James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Central Question: Can you make beauty from another person’s suffering?

James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Leslie Jamison
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Many nights that autumn I went to a bar where the floor was covered with peanut shells, and I drank, and I read James Agee. Liquor carried his trauma all through me, twisted me pliable to the loss, and I wasn’t afraid to think like this— pliable to the loss—because I was drunk, and drunk meant sentiment was not only permissible but imperative.

Turns out Let Us Now Praise Famous Men wasn’t about famous men. It was about bedbugs and mildewed bridal caps and farmhouses like cracked nipples on the land, about a woman Agee might have fucked but didn’t. Also, it was about guilt. Mainly it was about guilt.

Originally, it was a magazine article gone rogue. In 1936, Fortune told Agee to write a piece about sharecroppers in the Deep South, and he gave them a spiritual dark night of the soul instead. They rejected it, and he wrote another four hundred pages. It’s a hard book to classify: it’s got sections that don’t seem to belong together: discussions of cotton prices and denim overalls and the soul as an angel nailed to a cross: it uses colons somewhat like this sentence does: rabidly. It’s so long-winded and beautiful you want to shake it by the bones of its gorgeous shoulders and make it stop. But the difficulty of closure is one of its obsessions: the endlessness of labor and hunger. It’s trying to tell a story that won’t end.

I was trying, at the time I read it, to tell a story of my own. I’d recently returned to America after living in Nicaragua, where I’d been robbed and punched in the face one night, drunk. My nose had been broken, then partly fixed by an expensive surgeon in Los Angeles. I’d moved to New Haven, where it seemed like someone was always getting mugged, and I was afraid to walk alone in the dark. “Nearly all is cruelly stained,” Agee wrote, “in the tensions of physical need.” There’s a notion we absorb about suffering—that it should expand us, render us porous—but this didn’t happen to me. I felt shrunk. Damage became fear. It became an insistence.

So I read Agee thinking about his own guilt when he was supposed to be thinking about three Alabama families, and I thought about myself when I was supposed to be thinking about Agee. I loved getting drunk and getting sad about Agee, because his sadness wasn’t mine. “Tragedy is second-hand,” Faulkner wrote. Families in Alabama hurt more than I ever would, and I could show up at a dingy bar and admit this, and it wasn’t enough but it was something.

Agee felt this about his own book: it wasn’t enough but it was something. He writes of a woman’s daily work in the cotton fields:

…how is it possible to be made clear enough… the many processes of wearying effort which make the shape of each one of her living days… the accumulated weight of these actions upon her; and what this cumulation has made of her body; and what it has made of her mind and of her heart and of her being.

Empathy is contagion. Agee wants his words to stay in us as “deepest and most iron anguish and guilt.” They have stayed; they do stay; they catch as splinters, still, in the open, supplicating palms of this essay. If it were possible, Agee claims, he wouldn’t have used words at all: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.” In this way, we are prepared for the four hundred pages of writing that follow. “A piece of the body torn out by the roots,” he continues, “might be more to the point.”

It doesn’t seem right to say Agee risked sentimentality. Better to say he could smell it from a mile off and clawed his way into it anyway. He thrust it before him like an obscenity, forcing everyone to see how outrage had driven him to the embarrassment of such hyperbole.

On the question of what poverty does to consciousness, though, Agee is merciless—and, for once, succinct: “the brain is quietly drawn and quartered.” His book does the same to its story, slicing it to pieces and putting it back together in fragments stitched together by colons: the house, the dawn, the animals, the men, communism, children. He calls his work “the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.”

“What is,” it seems, was broken, so Agee broke his book to fit. He doesn’t think he’ll do his subjects justice: “I feel sure in advance that any efforts, in what follows, along the lines I have been speaking of, will be failures.” He chokes on his words, interrupted by the commas and clauses of his own apologies. He stutters here. He stutters often.

I found it hard to talk about getting hurt. I kept trying to make it something larger than itself, that single moment in the street, to make it part of a pattern. The easiest pattern was guilt. I could think forever about the man who hit me—how little he had, most likely, and how big a difference it might have made to him to sell my little digital camera wherever he sold my little digital camera, that camera I would have given him easily just to keep his hand from striking my face.

Agee went somewhere to look at poverty, and tried to take the damage onto himself, to strip away its metaphors and get to some clean, torn truth beneath—“the literal feeling by which the words a broken heart are no longer poetic, but are merely the most accurate possible description.” What was broken in me that fall wasn’t poetry. My face wasn’t useful as metaphor or aperture. It was only the accurate description of where a hand had been.

What good is guilt? Agee asked. We ask. We like the sound of the question. It puts a crude finger on a heartbeat in us that won’t stop racing, a pulse broken in sympathy. Agee drank when he wrote and I drank when I read him. Agee threw himself at the feet of his subjects and I couldn’t even bring myself to walk alone at night, with my bone-broken nose and my vodka-flung and fluttering heart. You get drunk—and then you get sentimental, or else you get hit. I told myself there was something dense and meaningful in my fear—an earned experience, the residue of contact, a cruel radiance—but truly there was nothing but my arms crossed over my chest, as I walked on empty streets, and no one coming after me in the dark.

—Leslie Jamison

Families depicted by author: Ricketts, Woods, Gudger; Partial list of objects described: paper flowers, Confederate sword, iron ice-cream chair, postcards showing summer salads, postcards showing bulldogs with monocles, pillows showing the “urine yellow” stain of hair; Author’s description of the taste of water from the Woods family well: “ugly, feathery, full of fever”; Number of bedbugs on author’s mattress during a night spent at the Gudger house: hundreds; Number of bedbugs author imagines: thousands; Number of bedbugs ­author kills: twelve;
Year author won the Pulitzer Prize: 1958; Year author died: 1955

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