I could have bought my own copy of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in the past eight years—whenever I’m in a bookstore I head straight for the A’s, looking for other books by James Agee there, new volumes that he came back from the grave to write. But usually there’s only another copy or two of that muscular paperback, the pale green of the spine greeting me like a friend with whom I’ve shared countless late nights and secrets. And I always think of buying it, nine or so bucks for a used copy of my own. So I flip it open, scan the pages. And they’re untouched. No creased corners or underlines my friend Meredith made during class:
the eyes of a trapped wild animal, or of a furious angel nailed to the ground by its wings, or however else one may faintly designate the human ‘soul,’ that which is angry, that which is wild, that which is untamable, that which is healthful and holy, that which is competent of all advantaging within hope of human dream, that which is most marvelous and most precious . . .
No lines that I’ve marked, and copied and recopied into my own journals since adopting (seizing, really) the loaner.
And somehow, between the years and the pages, my own story has been seared into this volume. Within the leaves of Agee’s story, another narrative is woven from photos, postcards, plane tickets, a piece of California Madrone tree bark. Vital scraps stuck between these pages—the ultimate safe-keeping place—an impeccable record is kept of who I was.
A Frida Kahlo postcard from an exhibit I attended on my twenty-third birthday in a new city, wide-eyed and eager. A letter from my sister when we lived three thousand miles away from each other: “This weather reminds me of last winter and how lucky we were to spend it together.” And over the face of the first portrait in Walker Evans’ series, a sticky note: a website and number of a student loan agency, to whom I owe money, likely for the rest of my life. I’ve never called the number. There’s a receipt from 2008, a Japanese restaurant in Seattle, a city I’d never been to before. The numbers have started to fade away, but I remember the dinner perfectly: I had just graduated from college, was with adults and pretending to be one too. I was young enough to want to feel older. I teetered on the brink—of the world and what I would be in it. The sun set orange over the water and the warm June breeze sighed through it and I took a breath, found a home, in that.
In 1936, Fortune Magazine sent twenty-six-year-old journalist James Agee and photographer Walker Evans to Alabama to document the lifestyles of southern sharecroppers in the wake of FDR’s New Deal. Agee arrived in Alabama as an apologetic outsider, a native Southerner living as a journalist in New York. In his resulting document, he recognizes the invasive nature of his work. He trips over himself to explain himself to his subjects, some of whom are families of six who are lucky to clear any profit at all after a year of work, many remaining in debt to the land owners: “The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and kiss their feet . . . I stood and looked into their eyes and loved them, and wished to God I was dead.”
Agee names himself a spy, admits that he may be clumsy in his endeavor due to either his youth or lack of talent. But, he tells his audience: those limitations are the only reason we will survive what we’re about to read: “If I were [capable], you would not go near it at all. For if you did, you would hardly bear to live.” He notes that a book is far from the most effective means of narrative, and that he’d rather collect photos, cloth, cotton, earth, excrement, but “a piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”
Agee’s account was ultimately rejected by Fortune, and his findings eventually took the shape of the four-hundred-page Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It sold 600 copies upon its release in 1941. An alcoholic, Agee died of a heart attack at forty-five. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel A Death in the Family posthumously, and his writing on film is credited with influencing contemporary film criticism. A Chicago Tribune book reviewer said of Agee, over twenty years after his death, that he was “bent on achieving magnificent goals that he was never able to define, even to himself.”
Once I started to absorb the prose, Famous Men revealed itself as a sacred road map, a compass, 400-page limb, because I was twenty-two and looking for all of those, anything. I was an American who had spent the entirety of my adolescence with George W. Bush in office, and I had spent my college career studying in detail all the ways in which the world will end, and soon. I felt pummeled by the reactionary irony of the age, and the naked sincerity of Agee’s prose seemed to appear from another world, one where humans could reliably hold onto a truth: Human beings may be more and more aware of being awake, but they are still incapable of not dreaming.
