Sunday, November 27, 2016

Birthday: “A little bit of too much is just enough for me.”

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James Rufus Agee (1909-1955)
Author, critic, screenwriter, poet

The vagaries of publishing are many. James Agee was one of two American artists whose careers were launched by the same project: an article rejected by the magazine that commissioned it, which they turned into a book that didn’t sell.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) was an odd assignment for Agree, who then worked for Fortune magazine. He was paired with a young photographer, Walker Evans, who was documenting life in the rural South for a government agency. They spent six weeks living with Alabama sharecroppers.

As he remarks in the book's preface, the original assignment was to produce a "photographic and verbal record of the daily living and environment of an average white family of tenant farmers". However, as the Literary Encyclopedia points out, "Agee ultimately conceived of the project as a work of several volumes to be entitled Three Tenant Families, though only the first volume, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was ever written".

A distinctly oddball, Thoreauvian sensibility pervaded Agee’s text. Danny Heitman wrote of it,

With the title of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which comes from a passage in the apocrypha, an ancient group of texts excluded from the Bible, Agee sounds the keynote of a narrative dense with literary allusion, riddles, and cosmic speculation. To get a flavor of the book, consider Agee’s disclaimer, in which he says that although his nominal subject is Alabama sharecroppers, his real goal “is to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense. More essentially, this is an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”

It was the sort of sometimes-off-the-wall, sometimes-genius project the New Deal funded; though Time magnate Henry Luce had intellectual aspirations for his business magazine, Fortune- launched in 1936, and specializing, for decades, in long-form journalism) he and his editors viewed the world rather less askew. Luce collected left-wing intellectuals the way Hollywood studio heads collected famous writers: as trophies; often without a clear sense of what to do with them once they were signed up.

They rejected Agee’s article.

Agree shopped the article around, and Houghton Mifflin published it in 1941. It sold 600 copies before being remaindered. The timing was off. The economy was booming as America armed for the war to come. Nobody wanted to relive the Great Depression. Agee and Evans never worked together again, though their paths crossed. Agree left Time Inc, in 1939, returning in 1942 as Time’s film critic. Evans left the government in 1938, joined Time in 1945, and then became an editor at Fortune for twenty years.

Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee; his father died when he was six. He was shipped to boarding schools, graduating Phillips Exeter in 1928. HIs talent as a writer seems to have trumped his dismal academic record, and he was admitted to Harvard, graduating in 1932. As young writers did, he published a volume of poetry in 1934).

A parody of Time he put together at Harvard caught Luce’s eye, and he scored not only a job in the depths of the Depression but a good one. Still, he was one of the least square of Luce pegs. The writer Robert Coles described his arrival:

As Luce and his magazine were moving into the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan,” Coles writes, “the legend of James Agee was becoming known to the literary community of Manhattan: the enormously talented writer who drank a lot, slept around, and who would write while listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so loudly and so often that people worried whether the Chrysler Building would withstand the orchestral blasts.   

At Time, in the 1940s, he reviewed up to six books a week in addition to his film criticism. “The back of the book,” as the non-news hole in the magazine was called, belonged to Agee and Whittaker Chambers, then on the verge of becoming an anti-Communist icon, via past as a Communist and chief accuser of State Department official Alger Hiss.

For several years, through 1948, Agee doubled as film critic for The Nation and became widely praised as the best in the country. Two decades before Pauline Kael “intellectualized” film criticism in The New Yorker, Agee’s reviews have proven more durable than many of the films he saw. of Preston Sturges’ Miracle At Morgan’s Creek (1944), he gave readers the whole thing in a paragraph. It was, he wrote,

a little like taking a nun on a roller coaster. Its ordinary enough subject—the difficulties of a small-town girl, pregnant, without a husband—is treated with the catnip giddiness to be expected from Writer-Director Preston Sturges. . . . The chief failures are his, too. Some of the fun is painfully unfunny, because it is like a joker who outroars his audience’s reaction. Some of the pity is not pitiful because it is smashed before it has a chance to crystallize. Most of the finest human and comic potentialities of the story are lost because Sturges is so much less interested in his characters than in using them as hobbyhorses for his own wit.

Agee went Hollywood himself, gaining credits for the screenplays of The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter in 1955. He freelanced everywhere; a 1949 Life piece revived the careers and reputations of silent film stars Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd just as television was beginning to push them into the archives.

He married three times and carried on countless affairs. He chain-smoked and drank in the Faulkner/Dylan Thomas weight class. His  obituary for D.W. Griffith could have been his own:

He was at his best just short of his excesses, and he tended in general to work out toward the dangerous edge.

But his prose had a mesmerizing quality that only improved as he aged. His essay, Knoxville: Summer of 1915, was set to music by Samuel Barber; Aaron Copland turned Let Us Now Praise Famous Men into the opera, The Tender Land (1954).

Agree suffered a heart attack in 1951. A second one, in a New York cab on the way to a doctor’s appointment, killed him. He was 45. His novel, A Death in the Family, drew on his childhood. Published posthumously, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1957.

This is how he remembered it:

Supper was at six and was over by half past. There was still daylight, shining softly and with a tarnish, like the lining of a shell; and the carbon lamps lifted at the corners were on in the light, and the locusts were started, and the fire flies were out, and a few frogs were flopping in the dewy grass, by the time the fathers and the children came out.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #James Agee

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