Let Us Now Praise James AgeeSet in Stone'The Conscience of Journalism'Closer than Paper and Ink'Stare,' He Said

Our old neighbor offers a generous array of options for a festivalJames Agee Park is a long-overdue memorial of Agee's legacy A UT professor observes Agee's observations of the reporter's agenda The

Eventually, the University ceded the land, a small lot on the corner of James Agee Street and Laurel Avenue. Morris credits both Mayors Ashe and Haslam as supporting the project over the years.

"Most of what he wrote was really more standard magazine journalism—everything from the industry profile to the thumbsucking summary of the meaning of an event, like the death of President Roosevelt," says Ashdown, who will speak during the university's James Agee Celebration. What placed him above basic reporting was, even in short summations of other people's research, his ability to capture an event's truth.

 

 

In his introduction to the 1985 edition of Famous Men , John Hersey wrote: "Agee's extreme sensitivity made him respect the suspicion and fear that the local folk felt toward people of a different social class," namely Agee and Evans. The pair eventually met three families to interview and photograph, making daily visits over a period of two weeks. Later, Agee stayed several nights as a guest in the home of Floyd Burroughs.

"Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism: but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism. I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what any even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those inachieveable words, and that fraction itself I have never seen clean of one or another degree of patent, to say nothing of essential, falsehood." As the writer observes his subjects, he also observes himself and isn't sure he likes what he sees, making Famous Men very much about Agee.

 

"The main thing was sensual immediacy," says Hugh Davis, a doctoral candidate and Agee scholar at the University of Tennessee. "That's one thing words can't do—capture the immediacy of a scene the way a film or photograph can."

    

 

   

Noa Noa

, based on the South Sea diary of artist Paul Gauguin, was written during this period. Though it was never used, the screenplay offers insight into Agee's own strained emotional facilities.

 

Most cities in the western world have some sort of a literary patron saint, someone who's quoted in tour guides, who's honored as the subject of a park or statue, or who's the focus of a festival or conference.

We got lucky with ours. Few American writers of the past are held in such high esteem by their colleagues as is James Agee. And more importantly for the purposes of a lively literary conference, hardly any offers such a variety of options.

With one word, Agee , you can support all sorts of events, with something for every taste. You can sponsor an Agee Film Festival; Agee was a pioneer film critic whose work for Time and The Nation brought film more artistic respect than it had never known in America before; he championed the idea that Charlie Chaplin was more than a clown, he was a new kind of artist. Moreover, Agee was a screenwriter whose script for the Bogart-Hepburn classic, The African Queen, was nominated for an Oscar.

You could host an Agee Poetry Slam; his early poetry, especially the modern epic "Permit Me Voyage," earned national attention. His shorter poems have been published in book form.

It's a swell excuse for musical performances; Agee was an accomplished pianist himself, but his best known piece of short prose, "Knoxville: Summer 1915,"—said to be written under the influence of jazz—became, more or less, the libretto for a vocal piece that would become one of the best-known compositions by Samuel Barber, one of America's famed composers.

You could have an Agee Book Fair, with fiction and non-fiction components. A Death In the Family , Agee's autobiographical novel about his youth in Knoxville, won the Pulitzer in 1957 and has been in print ever since; his earlier book about Alabama tenant farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , invented something like a new form of journalism.

Agee was a sometime actor, too, so you could stage plays, one in particular: All the Way Home , based on A Death In the Family , was a Broadway hit that earned another Pulitzer and went on to be interpreted in film, live television, and even Masterpiece Theatre .

He was a scholar of Beethoven, and Lincoln and William Blake and Buddha and Dante and Jesus. His work was merciless, incisive, gritty, touching, provocative, dangerous, and often hilarious.

And the guy died at age 45. For some writers who've passed that age without dying, that's a humbling fact.

Agee worked at least a dozen careers in his short life. This month's James Agee Celebration will explore a few of them. Academic conferences don't always turn into Celebrations, but maybe it's not surprising this one did. With concerts, plays, a walking tour, a film series, the only thing that keeps it from seeming a full-tilt festival is UT's famous ban on alcohol. Which, for anyone familiar with the life of James Agee, may seem a little bit ironic. But we'd like to think he would have come anyway.

James Agee is better known today than he was when he collapsed in the back of a New York taxicab, 50 years ago next month. In the 21st century his career is still developing, his reputation growing. At the time he died, he was best known as a film critic and screenwriter. Today he may be best known as a novelist and journalistic innovator.

Agee never used a computer in his life, but today Google lists over 60,000 websites that have something to do with him. Many of them are in languages other than English. He's global.

His work has hardly aged. While some of his contemporary Southern native writers were known to say silly things boosting segregation or Southern chivalry, Agee still sounds like a modern progressive.

He wrote warnings about air pollution, back when it was better known as "smoke." (In 1937, he called it "the breath of a collective beast...foul, sterile, beneful to the things we cherish...like a curse that some obscure and nameless god might have laid upon us....") As the Allies were cheering V-J Day, he wrote a solemn assessment that, with the explosion of the atomic bomb, we were entering a dangerous new world. ("In an instant, without warning, the present had become the unthinkable future.") Anxiety about the atom bomb was a minority opinion in 1945.

Some of his phrasings in his movie reviews in Time and Nation seem irreverent, modern, witty, arguably hip . Though Agee died before the full flowering of the Beat generation, some have argued that he prefigured it— Let Us Now Praise Famous Men could be viewed as a thoughtful, more socially conscious On the Road . It also laid the groundwork for the subjective New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and even the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson.

But what carries him is not his hipness, his bohemian cool that has Agee's photograph framed in some East Village bars today. What makes Agee relevant today is the universality of a story like A Death in the Family . Though we're approaching the 90th anniversary of the Summer of 1915, you can read the book today and recognize yourself, your parents, your children, as they are. Different versions of Agee's timeless story pop up over and over around the world. In 1995, the British Broadcasting Company sent a crew to Knoxville to tape a documentary on Agee to coincide with a London performance of Samuel Barber's "Knoxville, Summer of 1915." Broadcast by the BBC worldwide, it would go on to win an international award for documentaries in Italy. Later that year, during a show by the rock band REM, attended by some 8,000, lead singer Michael Stipe unexpectedly stopped to read an extended passage from Agee's "Knoxville: Summer 1915"; in 1999, A Prairie Home Companion's Garrison Keillor did exactly the same thing on a nationally broadcast show. Even in this new century, it's not surprising that the novel rated another new dramatic interpretation on public television's "Masterpiece Theatre" in 2002.

Art doesn't age, and neither does James Agee, who after all these years seems hardly a day past 45.

Jack Neely

 

 

Though James Agee lived much of his life up North, he is posthumously remembered by millions of people for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family , which depicts his childhood home in Knoxville. The story comes into focus through the dewy eyes of Rufus Follet, whom most perceive to be Agee himself as a young boy, as he describes living in Fort Sanders, romping familiar streets like Laurel and Forest, all the while dealing with the trauma of his father's death.

When visitors who've read the vivid recollection come to Knoxville, they may wonder what physical legacy the author left. A childhood home? His was torn down years ago. An Agee library perhaps? Until now, there has been no permanent public dedication to Agee's diverse literary talent. But the opening of the James Agee Park on April 17 fills this niche, taking its place appropriately in Fort Sanders.

It began as a wispy notion back in the '80s when poet and musician RB Morris and artist Eric Sublett began bemoaning Knoxville's dearth of a proper memorial for Agee. "It was just an obvious thing to do," Morris says of the idea for a park. "The idea was there as if it had just grown there."

In the end, it took a whole community of literary enthusiasts, artists, politicians and gardeners to finally give the idea shape. The steering committee soon grew to include architect Randall DeFord, attorney Charlie Thomas and a few other Agee enthusiasts. "We started meeting with [Mayor] Ashe's people; Ellen Adcock was very helpful," Morris recalls. "They said it would be a tough row to hoe. The lot we were looking at was UT's, and they didn't think they would give it up. But we just kept proceeding."

Eventually, the University ceded the land, a small lot on the corner of James Agee Street and Laurel Avenue. Morris credits both Mayors Ashe and Haslam as supporting the project over the years.

Another big push came this year when, after applying for the past two years, the committee received a grant from Rohm and Haas, the chemical plant near Fort Sanders, which was specified to go to straightening the existing marble walls on the two street sides and to opening up the corner in the form of a stone stairway with columns at the park's entrance.

The design committee had two main goals in mind during the planning, Morris says. "It's the one neighborhood in Knoxville that doesn't have a park. So, our approach was, number one, it was a memorial to James Agee. But we also wanted it to have the spirit of Fort Sanders."

To achieve the latter goal, designers tried to use local materials such as river rock and native plants for landscaping detail. The two full-grown magnolias at the park's entrance were salvaged from a nearby lot slated for demolition in the Fort. " I used to always walk by them and sit under them," Morris says. "They were kind of sentries. I always wondered if they could be saved. That was a huge endeavor. It took a 200-ton crane. And we basically got it done for free."

Community members' monetary and service donations, as well as volunteer work, have been vital in the park's formation. The Perennial Plant Association and local nurseries have made plant donations. Knoxvillian Karen Petrey has lent much volunteer time heading up gardening efforts. John Stiles of Stiles Stone has located many local materials and performed stonework for free.

But these are only two people among many in a web of community cooperation, Morris says. He's performed several benefit concerts, including MetroFest, Metro Pulse 's music festival last September in which many local musicians volunteered their talents; proceeds went to James Agee Park. Preservation Pub has also made many contributions.

Despite the community's vast input, the effort still lacks funds to carry out the full design plan and landscaping that will continue after the park's April 17 dedication ceremony. Morris will play at the dedication as well as on April 15 at the Knoxville Museum of Art to raise more money. Lenore Kinder, booking manager at Blue Cats, is also working with the Old City Merchants Association on a benefit for the park slated for April 27. Private donations can be made through the East Tennessee Foundation, another group that has helped the park effort along the way.

Though some construction will continue after the dedication, the main design elements are expected to be in place. There will be a temporary sculpture by UT art students featuring 10-foot steel letters spelling out the word "moment" with Agee quotes inscribed on the letters themselves.

It seemed apropos to memorialize Agee with words, so Morris handpicked the quote to be inscribed at the park's entrance. "To those who in all times have sought truth and who have told it in their art or in their living," is drawn from Agee's poem "Dedication." Morris explains, "Those lines seemed appropriate to me because it's his dedication, he's reaching out through time to famous people and unknown people. It's a welcoming quote."

Designers hope the park will be a neighborhood gathering place, but also a place to reflect upon Agee's words. While the multifaceted writer died at the age of 45 and received most of his acclaim afterward, Morris says, "His star continues to rise. It's still sinking in. To me, that's his legacy."

Molly Kincaid

 

 

A journalist who hasn't read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is like a psychologist who hasn't read Freud," says Paul Ashdown, UT journalism professor and editor of James Agee: Selected Journalism . In other words, writers of that vocation can't fully understand their job or the responsibility imbued within it until they've looked through Agee's eyes at the many issues that call the very job into question.

Agee is most famous as the author of A Death in the Family , for which he was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1959. He also wrote poems and screenplays. But Agee was extremely prolific as a magazine writer for Time , Fortune , Life and The Nation , for which he wrote feature articles and countless unattributed news summaries and blurbs.

Ashdown explains in his introduction that Agee scholars, instead of appreciating the writer's diverse body of work, have mourned the time he spent—wasted—churning out news blurbs and rehashed wire reports, when, in their estimation, he could have been writing novels, screenplays or his more admired works of journalism, movie reviews.

"I like his novels and poetry, but I thought you could turn that around and say he wasted too much energy on that kind of literature when he could have done more journalism," says Ashdown, who argues that such critics overlook the importance of Agee's magazine pieces that, even without a byline, reveal his unmistakable style.

"Most of what he wrote was really more standard magazine journalism—everything from the industry profile to the thumbsucking summary of the meaning of an event, like the death of President Roosevelt," says Ashdown, who will speak during the university's James Agee Celebration. What placed him above basic reporting was, even in short summations of other people's research, his ability to capture an event's truth.

"He was first and foremost a good writer who could sort of 'nail it' when there was a big event in the wind," says Ashdown.

In his introduction, Ashdown compares Agee to Hemingway and says that both writers were "interested in truth more than fact," a description that also seems to fit the style of Hunter S. Thompson, a modern-day journalist whose writing style and lifestyle involved total immersion in his subjects. 

"Sometimes people try to say Agee was a forerunner of the 'new' journalism of the '60s and '70s, i.e. a personal kind of journalism, and that's reasonably accurate," he says, although calling Agee the first "gonzo" journalist is probably a stretch.

In looking at even Agee's most mundane writing tasks, Ashdown sees his talents developing and foreshadowing his greatest journalist work. He writes, "Is it seriously to be supposed that Agee's literary achievements, most manifestly displayed in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , would have been forthcoming without his journalistic apprenticeship?"

"As journalism, it's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that commands attention," says Ashdown, who has called the work an "anti-journalistic manifesto." 

Famous Men began as an assignment in 1936 for Fortune magazine to observe and report upon the state of tenant farmers in post-Depression Alabama. But Agee's reaction to the people's extreme poverty, and Walker Evans' haunting photographs of men, women and children, caused him to question his very purpose as a journalist.