This dog-eared and underlined copy that I’ve carried for thousands of miles belongs to Meredith. She lent it to me eight years ago when we shared the Vermont yard where I first read it. Our yard was in the town where Meredith and I built ourselves out of Saturdays at bookstores and record shops, at sticky-floored house shows and over coffee at our own kitchen table. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men had been assigned in her journalism class during our last semester. “You need to read this,” she said, and pressed it into my palm. I’d never heard of it, didn’t consider the South or the Great Depression among my obsessions, which included the rebellions of Lou Reed, Joan Didion’s New Journalism and the student uprisings of 1968. But I picked it up and was immediately awed by its power. Agee’s voice seemed at once commanding and pleading: “This is not a work of art or entertainment, nor will I assume the obligations of the artist or entertainer, but is a human effort which must require human co-operation.” This plea struck me as simultaneously brazen and humble: an artist begging to be heard, and a human issuing a simple appeal for communication.
As far as rebellion was concerned, it was Agee’s own, as his collaborator and friend Walker Evans noted, that was “infinitely costly and ultimately priceless.”
Meredith and I had become friends the minute we met. We were both transfer students as sophomores, and had each taken a year off after high school. We were both aspiring English majors, had been the youngest in our class growing up, and Meredith was from the same small town in New Hampshire where I’d spent every summer as a kid. It seemed like fate that we’d both found rooms in the same apartment through an online message board. Soon after starting classes, we each joined the college radio station, and during our graveyard shifts sent our T. Rex albums echoing across the quiet campus into the darkness of a Vermont winter. Meredith would school me in the New Wave cinema that she’d been studying in her film class, and when I dropped everything to read ahead in White Noise for Postmodern Literature, I wouldn’t let up until she read it too. We spent weekend afternoons watching Jules and Jim and the nights trying to live out the romance we’d witnessed. The boys we drank cheap beer with on Friday nights were too nice to try anything, even when we wanted them to. But it didn’t really matter that they failed us; we had each other.
In describing his interactions with the sharecropping families, Agee employs an unlikely phrase for a man bent on describing every object he encounters and experience he has: “What’s the use of trying to say what I felt.” With this, he seems to concede that the world continues on, and we are only observers. The more audacious among us will be moved to chronicle what we’ve seen and tell the world what we think of it: a shout into the wind.
I recognized the terror and urgency in Agee’s prose as my own in post-adolescence, the knowledge that we’re racing against our own imminent ends to leave a mark, the bar of success or satisfaction with one’s own output residing somewhere above the clouds. Like Agee, I was bent on achieving magnificent goals that I couldn’t define even to myself. I couldn’t be bothered with envisioning a career, but at twenty-two I knew I’d become the voice of my generation, and achieve transcendence while living a life of moral purity: all of which would be tidily dismissed by Agee himself as “the frightening vanity of . . . would-be purity.” And yet, Agee’s own debilitating self-doubt resonated deeply, as I would venture it does with many young writers: “If I had as much confidence about writing as I have intention, everything might be much easier. I feel the well-known prison walls distinctly thickening.”
And so I decided I wanted the narrative of my own life to be as breathless and messy as Agee’s document. After graduation, I left Vermont first for California, then Portland, on to Michigan, Thailand and finally Boston. My copy of Famous Men is my perennial constant, always the first thing I pack. Its presence reminds me that I have a tangible history, as the scene and characters in my own life constantly change. Like Agee, I became a voyeur, a perpetual tourist, a restless observer. The years grew into a sticky tangle of self-doubt, late nights, cross-country moves, calls from collection agencies, boys who left me wanting, blind hope and a despair that felt like home. I found it preferable to the alternative of inertia, or security. “A little too much,” as Agee said, “is just enough for me.”
I’m thirty-two now, and sometimes the book feels too precious to open, with its prose like lace that seems it will crack and break if I touch it. What if I lift open the cover to find that it’s changed, that I can no longer find a truth in there? In the intervening years, I’ve made compromises with myself to make money. I check Instagram too often. I’ve grown infinitely weary of the blustery brand of mid-century White Male Genius that Agee so expertly personified. After all those long work days, all those rent checks and regularly occurring heartbreaks, I became too busy and distracted to hold fast to Agee’s declaration of the human soul, my own and those of everyone I’d met and everyone I’d never meet, as “angry, wild, untamable, healthful, holy, competent, marvelous and most precious.” I had fiercely believed in that fiery and sacred soul, my own, and that I would never be buried by something as obscene as a gross yearly income. But I still find Agee’s prose remarkable in its tenderness, and my own compassion is renewed by it. Today, like every other day, I’m buried under the news again: Another unarmed American body on the ground. Police weapons. The tears of a mother. The smirk of a congressman.
