James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, Shorter Fiction, edited by Michael Sragow. Library of America, 2005; $75; 748 pages; 818 pages
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
VOLUME ONE: A passionate literary innovator, eloquent in language and uncompromising in his social observation and his pursuit of emotional truth, James Agee (1909-1955) excelled as novelist, critic, journalist, and screenwriter. In his brief, often turbulent life, he left enduring evidence of his unwavering intensity, observant eye, and sometimes savage wit. This volume collects his fiction along with his extraordinary experiment in what might be called prophetic journalism, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a collaboration with photographer Walker Evans that began as an assignment from Fortune magazine to report on the lives of Alabama sharecroppers, and that expanded into a vast and unique mix of reporting, poetic meditation, and anguished self-revelation that Agee described as "an effort in human actuality." A 64-page photo insert reproduces Evans's now iconic photographs from the expanded 1960 edition.
A Death in the Family, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that he worked on for over a decade and that was published posthumously in 1957, re-creates Agee's childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the upheaval his family experienced after his father's death in a car accident when Agee was six years old.
This volume also includes The Morning Watch (1951), an autobiographical novella that reflects Agee's deep involvement with religious questions, and three short stories including the remarkable allegory "A Mother's Tale."
VOLUME TWO: James Agee brought to bear all his moral energy, slashing wit, and boundless curiosity in the criticism and journalism that established him as one of the commanding literary voices of America at mid-century. In 1944 W.H. Auden called Agee's film reviews for The Nation "the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today." Those columns, along with much of the movie criticism that Agee wrote for Time through most of the 1940s, were collected posthumously in Agee on Film, undoubtedly the most influential writings on film by an American.
Whether reviewing a Judy Garland musical or a wartime documentary, assessing the impact of Italian neorealism or railing against the compromises in a Hollywood adaptation of Hemingway, Agee always wrote of movies as a pervasive, profoundly significant part of modern life, a new art whose classics (Chaplin, Dovzhenko, Vigo) he revered and whose betrayal in the interests of commerce or propaganda he often deplored. If his frequent disappointments could be registered in acid tones, his enthusiasms were expressed with passionate eloquence. This Library of America volume supplements the classic pieces from Agee on Film, with previously uncollected writings on Ingrid Bergman, the Marx Brothers, Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, Shoeshine , and a wealth of other cinematic subjects.
Agee's own work as a screenwriter is represented by his script for Charles Laughton's unique and haunting masterpiece of Southern gothic, The Night of the Hunter, adapted from the novel by Davis Grubb. This collection also includes examples of Agee's masterfully probing reporting for Fortune -- on subjects as diverse as the Tennessee Valley Authority, commercial orchids, and cockfighting -- and a sampling of his literary reviews, among them appreciations of William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, S.J. Perelman, and William Carlos Williams.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Washington Post: These two volumes of the Library of America cap Agee's long progress upward. They contain virtually everything that an ordinary reader might want to read, excepting the marvelous self-portrait of the young artist contained in the Letters to Father Flye (posthumously published in 1962). On the other hand, editor Michael Sragow compensates for this omission by adding a hundred pages of hitherto uncollected movie reviews, as well as a choice selection of book pieces. Library Journal: Volume 2 is a sumptuous gathering of film reviews originally published in The Nation and Time, as well as some that have not appeared in previous collections. The range of these pieces is impressive, covering movies as varied as Lifeboat, The Song of Bernadette, and The Enchanted Cottage and focusing on every film personality imaginable; all of them bear the imprint of Agee's distinctive analytical and literary style. Additional works include the renowned essay on silent film comedy that appeared in Life , as well as literary reviews, reportage on subjects from orchids to cockfighting, and a screenplay for Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter. The accompanying notes and chronology are quite helpful.
ABOUT THE EDITOR:
Michael Sragow, editor, is the film critic for the Baltimore Sun and author of a forthcoming biography of Victor Fleming. His reviews and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, the San Francisco Examiner, and The New Yorker.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE EDITOR:
Editor Michael Sragow was on his cell phone, seated on an Amtrak Metroliner that was taking him from New York to his home in Baltimore, and I was at home in California, when we talked. Born in 1952 in a hospital in Queens and reared in a small town in Southern Long Island, Sragow left high school a year early to go to New York University's film school. After a year at NYU Professor Sragow transferred to Harvard and studied history and literature. The professor did his thesis in history and literature on John Huston; it was the first undergraduate thesis on a film figure allowed. In 1992 The Harvard Advocate did an Agee commemorative issue and Professor Sragow wrote his first piece about Agee for that publication. Agee, also a Harvard student, was president of The Harvard Advocate .
