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Human Divinity

“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. […] A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”

—James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

We can safely assume that when Fortune magazine sent James Agee from the Chrysler Building to the cotton fields of Alabama, at the height of the Great Depression, they did not expect him to return with a piece of writing they would never publish, and which would become, for nearly 80 years, a lacuna in the realm of American letters. In that time, what we have had of Agee’s immersive journey into the lives of cotton tenants—then the poorest white American families caught in the champing maw of our capitalist machinery—is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an exhilarating, exhaustive, inspired account of three families’ humanity, with photographs by Walker Evans, who had joined him on the trip.

A selection of Walker Evans' photos from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. (Top to Bottom) An austere corner in a cotton tenant's home; A look inside a tenant's kitchen; Lucille Burroughs at 10 years old. All photos: Walker Evans, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Agee cherished photography, which, around the time that his writing career commenced in 1934, was burgeoning as a medium for art and reportage. In his preface to Praise, Agee describes the camera as “the central instrument of our time,” second only to “unassisted and weaponless consciousness,” and he felt “rage at its misuse: which has spread so nearly universal a corruption of sight.” He claimed to trust fewer than a dozen pairs of eyes beyond his own, and one pair must have belonged to Evans, a friend who was working for the Resettlement Administration of the WPA. When Agee received this Southern assignment from Fortune in 1936, he insisted that Evans accompany him, and was elated when the magazine agreed.

Then an excitable young poet masquerading as a journalist, Agee called this assignment “the best break [he] ever had” at Fortune. He felt a “terrific personal responsibility toward the story” and “suffered considerable doubts of [his] ability to bring it off [and] considerable more of Fortune’s willingness to use it.” On this last point, he was prescient: for reasons unclear (but often guessed at), Fortune refused to publish the piece Agee presented to them. They held it for a year, into 1937, but did nothing with it; Agee, busy with myriad projects and a messy personal life, eventually published Praise in 1941. It sold around six hundred copies and fell out of print, where it would remain until years after Agee’s death of a heart attack at 45, in the back of a New York City taxicab, on his way to a doctor’s appointment.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has since gained status as a seminal work of American literature, and for good reason. It is remarkable for its aim, which was “an independent inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity,” and for its form, in which Agee, unshackled, employs by turn, and often simultaneously, the journalist’s investigative curiosity, the preacher’s fervor, the artist’s probity, the pupil’s diligence, the scientist’s exactitude, the critic’s discernment, and the poet’s joyful heartbreak. Agee lays scorn upon the altars of art and journalism, and declares the work “a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality.” Evans’s nearly five-dozen photographs, arresting in their raw and simple elegance, are “not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative.” Praise is an act of humanity, executed through photography and prose.

Absorbing Praise can be a bit of an act of humanity itself. Its structure is somewhat fragmentary, and full of thematic leaps as Agee follows his thoughts across the world he had studied for eight hot weeks in Alabama, and the book extends to nearly five hundred pages. But his objectives necessitate it, and “if it must be slow going, so be it.” A reader’s effort is rewarded: Agee’s ability to isolate and articulate nodes of intersecting objects, moods, persons, memories, and emotions provides multiple breathless whoops of self-recognition, and the plainness and fragility of human worth is everywhere laid bare: “The furniture in general and the eating implements are all at or very near the bottom of their scale: broken, insecure, uncomfortable, ill-smelling, all that a man without money must constantly accept when he can get it, and be glad of, or make do.” Praise could rightly be regarded as a secular scripture for humanist values.

It is impossible to imagine how Agee might have applied the same passion, fury, and ambition to a piece for Fortune magazine, given the physical limitations of a paper magazine, never mind the political interests and moods of a moneyed readership with its eyes drifting overseas as the world came nearer to war. Fortunately, there is no longer need to imagine, for that old lacuna appears to have been filled: in 2003, archivists discovered among Agee’s writing an undated manuscript, heavily marked with his hand, entitled Cotton Tenants. There is little reason to doubt that this short work represents the unpublished article. In 2013 the piece was released in a sleek, glossy print, inclusive of Agee’s edits, and with a new selection of Evans’s photographs, as Cotton Tenants: Three Families. This title was borrowed from an early draft of Praise that was considered and dropped by Harper’s in 1939.

For those unfamiliar with Praise, Cotton Tenants is an excellent introduction. There is no less of Agee’s raw honesty here, no diminishment to his largeness of spirit, and it bursts with passion and quiet outrage at the deprivations suffered by these families who are imprisoned by weather, sickness, ill education, and cruel cycles of debt to the landowners for whom they toil. Evans’s photographs speak for themselves, and Agee, who is forced into an economy of language, manages, as a poet might, to concisely illustrate the hardships and joys of these humans’ lives. In Cotton Tenants, he gives an approximation of one family’s pinewood shelter, which is “stitched with nails into as rude a garment against the hostile year as a human family can wear.”

