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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 [1969] 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?"

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