Agee died in 1955, 45 years old. "He died on almost the same date of the year as did his father, which was freaky. [His father died in an auto accident on May 16, 1916; Agee died also on May 16.] It was the big event of his early life, his father's death, and then he, Agee, has a heart attack in a New York taxicab and dies. But he was still very prominent in people's minds when I was in school. I first read him in high school."
The professor explained that while he still lived at home, his mother, who had been a Navy nurse in World War II, went back to school. On her way to class, she dropped young Sragow in the college library. Sragow, by then a film fan, discovered in that library Agee on Film (published in 1958 and 1960 in two volumes by McDowell & Obolensky -- the second volume contained five of Agee's film scripts).
"The first volume was Film Criticism, and I immediately took that off the shelf and began reading, and it was just thrilling. I hadn't seen many of those movies yet, but he was able to evoke them vividly. They were completely exciting.
"I found Agee's writing much closer to the sensation of actually seeing movies than other writing, and also he was such a great writer. Even if he's not writing about movies, he writes about themes and stories in his other journals and in his fiction.
"Anyway, I just grabbed onto that volume. One of my brothers gave me a copy for my next birthday and I never let go. When I was in film school, he was still a huge topic of conversation, and when I went into Harvard, where I studied history and literature, he was even more so. The 1960 reissue of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men became a huge success, much more of course than the original, which was first published in 1941 and sold 600 copies. He became very important for students of sociology and history. You can't underestimate his influence on journalism.
"He covers the waterfront -- intellectually and emotionally. There were three editors of that Agee Advocate issue; one of them Peter Galassi, who went onto become an authority on still photography."
"It seemed to me when I read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men for the first time that it was Agee more than Truman Capote who 'fathered' what we now call the 'New Journalism.'"
"Oh, absolutely. There is a much more direct influence of Agee on journalists -- he put himself into the middle of the story. But did it in a way that was much more profound than most of the new journalists who followed did."
"Agee's approach to his subjects is so tenderly intimate. He often seems on his very knees before the subject, whether that subject is a person, an object, or an idea."
"Right. He was such a morally aware person. The whole idea of how his presence is affecting the lives of these people whom he's trying to capture in utter loving detail, becomes a huge part of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. That book becomes about his self-discovery and his own discovery of the limits of journalism and of that kind of writing.
"At the same time, Agee's writing never ceases to be about the lives of the people about whom he is writing, which is something that other writers who put themselves into the story often don't get. They think they merely are engaging with the reader in a more direct way, whereas with Agee it was a psychological and theological, architectural dig through all the layers of experience. So it was just a whole other --- it was just amazing."
"It was a form of worship."
"That's true. And of course that can be one of the drawbacks of his writing and that can be what clots it up sometimes. There's something pure about it. Even when you put it down, you want to pick it up again, but you do have to put it down now and then.
"My wife is from mountain country in Kentucky, and although she loves Agee's writing, she always felt that that worshipful part of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in some ways was off-putting to people, who would be too matter-of-fact to make as much of their lives as does Agee. There is the sense that he turns a recognizable rural milieu into something too elevated. But he wrestles with that. That becomes part of what the book is about.
"The deeper you get into that book the more exciting it is because all these issues are being played out. It's brilliant. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a book that shows you whether you love Agee or merely think he's a great writer."
We talked then about the two volumes that Professor Sragow has edited. "In both volumes I tried to give a sense of the whole sway of Agee's career. He did all this writing that people might not know about now. That's one reason I wanted to put some of the shorter journalism in, because he could do these compressed, brief, news briefs that still have their poignancy and all their eloquence --- war-time pieces about the death of FDR and the splitting of the atom."
"Who were the film critics before Agee?"
"A lot of gifted people wrote about film. Vachel Lindsay, famously, who is a poet. Otis Ferguson was a first rate critic; he'd also been a jazz critic. Alistair Cook actually was a good film critic."
"When you were young, did you ever go look at a film and then go home and read what Agee had to say about it?"
"More often, I would read Agee and then hunt out the film; older films weren't as available as they are now."
Professor Sragow started to write about film before he went into film school. "There was a small film magazine published out of the Bleeker Street Cinema, which is no longer there, but in the basement of the Bleeker Street Cinema there was a small magazine called Film Society Review. I had just seen The Wild Bunch  and thought it was the greatest movie ever made. Which I still do. I wrote this long piece defending it, and that was what got me started in film. So there we are."
