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BOOKS & THE CULTURE In Praise of James Agee SUSANAY Walker Evans and James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Harry Ransom Center University of Texas-Austin November 2 December 12 henever I drive from New York City to my parent’s house in sub urban New Jersey, I inadvertently retrace the path of my family’s economic history: the crowded tenements of Newark where my parents grew up give way to the duplexes of bluecollar suburbs such as Bloomfield or Irvington before yielding to the singlefamily track homes in the town where I was raised. Just west of Newark, as the Garden State Parkway winds past an enormous public housing high-rise, I wonder what my family was spared by reaching the middle-class when they did. From the highway, I can see plastic toys and old furniture crowding some of the project’s balconies. Laundry hangs from railings. But what do I know of the people inside? My parents’ description of tenement hardships comes from a place that seems a million miles away from the projects. The scant media attention focused on the plight of today’s urban poor tells me to pity or fear them. How could a few thousand words of even the most incisive description and quotes, offer me little more than a glimpse of their lives from my driver’s side window? In July 1936, a writer for Fortune magazine and a photographer on loan from the Farm Security Administration stopped along the rural roads of Hale County, Alabama, to report on the no less mysterious and difficult lives of sharecroppers. Out of what was supposed to be a magazine essay on tenant farming, they created a classic study in extended perception and compassion. James Agee was a 27-year-old poet-journalist who exhibited “a faint rubbing of Harvard and Exeter,” according to Walker Evans, the photographer who accompanied him on that trip. For six weeks, the two lived with three families documenting what Agee called their “unimagined existence”from what they ate and where they worked, to how they slept and talked. Fortune rejected Agee’s piece, so he expanded the article into a book. In 1941, Houghton Mifflin published a more than 400-page version entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evan’s photographs appeared without captions in an uninterrupted sequence at the beginning of the book. Musicians and rock critics often point out the lackluster sales, yet incredible significance of bands such as the Velvet Underground. According to legend, the Velvet Underground’s first album sold a little more than a few hundred copiesbut everyone who bought it went out and started a band. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men might be the literary equivalent. The first edition sold fewer than 600 copies, yet by 1960, when a second edition was published, the New York Herald Tribune hailed it “the most famous unknown book in contemporary letters.” My copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men \(the Ballantine Pocket Book edition the book in an envelope because three sections have separated from the spine. Purple ink stains the upper corners of many pages. A photographer I used to live with left it on my bookshelf; a poet took the book down and read it to me at night. I don’t have much to say to either one of them anymore, but I remain in dialogue with Agee’s complicated prose and stunning capacity for compassion and introspection. From its very title with its enigmatic punctuation, the section \(On the Porch2: gives the reader a sense of Agee’s willingness to experiment. What follows provides a typical example of his prose. The chapter begins with the simple statement: “We lay on the front porch.” Then Agee takes off into thick description of everything from the planks on the porch itself to the “beds” offered to the journalists \(the rear seat of a Chevrolet sedan and well as their drawbacks \(“The problem with the autoseat was its height on one various but limited possibilities for comfort \(“Sleeping on your belly, you made sustaining springs of your feet, and this was slightly and invariably reminiscent continues for another 26 pages through a Zen-like exploration of consciousness itself \(an “illusion of personal wholeness on farming that spins away into musings on the imagination, realism, and the impossibility of representing anything \(“facts lose so much of their force and less digression on landscape; a declaration of political tendencies \(“I am a communist finally retuning to the porch itself. But Agee’s work reads less like selfindulgence and more like the product of his reverence for his subject. “I am being made witness to matters no human being may see he writes before embarking on a careful inventory of each tenant family’s home. His exacting reportage extends under headings such as: “The front of the house; its general structure;” “The front of the house: The facade;” “The room beneath the house;” “The hallway/Structure of four rooms;” 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER .11/19/04