Agee's New York City

Chasing the ghost of a man who lived outside the lines and inside the cracks

Feature Story

by Molly Kincaid

Someone said there was a â“newâ” James Agee book out. It seemed impossible. And technically, it was. The Knoxville-born author originally wrote Brooklyn Is in 1939 as an assignment for Fortune . It was to be part of a feature detailing all five New York boroughs, but, as was the case with his acclaimed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , the magazine's editors rejected it for its unorthodox style. It was eventually published in Esquire in 1968 and resurfaced in book form in late 2005 by Fordham University Press.

While most literature innately speaks much about its author, Agee's words seem to echo louder than others, baring his thoughts to an almost discomfiting degree. Perhaps this is what compels his cultish following today, and conversely, what put people off while he was still alive. David Whitford, a current contributor to Fortune who wrote about him for a 70-year anniversary retrospective, commented, â“He was reaching far and deep, and I think the world of journalism just wasn't big enough for him.â”

With Brooklyn Is , we see an Agee that's even more raw, due to its apparent lack of editing. And with it, we can see into his life at the time. The turmoil he saw mirrors the turmoil in his own life. The beautiful scenes he describes so intimately reveal how he saw glory in the details, despite his hectic personal existence. As a whole, though, the essay is a little sloppy, essentially a long run-on poem of thought. And while Agee was always a rule-breaker, its level of eccentricity seems over the top even for him.

As an epic poem, or â“song,â” as contemporary Brooklyn novelist Jonathan Lethem notes dramatically in his intro, the essay succeeds in pontificating on the beautiful and insufferable nature of the everyday. On the other hand, it can at times be more of a spewingâ"guttural, primal, and even illogical. Here, it's impossible not to make conjecture that Agee's personal squalor was entering into his work.

Because I was a Knoxville transplant living in Brooklyn (I've since moved to the East Village) when I heard about this essay, I rushed out and bought the slim hardback for $17 and change. I thought perhaps it would shed some light on the character with whom I'd come to be mildly obsessed. He has that effect on people.

When you take to the task of chasing the ghost of a wily character like James Agee, strange and eerie and sometimes decadent things will follow you; like giant trees crashing in the path of a road, they serve as both hindrances and puzzling harbingers that you are onto something, albeit something that's off the beaten path.

Perhaps there is just something so damned romantic about Ageeâ"his life a tragic poem we followers seek a tactile sense ofâ"that we create fanciful cinematic confections for our mind's eye to devour. Agee on this street corner, smoking a cigarette with one arm draped hungrily around the tiny waist of a coquettish lover. Agee pacing into the sleek lobby of the Chrysler building, pausing to consider the murals overhead.  

For New Yorker Dale Maharidge, chasing ghosts isn't anything unfamiliar. Along with photographer Michael Williamson, Maharidge won the Pulitzer for And Their Children After Them , their â“sequelâ” to Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , in which they retraced his steps and reconnected with the families of which Agee wrote. For most of his life, Maharidge has written extensively on the underclass plight in America, wholly immersing himself (as Agee did) into his books and subjects. He's helped rescue El Salvadoran refugees and ridden the rails with hoboes throughout the course of his storied career. He now teaches graduate courses in journalism at Columbia and is working on his first fiction novel on class-jumpers entitled Leapers .

Maharidge must've been in a sprightly mood the day I emailed him, asking if he'd heard of the â“newâ” Agee book out. He hadn't, and he was intrigued. To my surprise, the esteemed Maharidge not only agreed to an interview but proposed we embark on our own Agee tour of the city. To learn more about this beguiling, yet somehow slapdash, Brooklyn essay, we needed to explore Agee's life at the time.  

The title Brooklyn Is sounds as if it might work for one of the many 'zines touting Brooklyn's cool, young image prevalent today. Its publication comes (probably not coincidentally) at a time when the borough is all the rage among musicians, artists, trust funders, families, and real-estate moguls. One hardly ever hears of an up-and-coming band from Manhattan these days; it's always Brooklyn.

