"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: james agee

Agee’s Hidden Treasure

Here’s John Jeremiah Sullivan on James Agee’s Cotton Tenants, a previously unpublished magazine story that would later turn into Agee’s acclaimed book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

BEFORE THE FAMOUS BOOK, there was the essay, the thing Agee and Evans were sent to Alabama for in the first place. It never got published. Agee wrote it at least twenty thousand words longer than Fortune wanted; he turned it in late; the rubric under which it was supposed to run was done away with by editorial higher-ups, etc., etc. Anyone who’s written for magazines will recognize the thousand mystifying in-house obstacles that doom so many pieces. The very manuscript of this was considered lost, until Agee’s middle child and younger daughter, Andrea, found it a decade ago, and The Baffler excerpted it last year. Now, at the age of seventy-seven, it exists in full, published by Melville House with the title Cotton Tenants.

It’s a very different creature from the book. More restrained. More disciplined, overall—perhaps it’s more correct to say, more confident. Cotton Tenants knows its form: the long, weird, quasi-essayistic, documentary-infused magazine piece, a form older than the novel, despite a heritable instinct in critics to continually be calling it New. Agee was pushing the form—that’s partly what makes it exciting to see and read this new book. He was pushing Luce, too, seeing what he could smuggle into Fortune, stylistically, in a Trojan-horse kind of way. Later, writing for himself and Evans, he was willing to go further.

The earlier constraints had both limiting and salutary effects. It’s a smaller, lesser work, but a more perfect one. Prose is like glass in this respect. The bigger you go, the more opportunities for cracks. We cut more ambitious works slack not out of pity but in just measurement. There are places, like pressures, to which you can’t go without a little weakening of the structure. Cotton Tenants is a smaller pane of glass. Very clear. You can see Agee’s influences, in bud form, but you can also see a couple of years’ practice at writing what William Hazlitt called “periodical essays,” pieces that existed under a certain pressure to keep the attention of distracted readers. Agee had become good at it.


Fit to Print

Here is the story of James Agee’s magazine piece for Fortune that never ran. The article was an early draft of Agee’s classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and is now being published as Cotten Tenants: Three Familes.

Photograph by Walker Evans.

The Gift of Gab

I love to talk but when it comes to writing I have learned that you can talk too much. You can talk a story out before you’ve finished–or started–writing. Some talking is good because it helps formulate your thinking but I’ve discovered that it can go too far.

Talking comes naturally. When I was younger I talked because I was anxious, talked because silence was terrifying. But talking also runs in the family. My twin sister loves to talk. My old man was a champion talker. He loved the sound of his own voice. He talked instead of working. (Maybe that is why I am attracted to but mostly repulsed by Fran Lebovitz.) On the other hand, my mother walked the walk; she was pragmatic, a worker, not a dreamer.

I got to thinking about talking when I read this piece on James Agee by John Updike, a review of “Letters of James Agee to Father Flye”:

Alcohol—which appears in the first Harvard letters (“On the whole, an occasional alcoholic bender satisfies me fairly well”) and figures in almost every letter thereafter—was Agee’s faithful ally in his “enormously strong drive, on a universally broad front, toward self-destruction.” But I think his real vice, as a writer, was talk. “I seem, and regret it and hate myself for it, to be able to say many more things I want to in talking than in writing.” He describes his life at Harvard as “an average of 3.5 hours sleep per night; 2 or 3 meals per day. Rest of the time: work, or time spent with friends. About 3 nights a week I’ve talked all night. . . .” And near the end of his life, in Hollywood: “I’ve spent probably 30 or 50 evenings talking alone most of the night with Chaplin, and he has talked very openly and intimately.” And what are these letters but a flow of talk that nothing but total fatigue could staunch? “The trouble is, of course, that I’d like to write you a pretty indefinitely long letter, and talk about everything under the sun we would talk about, if we could see each other. And we’d probably talk five or six hundred pages…”

He simply preferred conversation to composition. The private game of translating life into language, or fitting words to things, did not sufficiently fascinate him. His eloquence naturally dispersed itself in spurts of interest and jets of opinion. In these letters, the extended, “serious” projects he wishes he could get to—narrative poems in an “amphibious style,” “impressionistic” histories of the United States, an intricately parodic life of Jesus, a symphony of interchangeable slang, a novel on the atom bomb—have about them the grandiose, gassy quality of talk. They are the kind of books, rife with Great Ideas, that a Time reviewer would judge “important.” The poignant fact about Agee is that he was not badly suited to working for Henry Luce.

Million Dollar Movie

You guys know that I’m a Pauline Kael junkie, but if I had to choose just one book of film criticism I just might go with this:

Agee has two great long pieces in this collection–“Undirectable Director,” on John Huston, and another one, written for Life, on the golden age of silent comedy. But what I really love, are the brief reviews Agee did for The Nation and Time. Doesn’t matter that I haven’t seen most of the movies or even if I agree with his take. Agee is just a pleasure to read.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver