Agee + Evans // Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
A friend recently recommended to me Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans.
They sent on assignment by Fortune magazine to profile sharecroppers in the South in 1936, and the book is a detailed portrait of the people they encounter there, with musings on the systemic causes, what it means to be there as outsiders on assignment for a magazine, what art means, how it falls short of ever doing justice to human life, etc.
There are some remarkable passages – many of which remind me a bit of David Foster Wallace’s emotional run on insights. The detail can be excruciating and slow and sometimes feel too drawn out, but that is part of the point, to capture and try to do justice, knowing it will fail short.
Some of my favorite bits:
They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than for me. The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet. That impulse took hold of me so powerfully, from my whole body, not by thought, that I caught myself from doing it exactly and as scarcely as you snatch yourself from jumping from a sheer height: here, with the realization that it would have frightened them still worse (to say nothing of me) and would have been still less explicable; so that I stood and looked into their eyes and loved them, and wished to God I was dead.
A man and a woman are drawn together upon a bed and there is a child and there are children:
First they are mouths, then they become auxiliary instruments of labor: later they are drawn away, and become the fathers and mothers of children, who shall become the fathers and mothers of children:
Their father and their mother before them were, in their time, the children each of different parents, who in their time were each children of parents:
This has been happening for a long while: its beginning was before stars:
It will continue for a long while: no one knows where it will end:
While they are still drawn together within one shelter around the center of their parents, these children and their parents together compose a family:
This family must take care of itself; it has no mother or father: there is no other shelter, nor resource, nor any love, interest, sustaining strength or comfort, so near, nor can anything happy or sorrowful that comes to anyone in this family possibly mean to those outside it what it means to those within it: but it is, as I have told, inconceivably lonely, drawn upon itself as tramps are drawn round a fire in the cruelest weather; and thus and in such loneliness it exists among other families, each of which is no less lonely, nor any less without help or comfort, and is likewise drawn in upon itself:
Such a family lasts, for a while: the children are held to a magnetic center:
Then in time the magnetism weakens, both of itself in its tiredness of aging and sorrow, and against the strength of the growth of each child, and against the strength of pulls from outside, and one by one the children are drawn away:
Of those that are drawn away, each is drawn elsewhere toward another: once more a man and a woman, in a loneliness they are not liable at that time to notice, are tightened together upon a bed: and another family has begun:
Moreover, these flexions are taking place every where, like a simultaneous motion of all the waves of the water of the world: and these are the classic patterns, and this is the weaving, of human living: of whose fabric each individual is a part: and of all parts of this fabric let this be borne in mind:
Each is intimately connected with the bottom and the extremest reach of time:
Each is composed of substances identical with the substance of all that surrounds him, both the common objects of his disregard, and the hot centers of stars:
All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe:
So that how it can be that a stone, a plant, a star, can take on the burden of being; and how it is that a child can take on the burden of breathing; and how through so long a continuation and cumulation of the burden of each moment one on another, does any creature bear to exist, and not break utterly to fragments of nothing: these are matters too dreadful and fortitudes too gigantic to meditate long and not forever to worship:
The Gudgers’ and Woods’ houses are solidly of the tenant type and were that when they were new and first built The Ricketts, living in sight of Woods a few hundred yards further up the road, occupy an entirely different sort of place: that is, a house which was originally the property of the man who lived in it, a small-farmer, not a tenant, and designed and constructed in the order of his class. Whereas, for instance, their houses are of the simplest kind of expanded crate construction imaginable, and are low in proportion to their ground space, and are made of knotty lumber which has never been painted or even whitewashed, this Ricketts home is built as an ordinary lower-middle-class frame house is, and simulates both solidity to the earth and the height and bulk of a second floor which it lacks, and the exterior wood is still rubbed with the last dust and scalings of a dull yellow paint with chocolate trim. Moreover, and again as they are not, it is overhung by two strong large shade trees, and there is a flowering bush in the rubbed, bare, and large though shapeless yard; the barn, though it is now shattered into the look of makeshift and weathered white silver, is barn-size, with actual stalls and a hayloft; and beyond the far side of the house there is a wide pit of rocks and rotted planks surrounding a narrower shaft,…at the bottom of this shaft, the scummed and sullen glitter of a former well, and behind the house another pit and other rotted planks and a sudden violent spume of weeds where there was once a privy: in fact, a very different and at first glance more prosperous type of establishment; but this man, whoever he may have been, evidently lost his house and land, however much he may have cared for and tried to keep it, and probably by foreclosure, and in all probability to the Margraves brothers, who now own it, and who drew most of their twenty-six hundred acres from beneath the feet of just such families and by just such careful observation of the letter of the law: and this regardless of the fact that it was from just such a family of small-farmers that they themselves came: so now the house and land are let to tenants; and for four years the tenants have been Fred Ricketts and his family.
Animals are fed and cared for in proportion to their usefulness: the cow and mule and hogs first, then the dogs, et cetera. Cats are casually but thoroughly disliked and are given nothing; they are never fed, far less caressed; yet their presence and certain forms of theft are tolerated. Or again: dogs are never kindly touched by adults, unless they are puppies; the children play with them in the usual mixed affection and torture; the Gudgers feed Rowdy rather irregularly from their plates, seldom with a floor plate of his own; the Ricketts put down a plate for their dogs; the cats grab what they can at the end of a meal or from the dogs’ plate. Children are very casually reproved, after the screaming has become noisy enough, for mistreatment of kittens; dogs, if they blunder into the way or are slow in obeying an order, are kicked hard enough to crack their ribs, and, in that manner which has inspired man to call them, in competition only with his mother, his best friend, offer their immediate apologies; the sickness or suffering in sickness or death of any animal which has no function as food or power goes almost unnoticed, though not at all unkindly so.
This hearing and seeing of a complex music in every effect and in causes of every effect and in the effects of which this effect will be part cause, and the more than reasonable suspicion that there is at all times further music involved there, beyond the simple equipment of our senses and their powers of reflection and deduction to apprehend, ‘gets’ us perhaps nowhere. One reason it gets us nowhere is that in a very small degree, yet an absolute one so far as each of us is capable, we are already there: and we take another step still closer when we realize that the symmetry and the disease are identical. In this small but absolute degree then, we are already there. That is one strong argument in favor of art which proves and asserts nothing but which exists, as has been dangerously guessed at, for its own sake. (It could also be said of ‘problem’ art that severe and otherwise insolvable human and spiritual problems are solved in every performance of, or for that matter in the silent existence of, say, Beethoven’s quartet Opus 131.) It is a still stronger part of an argument, which, I grant, cannot apply on all ‘levels’ in all contexts, against art of any sort from the most ‘pure’ to the most diluted or the most involved in matters supposedly irrelevant to art How many, not only of the salient and obvious but more particularly of the casual passages in our experience, carry a value, joy, strength, validity, beauty, wholeness, radiance, of which we must admit not only that they equal in their worthiness as a part of human experience, and of existence, the greatest works of art but, quite as seriously, that the best art quite as powerfully as the worst manages, in the very process of digesting them into art, to distort, falsify and even to obliterate them.
Without any qualification and if necessary with belligerence I respect and believe in even the most supposedly ‘fantastic’ works of the imagination. I am indeed ready to say, because with fair consistency I believe, that works of the imagination (chiefly because* in a certain degree they create something which has never existed before, they add to and somewhat clarify the sum total of the state of being, whereas the rest of the mind’s activity is merely deductive, descriptive, acquisitive or contemplative) advance and assist the human race, and make an opening in the darkness around it, as nothing else can. But art and the imagination are capable of being harmful, and it is probably neither healthy for them nor, which is more to the point, anywhere near true even to the plainest facts, to rate them so singly high. It seems to me there is quite as considerable value (to say nothing of joy) in the attempt to see or to convey even some single thing as nearly as possible as that thing is. I grant the clarifying power in this effort of the memory and the imagination: but they are quite as capable of muddying as of clearing the water and frequently indeed, so frequently that we may suspect a law in ambush, they do both at the same time, clouding in one way the thing they are clearing in another.
George Gudger is a human being, a man, not like any other human being so much as he is like himself. I could invent incidents, appearances, additions to his character, background, surroundings, future, which might well point up and indicate and clinch things relevant to him which in fact I am sure are true, and important, and which George Gudger unchanged and undecorated would not indicate and perhaps could not even suggest. The result, if I was lucky, could be a work of art But somehow a much more important, and dignified, and true fact about him than I could conceivably invent, though I were an inimitably better artist than I am, is that fact that he is exactly, down to the last inch and instant, who, what, where, when and why he is. He is in those terms living, right now, in flesh and blood and breathing, in an actual part of a world in which also, quite as irrelevant to imagination, you and I are living. Granted that beside that fact it is a small thing, and granted also that it is essentially and finally a hopeless one, to try merely to reproduce and communicate his living as nearly exactly as possible, nevertheless I can think of no worthier and many worse subjects of attempt.
The same seems to me true of every item in the experience of which I am speaking, and I could say it with equal sincerity of conviction of all human experience. Moreover, and especially if you bear in mind such structures as those of disease and symmetry I sketched out a little, I cannot see how such a piece of work could be small in intensity, ‘truth,’ complex richness and stature of form and nature, as compared with a work of art. Calling for the moment everything except art Nature, I would insist that everything in Nature, every most casual thing, has an inevitability and perfection which art as such can only approach, and shares in fact, not as art, but as the part of Nature that it is; so that, for instance, a contour map is at least as considerably an image of absolute ‘beauty’ as the counterpoints of Bach which it happens to resemble. I would further insist that it would do human beings, including artists, no harm to recognize this fact, and to bear it in mind in their seining of experience, and to come as closely as they may be able, to recording and reproducing it for its own, not for art’s sake.
The momentary suspension of disbelief is perhaps (and perhaps not) all very well for literature and art: but it leaves literature and art, and it leaves an attempt such as this, in a bad hole. It means that anything set forth within an art form, ‘true’ as it may be in art terms, is hermetically sealed away from identification with everyday ‘reality.’ No matter how strong and vivid it may be, its strength and vividness are not of that order which, in the open air of our actual, personal living, we draw in every time we breathe. Even at its very best it is make believe, requiring the killing insult of ‘suspension of disbelief? because it is art. This is in some degree true even of the most ‘real’ writing I know. It is simply impossible for anyone, no matter how high he may place it to do art the simple but total honor of accepting and believing it in the terms in which he accepts and honors breathing, lovemaking, the look of a newspaper, the street he walks through. If you think of that a little while, and have any respect for art and for what it is or should be capable of if it is to be held worthy of its own existence, that is a crucially serious matter.
And yet is there any good reason why socalled art cannot without any complicated wrench of the mind, be accepted as living, as telling of the living ‘truth,’ so long as art meets you halfway, and tries to tell of nothing else?*
When, in talk with a friend, you tell him, or hear from him, details of childhood, those details are perhaps even more real to you than in your solitary memory; and they are real and exciting to both of you in a way no form of art can be, or anyhow is. He is accepting what you say as truth, not fiction. You in turn, and the truth you are telling, are conditioned in some degree by his personality—you are in part, and he knows you are in part, selecting or inventing toward his color—but your whole effort, at which you both may be willing and interested to spend a great deal of time, is to reduce these half-inventions more and more towards the truth. The centrally exciting and important fact, from which ramify the thousand others which otherwise would have no clear and valid existence, is: that was the way it was. What could be more moving, significant or true: every force and hidden chance in the universe has so combined that a certain thing was the way it was.
And why is it that, written, these facts lose so much of their force and reality. Partly the writer’s doing: as part-artist he feels the strength of need to select and invent.* Also, he is not aware that the truth is more important than any pretty he he may tell. And partly the reader’s doing: he is so used to the idea that art is a fiction that he can’t shake himself of it And partly the whole weight of art tradition, the deifying of the imagination. All right, go ahead and deify it: I will grant that it is responsible for every great work in any art. What of it! Must it therefore interfere with still another way of seeing and telling of still another form of the truth which is in its own way at least as sound? Is there such a cleavage between the ‘scientific’ and the ‘artistic’? Isn’t every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn’t there a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?
It is for the clothing, and for the food, and for the shelter, by these to sustain their lives, that they work Into this work and need, their minds, their spirits, and their strength are so steadily and intensely drawn that during such time as they are not at work, life exists for them scarcely more clearly or in more variance and seizure and appetite than it does for the more simply organized among the animals, and for the plants. This arduous physical work, to which a consciousness beyond that of the simplest child would be only a useless and painful encumbrance, is undertaken without choice or the thought of chance of choice, taught forward from father to son and from mother to daughter; and its essential and few returns you have seen: the houses they live in; the clothes they wear: and have still to see, and for the present to imagine, what it brings them to eat; what it has done to their bodies, and to their consciousness; and what it makes of their leisure, the pleasures which are made available to them. I say here only: work as a means to other ends might have some favor in it, even which was of itself dull and heartless work, in which one’s strength was used for another man’s benefit: but the ends of this work are absorbed all but entirely into the work itself, and in what little remains, nearly all is obliterated; nearly nothing is obtainable; nearly all is cruelly stained, in the tensions of physical need, and in the desperate tensions of the need of work which is not available.