But Maharidge suggested our journey begin at the beginning, in Manhattan, where Agee spent much of his adult life. It seemed fitting, since, to understand Brooklyn, as Agee points out early on in the essay, one must understand its smaller, more cosmopolitan neighbor:

If there were not Manhattan, there could not be this Brooklyn look; for to truly appreciate what one escapes, it must not be distant but near at hand. Only: all escapes are relative, and provide their own peculiar forms of bondageâ. A few American cities, Manhattan chief among them, have some mad magnetic energy which sucks all others into â“provincialismâ”; and Brooklyn of all great cities is nearest the magnet, and is indeed â“provincialâ”  

There is nothing provincial about the Chrysler Building, where our tour begins and where Agee worked under the auspices of Fortune . To this day, the building is a vision in shiny steel and stirs feelings of patriotismâ"though you're not sure why. Perhaps it is the Edward Turnbull mural, â“Energy, Result, Workmanship and Transportation,â” depicting American laborers in different trades, their cartoonish muscles bulging from overalls and work aprons, that graces the lobby's ceiling. Or maybe it is just the tower's stately exterior. From near or far, the Chrysler dominates the skyline of midtown, shining at night, particularly striking while riding the J train across the East River from Brooklyn.

One imagines Agee appreciating the building's romance. Although by the time he wrote his Brooklyn essay, he might've associated it with the tenuous relationship with his Fortune editors, whom he felt stifled his work.

Following Laurence Bergreen's Agee biography, Maharidge led the way to the first of three apartments Agee inhabited in the West Village. Number 322 West 15th Street looked like any other building on the block, red brick with a little bar/restaurant on the bottom floor. But Maharidge looked at it with wild eyes, knowing snippets of what went on there, like the time Agee convinced Walker Evans to lay his wife Alma right there in front of him, reportedly with a pal snapping pictures. This was something beyond bohemian. â“There was a wind that he created that pulled people in; he was a dangerous man,â” Maharidge noted. â“He was tribal.â”

By the time we rounded up to 38 Perry Street, Agee's second West Village abode, we were getting some weird looks from passersby. Even in New York, where nothing is out of the ordinary, people seemed curious as to our mission, I guess because we were speaking so heatedly. While standing outside 40 Perry, thinking it was 38, the owner of 40 came home with his family and inquired just what we were interested in. Maharidge piped up, â“D'you know James Agee lived here?â”

â“Actually, he lived there,â” the man pointed to his left, â“at 38 Perry.â” Sheepishly, we turned to look at the appropriate doorstep, but he seemed to understand, engaging us with historical factoids of the block.  

All the while we were traipsing in Agee's West Village footsteps, there was the distinct feeling of being watched, and overheard. Sure, there were the pedestrians that looked at us like lunatics, staring up in reverence at a building that looked nearly identical to every other one on the block. But there was something else, and Maharidge had the guts to verbalize it. â“Maybe Agee's ghost is around,â” he said. â“He's probably saying, â‘You bastards talking about me?'â”

The next stop on the tour was Chumley's, the historic speakeasy on Bedford and Barrow. It still doesn't have a proper entrance, though its surreptitious roots have given way to a notorious sort of fame. It was known as a writer's enclave, and when you look it up on the web, it touts Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Eliot as regulars. It was also a favorite spot of the lesser-known Agee, and a particularly debonair photograph of him hangs over an occupied corner booth. (Oddly enough, the old chimney in Chumley's gave way just a few days after our visit, yielding rumors of permanent shutdown. But repairs are now underway, and it's expected to reopen by July 1.)

It was Friday night, and packed. It's hard to say any further than a guess who the other diners wereâ"tourists, locals, NYU students, fellow literary junkies, or just a mixed bag. It didn't matter much, and the thick crowd added to the wholly imagined but thrilling feeling of authenticity. It was suspension of disbelief, and like children fluttering their lids into their mother's syncopated words during a fairytale, we succumbed. Some smoke would've added ambiance, too, but law dictates that cigarettes keep their distance nowadays.

It was then when we began talking like real Agee fanatics; under the cover of bar-noise, we took to glorifying even his faults. The beer tasted good, and there wasn't any reason to pretend we both weren't fools for Agee.

