Friday, February 03, 2006

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Some of you who used to visit my AOL Journal (before AOL tacked Ads on our journals and many of us left), may remember that I did an entry on James Agee. In that entry, I wrote of how I'd loved his novel, A Death In The Family from my first reading of it when I was 13. I'm writing about Agee again because I've just finished reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which can be bought in a gorgeous Library of America edition. This edition also includes A Death In The Family and other Agee writings.

The blurb on the back of the book says: "In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee invented a new genre to convey his stark vision of the lives of Alabama tenant farmers." We are all used to blurbs being exaggerations; however this claim "new genre" is not an exaggeration. I have never see anything like Famous Men before.

I implore you, do not, do not be swayed by the negative reviews of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. If you are looking for a book that is deeply engrossing, challenging, different, and enlightening, then this is a book you should read. It's not for the squeamish, nor for those who don't like to pry up the rotting boards and peer into the darkness.

In Famous Men, Agee addresses the difference between fiction and non-fiction by saying: "In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger." It's perhaps this interest of mine in the craft of writing itself that has made Famous Men so fascinating to me. This is at once a book about the tenant farmers and a book about the difficulty of writing about them.

Another thing: In the beginning pages, Agee writes with absolute humility towards his own writing and his subject matter. This was stunning to me, because I've also read Agee's movie reviews, and in those writings Agee is witty, merciless, honest, and very confident in his own opinion. In short, they are some of the best movie reviews I have ever read.

However, Famous Men is another kind of writing altogether. As Agee admits, his efforts to capture his subject matter through words were a failure. Words are inefficient, inadequate in matters so huge. He wrote: "If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement."

That Famous Men is not more popular does not surprise me, nor was Agee surprised, I think, when the book got bad reviews and suffered poor sales. Famous Men, I think, is not the sort of book that would ever gain wide acceptance. It is a flawed masterpiece that takes a lot of work to absorb, but well worth the effort. I don't know the extent to which Agee may have been devastated, nonetheless, at the way America turned its back on his masterpiece. I do know that Agee seemed to suggest in the early pages of Famous Men that the worst thing that can happen to any artist is mass acceptance.

Perhaps mass acceptance is something the writer both wants and fears; I don't know. But Agee does say in Famous Men that he felt that as soon as, say, Beethoven's music is used as a form of relaxation or as a background to the mundane activities human beings inevitably become so wrapped up in, then the music has lost its vitality.

That is why Agee suggests in Famous Men: "Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or of Schubert's C-Major Symphony. But I don't mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down onto floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it."

The same might be said for Famous Men. If you concentrate, you will hear Famous Men in your whole body. And if it hurts you, you will be glad.


beths front porch said...

Theresa, I found this entry to be profound and stirred the pot for me. So many ideas here--but one item that really struck a "chord" -sorry-- was the way we treat music as background noise (and how we treat writing the same way?)Lately I've been thinking about music and why I'm not enjoying listening to it. It interrupts my thought process, just the way good reading does. I must interact with what the artist is saying. This is different than interacting with myself. Good music and good literature is not just a distraction. Waxing on at length! sorry. --Beth

Erin said...

What a fabulous entry! I am not at all familiar with Agee but am now very interested in him. Theresa, which of his books would you recommend reading first?

I, too, very much enjoyed his comments on music. For Christmas I gave my boyfriend a turntable. One evening this week, we bought a number of records at a used book store and then spent the evening sitting and listening. That was all. Neil Young's album "Harvest" had never sounded so moving to me. I think I'm often guilty of taking music for granted, or using it as a background. That's easy to do when you're listening to a CD with "random" and "repeat" options. I love Agee's "If it hurts you, be glad of it." So much comes from paying attention.

ckays1967 said...

I do know that Agee seemed to suggest in the early pages of Famous Men that the worst thing that can happen to any artist is mass acceptance.


Yes, yes, yes...

Now I shall have to read this book for this entry was very well written. I was entralled.

Never did excrement sound so promising before.

Judith HeartSong said...

great post... as always. I would trust anything you recommended and really appreciated this post.

Judith HeartSong said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Uh oh, the reading list just got longer - this sounds fascinating. And strangely, the quote, "Let us now praise famous men," was echoing around in my head yesterday, I swear. And I hadn't read your post, Theresa. Hmm, I wonder...

Thank you for sharing this. Agee sounds like a very HONEST person. And being honest is hard.

Love, Vicky

Globetrotter said...

Since I am not interested in the craft of writing, (since I have no ability to do it well), I shall avoid this book because I am very squeamish.

Whenever I read books about rotting boards and peering into the darkness I have nightmares for weeks. 'Beasts' by Joyce Carol Oates, left me sleepless for months, as do many of her books.

I do enjoy visiting your blog, though, because I always come away from it with something that has made me think.

ggw07 said...

"I don't know what I think of the poem itself but I'm from now on committed to writing with a horrible definiteness. . . . I'm thinking about it every minute. . . . I'd do anything on earth to become a really great writer. That's as sincere a thing as I've ever said. . . . I've got to strengthen those segments of my talent which are naturally weak; and must work out for myself a way of expressing what I want to write. You see, I should like to parallel, foolish as it sounds, what Shakespeare did. That is--in general--to write primarily about people, giving their emotions and dramas the expression that, because of its beauty and power, will be most likely to last. But--worse than that: I'd like, in a sense, to combine what Chekhov did with what Shakespeare did--that is, to move from the dim, rather eventless beauty of C. to huge geometric plots such as Lear."
James Agee at 21 in 1930- from
Letters of James Agee to Father Flye
Now you have hit your stride again.
Terrific stuff! Gretchen

Vicky said...

My first comment as a blogspot person! I have decided to get this book from the library at the very least.


Anonymous said...

What a dark, sultry, James Dean-esque portrait! Oh how I could fall for this man...are there any more like him, alive? No, of course not, there is only one and the rest are copies, lookalikes, and what I really want is to BE him, to BE the published, acclaimed writer who can pay the bills and put in a new furnace without relying on the kindness of others, who, however kind, cause excruciating pain by the sheer fact of being necessary. I have had too many cold and lonely nights, but today, a miracle! For the first time in two weeks, the broken furnace somehow heated the house up to 68F, for how long I do not know. But, I have learned it is a luxury to be warm. TeaGrapple

V said...

......... It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement." ............

Theresa, I can imagine how this work resonates in you. It would seem that you have been living with Agee`s felt limitation for some time. It`s been impelling you to the visual arts; your collage grouping seems an attempt to solve this problem using the tools available to a talented artist. I wonder if your riverboat trip was the impetus for this more personal journey.

Ah, what a thinker you are.

V said...

It`s amazing how much Agee & Jack Kerouac look alike!

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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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The Secret of Hurricanes : That article in the Waterville Scout said it was Shake- spearean, all that fatalism that guides the Kennedys' lives. The likelihood of untimely death. Recently, another one died in his prime, John-John in an airplane. Not long before that, Bobby's boy. While playing football at high speeds on snow skis. Those Kennedys take some crazy chances. I prefer my own easy ways. Which isn't to say my life hasn't been Shake-spearean. By the time I was sixteen, my life was like the darkened stage at the end of Hamlet or Macbeth. All littered with corpses and treachery.

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