Remembering Agee in the time of Despairing America

I first wrote this as a class commentary in Michael Dove's class on Disaster, Degradation, Dystopia in 2008. Then wrote a longer version, based on a re-read of the text, in an ethnography class in 2009. Reworking it as a blogpost now, for I think it speaks to the moment of despair in the metropolitan locus of America.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
- James Agee and Walker Evans

James Agee’s writing on small-farmers in the cotton country of Alabama in southern United States comes across after a second read as war on words, as a war of words. Maybe even a festival of words. And not as much a journalistic or ethnographic account on the lives of poor farming families.

It is ironic that at this unearthly hour in the night, reflecting on Agee’s text and Evans’ images, I find myself listening to an angsty Bangladeshi late teen popstar sing:
            Shobdo tomar dhushor moleen besh
            Bajaar dore bikou doshta haate
            Chhotphote paye elomelo paaychari
            Shobdo ami ghumobo tomar shhatthe.          

                Words, you are dusty, ragged
                You sell yourself in the market in ten hands.
                 Restless footsteps here and there
                 Words, I want to sleep with you.

James Agee portrays a somewhat erotic relationship with the written word in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He challenges all possible norms of publishable writing. He never gets to the point. He rambles, repeats, endlessly expands on a theme or a metaphor. He talks to his audience casually. He talks to his subjects. Casually. He deviates. Meanders.

I skimmed through Agee’s book for a class on the politics of writing in Michael Dove’s class, and vaguely remember the heated arguments about authorial/ethnographic responsibility in that class. Re-reading Agee, keeping in mind the mandate of the class of having to comment on his writing, opened many new windows into Agee’s perspective. I found many parts of the book annoyingly lengthy, unnecessarily descriptive, betraying in many places an adolescent fascination for the ‘literary’.  But Agee’s textual conversation is one that I cannot disaggregate simply as having an argumentative component, an ethnographic component, and a desparingly reflexive component. It is impossible to compartmentalise the literary, the descriptive, the analytical, the babble in Agee’s writing. For it is all of that all at once.

Agee journeyed into Alabama as a young Harvard graduate, in an infant journalistic career in the summer of 1936. He writes in the Preface:
 Page. VIII

Before any acknowledgements, prefatory material, publishers’ paraphernalia are displayed, the book throws at its audience close to two dozen photos taken by Walker Evans. Agee defies the moral fabric of a ‘book’ from the very start.

I strongly disliked the overly self-reflexive early pages in the book where he is flamboyant and yet apologetic for taking on the flippant and artful luxury of writing. About real people. For assuming a certain tenor of moral banter to justify the brutal entry and voyeurism into people’s moral, emotional, aesthetic lives that he undertakes. He adds though a sardonic two pages about the brutality and audacity of the business of books.

What follows is a most gracious inquiry into the experience, if albeit, reified, of being human. He creates beauty in the pathos of the lives of three sharecropping families- Woods, Ricketts and Gudger. Eccentric, exaggerated and disarmingly endearing character. In doing so, he deliberately the questions surrounding ethics of representation. He argues that one would rather border on the fictional/the imaginary, than revel the confidence of reporting ‘fact’. For what is ‘fact’ about a person’s interiority anyway?

He describes in great detail the range of discomfort that is negotiated by him and Evans, their intermediaries and the common people. My favourite part in the book is his account of silent and hostile conversation he and Evans had with a local band that was called in to perform for them.

A good part of the book is divided into the predictable categories in which a predictable ethnography of cotton sharecroppers would have been divided into. Agee talks about their houses, their clothing, their food, their work, their education in separate sub-sections. Almost sardonically. The architecture/ housing section is written in careful detail. Making for almost boring reading. And pushing forth a powerful comment on the aesthetic life of dire poverty. Agee’s unraveling of the aesthetic/material world of these families subtly weaves in a philosophical argument about deprivation and despondency without throwing in any theoretical jargon.

He oscillates between the description of the families’ attempts to aesthetically enact ‘humanity’ within deprivation, and the attempt to script despair, helplessness and daily experiences of shame that inform their lives. He scoffs at pacifist analyses of poverty that pin the experience of deprivation down to a sense of ‘cultural’ comfort of the Other.

I find the most interesting and troubling, the section on labor, where Agee goes to great lengths to describe the mundaneness of physical labor. He describes the action of tilling and planting cotton in great detail, in a way that would invite Marxist enthusiasm. But his overemphasis of the immediacy of hard physical labor seems colored by intellectual romances of livelihoods that involve hard labor. Needless to say, Agee is a victim of bourgoise romance in his intense self-reflexivity, but his quest for the aesthetic and emotional lives of deprivation pan out his canvas making it far wider than the ordinary self-reflexive anthropologist. Does he achieve his goal? I can’t quite say. I sense Agee to be having a parallel goal of expressing his contempt for the ‘written word’. With which he sets out to capture the lifeworld of the Other, all the while knowing that the only thing he can do is weave an aesthetically pleasing account for the introspective metropolitan consumer of published writing. The last few pages of continuous words are meant, I believe, to convey just that. The impossibility of his task. And the aesthetics of impossibility that he takes refuge in.


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