â“Agee was the first to do â‘New Journalism.' Not just that, he practiced â‘method' journalism, where you became part of the story,â” Maharidge said, referring to Agee's tendency to become fully engrossed in stories, to the extent that he would live among his subjects. He set his grayish eyes somewhere in the crowd, â“Agee taught me this: Always consider yourself a spy.â”

There was one more residence we had to visit before we called it a night. It was at 17 King Street, on a bustling corner in the Village. It was dark now, and Maharidge walked up the stairs, saying that this was where he lived until he died of a heart attack in 1955. The black steel railing descending the stairs was cold and slick, freshly painted. â“He just walked out to this corner, hailed a taxi, and died.â”  

Perhaps the most exciting quality of Agee is his ability to seem real. It's not the same as being timeless, or â“a classic.â” No, when you read and speak of him, it seems as if he may as well be there in the room with you. And, like the Mona Lisa of literature, Agee's photo never fails to send chills down the spine. â“Agee is really the dark prince of American literature,â” says Maharidge. â“He's a cult.â”

Brooklyn Is offers confirmation of this following. Its language lulls the willing reader, rhapsodizing about this and that, without ever making its point. If you read it with one eye on the circumstances of his life at the time, it's easy to be more critical, or rather to get at the heart of what might have just been one long jab at his superiors. As always, there is more to his work than at first glance.

Here more than ever, Agee uses unorthodox punctuationâ"his predilection for semicolons is enough to drive any copyeditor over the edge. At times it seems an attempt to capture the vastness of Brooklyn, not only physically but also in its universality. That is, he's endlessly making parallels, reiterating and running on, in some passionate fit of emphasis.

â“[ Brooklyn Is ] reads like he was drunk and pressured and just blowing it out,â” Maharidge says. â“He was trying to finish Let us Now Praise Famous Men at the time and under a lot of pressure. He was also fed up with Fortune . He knew they wouldn't run something that poetic, so it was a total in-your-face to his editors.â”

Despite those charges, the essay manages to come out quite compelling, with a rough intoxicating swagger so characteristic to its author. Maharidge guesses that Famous Men was similarly more poetic, raw and sexual before it fell into the hands of editors.

If the Brooklyn essay was indeed a prank on his editors, it's conceivable Agee never really wanted to see it published. â“I would hate to have everything I've ever written published after I die, if I ever am lucky enough to be that famous,â” says Maharidge. â“Oftentimes if you really care about something, you'll find a way to get it out there. Everyone wants the masterpiece that's been put in the drawer. That's the great myth of American literature, but it hardly ever works that way.â”

Aside from the palpably drunken aspects of the text, there's an unsated sexuality present as well, though not explicit. It is felt through his romance with the inanimate. One feels something guttural and alive when passing by the lonely and beautiful sights in the city. Whether in Brooklyn or Manhattan or Knoxville for that matter, a concrete cross atop a century-old steeple against a grey night sky invokes something in a person. Agee felt these things just like everyone else, but he was able articulate them in a way no one else could.

He seemed overwhelmed by his own sensitivity. Like a fair-skinned child who loved the sunlight, he flung himself at the world. And it is evident in Brooklyn Is , maybe even more so than in other works.

There seems no conceivable end to Brooklynâit is perhaps the most amorphous of all American cities; and at the same time, by virtue of its arterial streets, it has continuities so astronomically vast as Paris alone or the suburbs south of Chicago could match: on Flatbush Avenue, DeKalb, Atlantic, New Lots, Church, any number more, a vista of low buildings and side streets of glanded living sufficient to paralyze all conjecture; simply, far as the eye can strain, no end to Brooklyn, and looking back, far as the eye can urge itself, no end, nor imaginable shore; only, thrust upon the pride of heaven, the monolith of the Empire State, a different mode of life; and even this, seen here, has the smoky frailty of a half-remembered dream.

One might walk across Manhattan's East-West length in 30 minutes, and walking from the North to South end is at least conceivable, though it would take all day. But with Brooklyn, as Agee notes, there is no grid, and hardly any boundaries at all. And the trains here are maddening.

But for all its lack of definition, Brooklyn has distinct neighborhood atmospheres, even if they are rapidly changing. At one point in the poem, Agee describes each one briefly. One might update his laundry listing of Brooklyn neighborhoods and their general character, in terms their modern renderings:

People refer to Bushwick, an area east of Williamsburg, as the new grubby bastion of cool (as was the East Village and subsequently Williamsburg, until they became too gentrified). But they are talking only about the Bushwick off the L train, whose abandoned warehouses are fast being converted into artist lofts and organic groceries and bars. There is also the Bushwick that is off the J-train, which is populated mostly with 99-cent stores and fried chicken chains and barred liquor stores.