In his introduction to the 1985 edition of Famous Men , John Hersey wrote: "Agee's extreme sensitivity made him respect the suspicion and fear that the local folk felt toward people of a different social class," namely Agee and Evans. The pair eventually met three families to interview and photograph, making daily visits over a period of two weeks. Later, Agee stayed several nights as a guest in the home of Floyd Burroughs.

The article—described by Hersey as "ten times too long"—was full of minute details of the farmers' lives and ultimately refused by Fortune , after editors found it impossible to trim. After arguing with the magazine over his rights to the piece and endeavoring to find a publisher, the book was published in August 1941. Among his blow-by-blow account of the families' lives, homes, clothes, hair, religious beliefs and work, Agee lambasted his editors for their questionable purposes in making the assignment in the first place. He questioned himself—his observations as reality, his implicit guilt in his supposed ability to do these people justice through mere words.

And he questioned journalism itself.

"Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism: but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism. I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what any even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those inachieveable words, and that fraction itself I have never seen clean of one or another degree of patent, to say nothing of essential, falsehood." As the writer observes his subjects, he also observes himself and isn't sure he likes what he sees, making Famous Men very much about Agee.

"Agee issued a warning that journalism could never tell the complete story of anything," Ashdown says. "He insisted that people could not be reduced to categories—that they were human beings and had to be understood as such. They were not 'quotes' or statistical categories. In part, his work was a reaction against a lot of facile journalism of the period. He was contemptuous of journalism, but he also saw its power and potential."

Journalism's potential—as art, a social statement, an agent of change—is why Famous Men came to fruition even after five years and why it remains so important. Ashdown considers it one of the best pieces of writing, regardless of genre, of the 20th century. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men keeps asking important questions about the media's role in our culture.

" Famous Men is a challenge to everything journalism stands for," says Ashdown. "It's really about journalism ethics and the mythical backdrop behind journalism. What right do journalists have to pry into the lives of undefended people and sell their stories for a profit? He's not so much a journalist as he is the conscience of journalism."

Paige M. Travis

 

 

James Agee demanded the impossible from words. Where words move through time chronologically, one after the next, he craved spatial simultaneity—a chunk of text perceived all at once, as one views a painting. Where words offer the melody of a single voice, Agee ached "to write symphonies and get a sort of monstrous grinding beauty."

No artistic medium could single-handedly satisfy James Agee's requirements for creative expression, but film may have come the closest. Screenwriting offered Agee the sensory leverage he desired that words alone could not provide. 

"The main thing was sensual immediacy," says Hugh Davis, a doctoral candidate and Agee scholar at the University of Tennessee. "That's one thing words can't do—capture the immediacy of a scene the way a film or photograph can."

Agee's lifelong appreciation for moving pictures can be traced back to his Knoxville childhood, when he attended silent movies alongside his father at Gay Street's Majestic Theatre. Later, in letters to friend and former teacher Father James Flye, Agee theorized that film was art's last undeveloped frontier.

"Agee loved movies from an early age. I think he always had it in the back of his mind that he wanted to direct," Davis says.

The writer's precocious use of dialogue and place description was manifest in his early prose, but premonitions of his screenwriting future officially surfaced in 1937's "Notes for a moving picture: The House." While the script's surreal, stream-of-consciousness form would likely have been lost on film, Agee's command of aesthetic elements previously out of his reach, such as sound, is tangible.

The script begins: "Broad brilliant sunlit air, cloudless: camera sinking slowly. (Suspect this could best be had by close shot of a strongly lighted sheet of aluminum.) This shot is brought on with a plucked sting of a cello on a high note, so that it seems to be twanged from it. The note must have resonance. After one second the same note is taken by a plucked violin string without resonance: three notes; three seconds "

Agee's interest in film as art, potentially even a conduit to the subconscious, was not limited to "The House." In his 1937 application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, he alludes to "a new form of movie short" that would be "2 to 10 minutes long, capable of many forms within itself. By time-condensation, each image (like each word in poetry) must have more than common intensity and related tension."

Throughout the next decade, however, Agee's literary experimentations would give way to issues of practicality—he now had a family to support—and lifelong cinematic ambitions. Connections in Hollywood, including the support of director John Huston, convinced him to resign from his job as a film critic at Time in 1947 and pursue screenwriting full-time.    

"I really think he wanted to connect with readers on a more basic level," Davis says. "I think he was looking for simplicity the older he got and was moving away from the obscurity of his earlier work, and that meant moving away from his poetry."

As always, he had an endless supply of project ideas. Several made their way to the screen, including adaptations of the Stephen Crane short stories "The Blue Hotel" and "The Bride comes to Yellow Sky" and a commentary for Helen Levitt's groundbreaking documentary, The Quiet One .

