James Agee
James Agee; drawing by David Levine

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 judges must have thought he was mad. This kind of scatterbrained fertility is usually associated with the little cracked men in the patent office. And a look at the projects themselves suggests that Agee belonged as much to the line of wild-eyed American boy inventors and tinkerers as to any line of writers.

Two themes recur in a number of places. One has to do with experiments in mixed media—plays merged with film, music with photography, books with records; and along with these audience participation à la (or perhaps not) the Living Theater, an assault on Art “in any of its contemporary meanings,” and a return to “directness” and “organic necessity” in the arts. These proto-McLuhanisms are probably not too startling as prophesies, being, even then, the obvious next jumps for fashion to take. But they are interesting in view of Agee’s own work and what he was trying to do with it.

The second theme is a kind of split screen approach to psychology. He has a notion to make a triptych of people’s portrait photographs; one with the left side duplicated on the right, one with the right duplicated on the left, and one in natural full face. This would give us the sitter’s conscious, unconscious, and workaday characters: and by extension his whole biography. He also suggests a triptych of a different sort for people’s relationships, to be seen as through “mirrors set in a triangle”—“[the] interflections, as the mirrors shift [being] analogous to the structures of contrapuntal music.” Fitzgerald mentions that Agee’s obsession with different points of view could drive you crazy in conversation, too.

You get the feeling as you lower this brainstorm of an application that what Agee really wanted was to produce a complete history of human sensibility using all the art forms at once while simultaneously transcending them. Writing happened to be the thing he did, but you often sense his impatience with the written word, as if it can’t do enough for him. Even in an application for money, he bolts his syntax to keep up with the rush of his thought. It seems automatic to call him a natural writer because that sprawling proliferation looks natural, yet here he says that “I am at least as interested in moving pictures as in writing.” And it seems a good bet that had he gone on living, he would have done less and less writing, outside of movie scenarios.


The Guggenheim people turned down his application, no doubt backing away gingerly, and the projects mostly came to nothing. Agee was a man of quick enthusiasms. And when I asked his old colleague Manny Farber to describe him, he used that single word “projects.” It wasn’t that magazine work had shortened his wind: he could pursue one of his projects all the way into an enormous book. But there is something manic about this, as if it must be kept a white-hot project until completed. And the over-writing, the sentences twisted and writhing for effect, the Mailer-like eagerness to define and re-define his task in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, seems to be the result.

His magazine work may have helped him to keep his observation so fastidiously exact: although to judge from a few lines quoted by Fitzgerald, he seems to have had this conscience about getting things right, down to the color on the bird’s left wing, from boyhood on. I can think of no other recent writer except John Updike with so puritanical a sense of obligation to the small truths: to the point of occasional tedium. Still his fact-pocked essay on Brooklyn, rejected by Fortune and printed here, possibly profits from having been written for Fortune and not for the ages: precisely because he was obliged to put in all the topological and architectural minutiae that constitute the essay’s real poetry and to ration the “boozy pseudo-poetry” (to use Edmund Wilson’s phrase about Chesterton). Agee is always at his best down among the facts; and I have often wondered whether the original version of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (also unfavored by Fortune) was not better than the windy masterpiece he finally published.

Not that there was a lack of wind over at the Time-Life of the Thirties-Forties. Time in particular was notorious for its bursts of portentous fine writing, and these played straight to Agee’s weakness. Fitzgerald quotes with approval an editorial, or whatever they called those company croonings, that Agee wrote for Time after the first atom bombs had been dropped. Here is a whiff of it:

…in the dark depths of [men’s] minds and hearts, huge forms moved and silently arrayed themselves. Titans, arranging out of the chaos an age in which victory was already only the shout of a child in the street…the promise of good and of evil bordered alike on the infinite…Man’s fate has forever been shaped between the hands of reason and spirit, now in collaboration, again in conflict. Now reason and spirit meet on final ground. If either or anything is to survive, they must find a way to create an indissoluble partnership.

