Floyd Burroughs’s Workshoes, Hale County, Alabama, 1936. Gelatin silver print. Library of Congress “Odors/ Bareness and space;” and “The Front Bedroom: General: placement of furniture?’ His meticulous description of a kitchen table set for supper spans nearly two pages: The yellow and green checked oilcloth is worn thin and through at the corners and along the edges of the table and along the ridged edges of boards in the table surface, and in one or two places, where elbows have rested a great deal, it is rubbed through with a wide hole. Marx taught Agee that material conditionsour homes and possessions, our work and toolsdefine our lives. Poetry taught him about symbolic imagery. \(Two years before heading to Alabama with Evans, Agee won the prestigious Yale logue that Agee cautions serious readers to skip entirely, he writes: “Ultimately it is intended that this record and analysis be exhaustive, with no detail, however trivial it may seem left untouched…” So a table represents the harsh lives of the people who sit around it. The calls of animals across the night become a symbol for a human longing: In the sound of these foxes, if they were foxes, there was… joy and… grief There was the frightening joy of hearing the world talk to itself and the grief of incommunicability. Walker Evans recalls that Agee hardly rested during their six weeks in Alabama. Evans saw this as a sign of Agee’s determination to bear witness: He must not have slept. He was driven to see all he could of the families’ day, starting, of course, at dawn. Anyone who has ever practiced yoga or meditation knows how difficult it is “to be present”to stop the mind’s incessant wanderings, its cataloguing of worries, its trips between the past and future, in order to simply acknowledge all of the sensory information coming in around you. Stop reading this essay and write down three things you see, hear, smell, and can feel at this momentand you might begin to have an inkling of what goes by you unnoticed. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men directs our gaze to both the particular and the global. Agee zooms in on miniscule and intimate characteristicsthe pockets of a man’s overallsthen pans out to consider the whole country around him. \(Later, he would put those cinematographic skills to use writing astute film criticism and screenplays for such acclaimed films as He even interrogates his own work and the act of reporting, conscious of the fact that his mere presence would alter the lives of his subjects. Agee’s awareness comes out of a moral imperative. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men opens with an epigraph from King Lear: Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? 0! I have ta’en Too little care of this! Take physick, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou may’st shake the super flux to them, And show the heavens more just. When I consider those high-rise housing projects that frame my drives through central New Jersey, I worry that we continue to “take too little care.” There’s much we can still learn from James Agee. As dusk falls, I think of him curling up against that old auto-seat on a tenant farmer’s front porch, refusing to fall asleep, calling out into the darkness of those “unimagined lives,” listening. Susan Briante is a poet and essayist who writes about the relationship between cultural memory and place. She lives in Austin. 11/19/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27
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