Others did not. John Wranovics, an independent scholar from California, recently recovered and published a film treatment Agee wrote for Charlie Chaplin in 1948 titled "The Tramp's New World." In the proposed screenplay, Agee imagined Chaplin's Little Tramp as the sole survivor of an atomic attack on New York City.

"In some ways, it's prophetic of 9/11," Wranovics says. "At the time, there was a national concern, even an obsession, for the fate of humanity in this new atomic world. Had the film been made, it would've been the first dark response to Hiroshima and certainly the darkest comedy to date." 

Chaplin was a relic of the films Agee had seen years before at the Majestic. Wranovics suggests that, through the lens of admiration and ultimate friendship, Agee perceived Chaplin as a kind of "secular Jesus."

"This screenplay was Agee using all of his literary powers to convince his hero to sign on to this project It was Agee at the height of his descriptive prose telling his hero a story," Wranovics says.   

By 1950, Agee's screenwriting career was reaching its crest. He began working with Huston on C.S. Forester's The African Queen , starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. The script, which closely resembles a novel, earned a "Best Screenplay" Oscar nomination in 1952.

Simultaneously, his body—ravaged by years of hard living and drinking—was beginning to break down. During an early morning tennis match with Huston, Agee suffered his first heart attack.

Noa Noa , based on the South Sea diary of artist Paul Gauguin, was written during this period. Though it was never used, the screenplay offers insight into Agee's own strained emotional facilities.

"If you look at the screenplay for Noa Noa , it's really the expression of an artist who has faced the choice between family life and creative life. Agee was trying to straddle the two," Wranovics says.

DeeDee Agee was eight years old in 1955, the year her father died of a heart attack in a New York City taxicab.

She says, "I suppose he was gone for long periods of time to Hollywood, but that's not exactly what I remember."

DeeDee admits that separating her own memories from the Agee myth that grew up after his death has been difficult, but there are some things she is certain of. "He was very charismatic, and the times he was there are vivid in my mind."

Furthermore, she comprehends her father's absence as one of necessity. She understands why he needed to be involved in film. "I think he was interested in all the arts. He was a musician who had to choose between being a concert pianist and a writer.  He was an appreciator of the visual arts, especially photography, and so many of his friends were artists."

"Film brought all of these sensibilities together," she explains. "He saw it as the new medium of his time."

Leslie Wylie

 

 

Walker Evans, who collaborated with James Agee on their definitive depiction of the lives of sharecroppers in Depression-era Alabama, is thought of as one of the pre-eminent photographers of the last century. And for good reason.

Evans' photographs upstaged Agee's exhaustive and brilliant text in describing the lives and the environment of three tenant farm families in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men . It was the highlight of Evans' fabled mission as a photojournalist who wished, above all, to capture the American human condition, viewing it head-on and unblinkingly. That he succeeded in his work with Agee seems inarguable. He continued photographing America and Americans, and had a career with Fortune magazine, but it was Famous Men where he left his indelible mark on his craft.

It has been argued that Agee's narrative "got into the souls" of his subjects in the Alabama experience. That's true enough, but Evans' photos also got into those souls, and that's evident at a glance, not requiring hours of reading and contemplation. His images were real and illuminating in ways that photographers seldom caught on film before.

Agee went on to other great things, and he was not often overshadowed in his own milieu. Not even the formidably compelling performances of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart upstaged Agee's incomparably spare and burningly bright script for The African Queen.

In his preamble to Famous Men , Agee postulated: "...In the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, of digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness seeking to perceive it as it stands. " He spoke of the camera as "the central instrument of our time," and he seemed to lament: "If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here, It would be photographs...."

Agee was saying exactly what Evans was seeing through his lens, and Evans, an articulate advocate of photography as record, rather than art, was producing just what Agee was talking about.

Their work together, taken as a whole, is a stunning record of a time and place and its people. Evans must have seen it as a personal triumph.

Agee, always questioning his own truths, must have reveled in Evans' unquestionable images. Their work on that one volume, based on their experience in Alabama in 1936, never graced the pages of Fortune , which commissioned it, and wasn't published in any form until Houghton Mifflin took it to press in 1941.

It has been regarded as an American model of documentation since then. It would not have stood in the same light on Evans' photographs alone, nor would Agee's elegantly self-conscious prose have carried it to its literary heights. But the photographs, stark and memorable and dignified by their own unselfconsciousness, make the book a classic of the form.

"Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more," Evans once said. "Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long."

—Barry Henderson

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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