Aside from the merits of this as free verse (I had an English English teacher who said once, sighting me along the length of his nose, “this sort of thing is much easier to write than many people suppose”), it will be noted that its content can be paraphrased down to a Chinese fortune cookie. And this cranking up of the rhetorical machinery in the service of an unexceptionable platitude was something that a man of Agee’s temperament should not have been asked to do.

The years of vassalage at Time Inc. lent a spurious slickness of style and emotion to a naturally rugged talent. Fitzgerald describes Agee’s piano-playing as “battered conclamant notes, quite a few near misses, very little sweet shading or pianissimo,” and the same could be said of his best prose. One talks lightly of sell-outs, but a writer of Agee’s vitality can survive a lot of cheap work—so long as it does not exaggerate some weakness already there. The balance sheet is hard to keep with Agee. Time Inc. did send him to Alabama and Brooklyn and it did put him on to movies, where his contribution was enormous. Not so much in the way of theory—how much theory could you drum up for Two Gals and a Gob, the basic movie of the Forties?—but in the way of sensibility. Agee took a position someplace between the high-browism of the early Thirties (Potemkin, Seymour Stein) and the “movies-are-meant-to-be-vulgar” alternative of Otis Ferguson: a vital stage (and I apologize for over-simplifying it slightly) in the evolution of American criticism.


On the other hand, Fitzgerald says that after the war he “found Jim in a corduroy jacket, a subtle novelty, and in a mood far more independent of Left or ‘Liberal’ attitudes. He had become a trace more worldly.” This was a period when Time was puffed up like a pouter pigeon, and Agee’s alleged mood matched that of his masters to a nicety.

Fitzgerald briefly raises the question of why Agee entered that organization so quickly and stayed so long. He writes: “Was it weakness that kept James Agee at Fortune, or was it strategy and will, for the sake of the great use he would make of it?…when you reflect on it in this way, weakness and strategy, instinct and destiny seem all one thing.” Foraging the text for our own clues, we find in one of the early stories “that mood of sustained callousness and irony, which I thought one desert afternoon had perpetuated in me, still serves me well. Although it has achieved a few complexities of perception which may perhaps enrich it, it remains my habitual state of mind, it dilutes experience to a fairly palatable beverage of dubious concoction.” More Romantic death-of-feeling, perhaps. But it sounds like good equipment for working on the old Time Inc.

And one finds on the Guggenheim application a project on the Pathology of laziness. “A story,” he explains, “of cumulative horror.” One doesn’t write such stories from the outside. Laziness in a busy writer suggests that some call is going unheeded, that writing is being used as an evasion, like non-stop talking. His pious boyhood might have set him off in one direction, writing in some sense for the Glory of God; but then as that faded he seemed reluctant to take on another motive, perhaps for fear it might war too bitterly with his first one: a common problem with partially lapsed Christians. He continuously fended off aesthetic and political allegiances, from left and right, looking for truth instead in his triple mirrors. It is typical of Agee that he never quite gave up religion but never re-embraced it either. As with Time Inc., he just hung on and raged.

The refusal to become anything in particular—Christian or ex-Christian, aesthete or Philistine, husband or bachelor, North or South, hobo or Time-Lifer—explains the fascination with multiple points of view and with the noncommittal art of the camera: itself to be used multiply, so that one statement can contradict another. This produced admirable effects in the way of kinetic prose, verbal photographs. (E.g., these random snaps of late afternoon in the Brooklyn Zoo:

…the black bears with the muzzles of vaudeville tramps; the desperate bawlings of the single polar bear, half crazy with loneliness; the deep moat where Hilda the elephant was pushed by her playful husband, to die in bewilderment of sacroiliac pain; the kangaroos whose eyes are lovely as those of Victorian heroines and who move like wheelchairs.

When Agee elsewhere uses the phrase “deep in the brain of the camera,” he means it.)

But for creative purposes, it had the effect of a slightly arrested development. Whether one plays what Seymour Krim has called the Great American Postponement game out of cowardice or out of a greed to choose everything, it leaves one similarly unformed and psychically incomplete. Agee remained, even in his face, the quintessential promising young writer to the day of his death at forty-five. And the masterwork of his maturity, A Death in the Family, is not the first American masterwork to be told in the first-person of a child.

This Issue

May 22, 1969