated to the point of inscrutability). In his Introduction, Robert Fitzgerald says “you do not hear much of his parodies” but fails to draw the correct conclusion from this. Agee’s versatility has been much commended, but he was versatile chiefly in the sense of attempting a lot of things (vide Beachcomber’s famous chess master, who played seventy-six games simultaneously and lost them all). Agee’s best work in one form is surprisingly like his best work in another. Two of the four short descriptive bits that follow the disastrous satires could easily be inserted into one of his movie scripts. Both are crowd scenes so painstakingly described that your eyes almost begin to hurt from reading them. One would not be surprised to find camera instructions inserted. And as Pauline Kael has said, his power of visual evocation was also his outstanding gift as a movie critic. So his versatility was different ways of doing the same thing.
What comes next is the book’s principal excuse, probably the most revealing thing that has ever been written about Agee. It is his Guggenheim application for 1937, surely the strangest application ever compiled by a same man. It lists no fewer than forty-seven projects, several of them multiple, covering practically the sum of human experience from sex to politics. The good …