From 1933 to 1948, Agee, off and on, worked for Time-Life, both for Fortune and Time magazines [where, at the latter, he shared office space with Whittaker Chambers]. I asked, "Do you think that the Luce outfit knew what they had in Agee?"
"They did. Luce himself had been interested in Agee as one of his most naturally gifted writers and, of course, his way of showing that was to try to enroll him in a business school. That's true. When he was at Fortune. And of course Time then had a whole slew of good writers during the Depression."
"I always thought it was so weird, his hanging out with Whittaker Chambers."
"Apparently he liked characters, and Whittaker Chambers certainly was that. We laugh now at the middlebrow aspect of Time, or, people used to laugh at what used to be called 'middlebrow,' for trying to bring culture to the masses. But there was a truly higher aspiration than what they have now.
"So they did know what they had. It was unfortunate that he spent so much of his energy there. The unfortunate part of all that he wrote at Time is that when Time-Life books were still around, they surely should have published an illustrated history of '40s movies and used Agee's reviews as the spine of it.
"It's interesting to go through that stuff. I thought it was important to show how Agee knew about all parts of movies. He knew as much about acting as anybody. Also he was a real World War II home-front writer. Much of what he wrote was about the documentaries that were coming out then. He lavished great attention on them. He was always talking about the importance of capturing the real experience of battle and of the cost of battle. It made you realize that the 24-hour news that we get of contemporary warfare almost devalues its impact. Whereas, if you were in the dark theater [during World War II and soon after] seeing films of battles and the European or the Pacific fronts, it was much more momentous. Agee's writing on those films is a great record of what that was like."
"Why was Agee such a womanizer?"
"I'm not his biographer, and I just don't know. I hope there's a good biography of Agee to come out."
"The first biography --- James Agee: A Life by Laurence Bergreen -- wasn't much."
"It's tough to do first biographies of anybody, but Bergreen did such obvious and bad things -- two of the short stories included in Volume I, which Agee wrote for The Advocate, are cited as if they were diary entries. They're not even labeled as short stories in the index.
"I was reading through it and I saw these passages from these short stories. They were just used as if Agee was saying what happened to him on his summer vacation one year from Harvard. It breaks every rule of biography, or literature for that matter.
"But as to the womanizing, obviously women found Agee very attractive. He was extraordinarily eloquent, he had a great presence. You look at the photos of him and he was obviously a terrifically rugged kind of guy. Now, what he found in each of these relationships with the women...I would like to read more about that from someone who was less automatically appalled by his behavior.
"In his own bohemian way he worked at these relationships. He took various steps to try to save each of his three marriages. The final marriage was the lasting one, even if -- apparently -- he was still womanizing in the midst of it. It seems as if they had some understanding of each other that transcended that. He was out of a bohemian time and lived in places like New York in Greenwich Village, where people were making these statements by living their life that way. It's hard to take it out of context and get very moralistic about it. Everything troubled him morally."
Three years after Agee's father's death in 1916, Agee was enrolled in St. Andrew's School, a boarding school for boys established by the Episcopal Church's Order of the Holy Cross near Sewanee, Tennessee. Agee grew close to Father Flye and his wife. The two corresponded for the remainder of Agee's life. These letters were published in 1961. I asked the professor why he decided not to include the letters in his two volumes.
"Every work that we published we wanted to publish complete, and at that point it was a question of space. Had we had a third volume, that certainly would have been one of the things we would have looked at. I love the letters to Father Flye.
"I felt it was important to get out all of his major fiction. Including the The Morning Watch, which after all was the only major work of fiction he saw to the end. And then the short stories, which are two of the best things he ever wrote, and "The Mother's Tale", which is an amazing parable. And obviously influenced by World War II and the Holocaust and yet not in any stupid simple way. Once you did that, it became, 'Well, there are his other great contributions.' His other great contributions are the film criticism -- his manner of writing film criticism influenced all of the best criticism, that, for instance, of Pauline Kael. He had too a relatively unsung influence on the journalists who followed him and the New Journalism.
"It's funny, one interesting thing about the background to the collection is that it started when I had lunch with Max Rudin, the publisher of the Library of America. He and I went to the same high school. He was the charter member of the cinema club that I'd founded with a great English teacher who was a huge fan of James Agee's. I had lunch with Max and he said, 'You should do Agee for Library of America, and I could edit it for you.'
"We're ripe for the appreciation of Agee. The individual was important to him. Even when he was writing about the mass culture, the individual soul was treasured."