So I click ‘retweet’ on the more toothsome pronouncements of rage and grief I encounter.
What’s the use of trying to say what I felt.
I wonder now if Agee was consumed with fear for the future of his nation, in his America of the Great Depression. Or if he acknowledged the tragedies of his America as merely the usual turn of the imperial gears, and saw his style of journalism as a means of disruption. Agee viewed the sharecroppers he lived with as being grossly exploited by an insidious system that had willfully consumed their humanity. Reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men eighty years since Agee reported from Alabama, it becomes too evident that contemporary America has not moved to lessen systemic oppression by poverty. Agee’s sharecroppers still exist, in varied iterations: uninsured caregivers, migrant workers, single parents working multiple jobs and faced with eviction notices. Meanwhile, I have become concerned primarily, it seems, with satisfying the demands of my student loan debt and utility bills. I worry my senses have dulled, my fire dimmed by a full-time preoccupation with economic self-preservation in a country that won’t forgive me if I let up. So I return to the text to be re-ignited by Agee’s prose, so that I might burn a little brighter, a little truer.
On a recent afternoon in James Agee Park in Knoxville, Tennessee, I walked beneath the magnolia trees, the hot breeze my only companion. Knoxville honored Agee in 2012 with the dedication of the park in his memory on the street he was born, now also named for him. The park is a tidy, deep green acre, and I rounded it a few times, listening to the hum of August in Knoxville, imagining Agee languishing in that same hum as a boy. The whole memory of the South in its six-thousand mile parade and flowering outlay of the facades of cities, and of the eyes in the streets of towns, and of hotels, and of the trembling heat . . .
Consumed by the power of his life and work, and faced again with the question of my own, the tears that sprung to my eyes while I ambled through the park surprised me: was I crying for Agee’s short life, and the way that his work meandered through me like an river for my entire adulthood? Or was it that as I neared another birthday, I was grasping onto a youthful integrity while I watched it slip further away from me? A stone leading to the entrance of the park is engraved with Agee’s words: “To those who in all times have sought truth and who have told it in their art or their living.” The letters themselves are staid and simple, as if the sentiment behind them ever could be. I slipped through the gate and out of the park.
In the opening section of Famous Men, Agee references Beethoven’s proclamation that one who understood his music could never know unhappiness again. “I believe it,” he says. “And I would be a liar and a coward and one of your safe world if I should fear to say the same words of my best perception, and of my best intention.” When I reread the passage after visiting the park, I knew that’s what had sparked my tears. I had spent my life treading in the murky cognitive dissonance that the vicious cynicism of American late capitalism demands: we were allegedly bestowed the chance to accrue so much wealth that we’d never feel any pain, but everything hurt. It had become increasingly clear that the state didn’t care if we financially survived a sick day or a bike accident, which seemed benevolent compared to the deportations and sanctioned killings. With no god or religion to explain away the nihilist hubris devouring my era, Agee became my prophet of sorrow and compassion, and his voice became a crucial portal to something like grace. Small wonder how pitiably we love our home, cling in her skirts at night, rejoice in her wide star-seducing smile, when every star strikes us sick with fright: do we really exist at all?
“I finally bought my own copy. For the second time.” Meredith tells me last spring. We’ve known each other for a decade now, and she’s more family than friend at this point. Our conversation is like a drive home through familiar wooded back roads, and Agee remains a guiding landmark. I smile sheepishly at my blatant pilferage of her property. Meredith lives in Washington state now, where I send her a quote from another book I just read, scribbled on the back of a postcard: “Acquaintances return books. Friends never do.”
She recently visited my yard, across the country from hers. It was a warm May night like the ones we used to share together, when we might rouse friends to throw off all of our clothes and ride our bikes through town naked at midnight, the delicious taste of freedom on our tongues. We didn’t know then just how rarefied it was. Now we wake up early for work, pledge allegiance to the twenty-two year olds we were, and attempt to map lives under different constellations. But the leaves still swing in the dark with the breeze and the lilacs are in bloom again.
(We lay on the front porch:
Emily May is an artist and writer. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where she sings Warren Zevon at Karaoke. Her writing and illustrations have appeared in espnW, the Hairpin, and the Billfold, among other venues.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.