In Praise, with room to expand, Agee further enriches and humanizes this picture. The same house is:

[...] put together out of the cheapest available pine lumber, and the least of this is used which shall stretch a skin of one thickness alone against the earth and air; and this is all done according to one of the three or four simplest, stingiest, and thus most classical plans contrivable, which are all traditional to that country: and the work is done by half-skilled, half-paid men under no need to do well, who therefore take such vengeance on the world as they may in a cynical and part willful apathy, and this is what comes of it: Most naïve, most massive symmetry and simpleness. […] A look of being earnestly hand-made, as a child’s drawing, a thing created out of need, love, patience, and strained skill […]

In one paragraph, anthropological observation, socioeconomic consideration, and psychological understanding amount to an indictment of conditions that suppress the underclass, and all this as a mere introduction to one of the three family’s houses.

Bud Fields and his family, as portrayed by Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Photo: Walker Evans, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

For admirers of Praise, Cotton Tenants offers more than just a fascinating treatment of familiar material: it contains passages on three subjects that receive little focus in the longer work. Two of these come in the form of appendices: “On Negroes” provides a brief look at the one subset of tenants worse off than their white counterparts, and “Landowners,” who oversee both black and white tenants, and who Agee allows to speak for themselves at length, to devastating effect: “You hear all this talk of bad treatment. Now I ask you: would a good farmer mistreat his mules?” The third is a brief but instructive look at local religious services.

Cotton Tenants cannot be faulted for being the shorter piece of writing, even if certain references within bring a yearning for the full-throated Agee of Praise. And its discovery is worthy of celebration. But in addition to the relative shallowness that results from its brevity, Cotton Tenants fails, if beautifully, to accomplish Agee’s objective of presenting, as fully as possible, the reality of these human lives. Praise fails too, and also because of the limitations of its form, but especially because the undertaking was corrupted from the start. What was crucial to Agee, as he wrote in the first chapter of Praise, was that he wrote of “human beings, living in this world […] [who are] dwelt among, investigated, spied on, revered, and loved, by other quite monstrously alien human beings, in the employment of others still more alien.” Agee despaired at the knowledge that his effort, however noble, reduced these people to tokens whose lives would be “looked into by still others, who have picked up [the tenants’ lives] as casually” as they would any book. Writing about them was insufficient: Agee would prefer to mash our faces into the thin, uncased, hair-stained, bug-ridden pillows these humans rested their weary heads upon. “Above all else,” Agee instructs us, “don’t think of it as Art.” To do so would only further the corruption.

Cotton Tenants is short and very well written; it reads smoothly and quickly, and its pages are so glossy that they sometimes require physical manipulation to reduce glare on the page. (Agee first asked his publisher of Praise to produce the book on newsprint, so that cotton tenants themselves could afford it. When told that “in fifty years newsprint will crumble away to dust,” Agee answered, “That’s what I mean.”) By virtue of these qualities—its brevity and gloss—the appeal of Cotton Tenants seems particularly modern, and precisely the artful reduction Agee warns against. Agee found “considerable value (to say nothing of joy) in the attempt to see or convey even some single thing as nearly as possible as that thing is.” This speaks to the power he saw in photography, and, 20 years after its publication, Agee’s friend and contemporary John Hersey wrote that in Praise, Agee “strove through the sounds and meaning of words to mimic—no, more than mimic, achieve—photography, worthy of being set beside that of his collaborator, Walker Evans.” Hence Praise’s length, with its extraordinary scrutiny of detail and relationships, and the author’s insistence that the book not be considered “a work of art or of entertainment […] [but] a human effort which must require human co-operation.” In Cotton Tenants, art and form trump the larger truths for which Agee strived.

And yet, photography is also inherently reductive. It captures the immensity of the lived experience differently than words can, and perhaps more directly, but both photographs and prose can be manipulated, distorted, misinterpreted, and thus damaged. It is impossible to know what Agee might think of today’s proliferation of cameras, or the fact that we live in a world saturated with facsimiles of itself and its populace, or, further, that the manipulation of modern imagery is so endemic that it is generally accepted, and with little objection. And because Cotton Tenants went unpublished in his lifetime, and Praise gained acclaim after his passing, we can only guess at how he might view the two in relation to each other. But while Cotton Tenants sheds new light on the people who populate Praise, it is, in a distinct manner, a thumbnail for the larger image.

In Cotton Tenants’ brevity, Praise’s language is reduced, constrained, and compacted, through capitulation to journalism. Cotton Tenants is thus a thinner account of these lives, a lesser attempt by Agee “to make a number of physical entities as plain and vivid as possible,” and to leave us, his readers, “the burden of realizing” that “particularities, and matters ordinary and obvious, are exactly themselves beyond designation of words.”

The greatest truths stand outside of photography and prose; Agee never suggests otherwise. And while the humanity of these white cotton tenants is not diminished by their description on paper, nor their depiction on film, nor the passage of time, it is crucial that we grasp how far from truth Agee was, even in the longer volume. In this, we can take warning. Between Praise and Cotton Tenants, we can see how the reductive nature of photography, journalism, click-bait, and listicles take us further and further from the lived experience. The inherent flaws of the shorter work can alert us to the danger of thinking that we have gained understanding or knowledge when, instead, we have gained information. To shun, or, at least, to properly qualify such information will permit us to live as Agee encourages us to live in Praise:

For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned […] centrally and simply, without dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands.


Jack Finnegan

JACK FINNEGAN is a writer and storyteller currently residing in Ketchikan, Alaska.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2015

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