There is Park Slope, south of Bushwick/Williamsburg, which is now well known for being a haven for young, hip and socially aware parents. A local ice cream company, Five Boroughs, named its forthcoming Slope-themed flavor â“Strolla Granola,â” if that tells you anything.

There is DUMBO, whose acronym â“Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpassâ” hints at its scenic views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. It was also once known as an artist enclave, but is more commonly eschewed these days as being dreadfully â“gentrified.â” Although, in a city that changes so quickly, it is hard to keep track of what's gentrified, or what the term even means.

There's Fort Greene, which is idyllic and just developed enough to feel safe. On the other hand, there is Crown Heights, and Flatbush, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the lack of gentrification can be both charming and intimidating. Charming are the West Indian markets where there are fruits I've never seen, and nuts in little baggies much cheaper than they are anywhere else. Intimidating are the darkened streets late at night.

Lines are drawn, but there are also plenty of clashes between old and new, hipster and immigrant, this neighborhood and that one. In Greenpoint, at a venue called Warsaw, middle-aged Polish women serve skinny-jeaned rocker kids draft beers. The place is primarily a Polish Community Center, but they hold indie rock shows to raise money. Bands-of-the-hour like The Twilight Singers and Camera Obscura recently played there. Brooklyn is a hodgepodge of such paradoxes.

But here, as it is in Agee's text, all this classification is arbitrary. The true gems in this work are the more detailed accounts of the people he watches, or spies upon, as Maharidge might say.   

Or the mother on Division Avenue whose infant hexes her from its carriage in a gargoyle frown of most intense suspicion: or the street writing in Park Slope, â“Lois I have gone up the street. Don't forget to bring your skates.â”

Now, in Williamsburg, there is a sad stark tag in spray paint on a the side of an old brownstone proclaiming, â“I am so bored and annoyed.â” Perhaps that says something about this day and age, but that is probably reading too much into it.

Always ahead of his time, Agee fixated on street writing way before it was cool. He noticed one desolate door in Bushwick that was painted with the words â“The Lady Who Lives in this House is Nuts.â” Agee notoriously had a similar statement (â“The Man Who Lives Here is Loonyâ”) scrawled on the door of one of his apartments, so this Brooklyn observation leads one to conjecture he may have painted it himself.

That's one thing that saves Agee from being elitist; he at all times considers himself just a wretch like everyone else. He seems to be constantly in awe that the throngs of people are just out there living lives, experiencing highs and lows, births and deaths, and everything in between. His attempts to seek out the universal cause the reader to experience déjà vu, over and all over again. Everything is cyclical, he seems to say, and he doesn't hold back in his visceral description. There are moments of Brooklyn Is that disparage his subjects.

These the sick, the fainted or fecund, the healthful, the young, the living and the dead, the buildings, the streets, the windows, the lining of the ward nests, the lethal chambers of the schools, the fumed and whining factories, the pitiless birds, the animals, that bridge that stands up like God and makes music to himself by night and by day, all in the lordly, idiot light, These are the inhabitants of Brooklyn

Like a poetic horoscope, the same description might be applied to a handful of pedestrians in a Brazilian favela or in the streets of London. And that was Agee's whole point, or so it seems. â“He was attentive to detail, but always seeking the connection to the universal,â” Whitford says. â“I think maybe the reasons these people [the subjects of Famous Men ] felt used by him is, for all his care, he tended to turn people into representatives of something.â”

Unless you happen to be the subject of Agee's descriptions, though, you'll likely identify with them. They are honest. They sting a little. But maybe it's a jolt we all need from time to time. As Maharidge noted at Chumley's, apropos of nothing, â“Most people live false lives. Most people aren't living the way they want to live.â”

Obviously, Agee's diatribes are drawn from his own experience. At one point in the essay, he notes, â“This world is totally dedicated to tame marriages in the first 10 years of their youth.â”

Nothing could be more applicable to this juncture in his troubled life. Thanks to a body of biographical researchâ"much more has been done on him than some better-known writersâ"we know a lot about Agee's personal life. According to Bergreen's biography, he and his second wife Alma were forced, by poverty, to accept the rent-free apartment in Brooklyn on the charity of a friend. Thus, when Fortune decided to focus an issue on the five boroughs, the task of profiling Brooklyn fell to Agee.

Bergreen gives even harsher critique than Maharidge for the Brooklyn text. â“He undertook the project with a reluctance that showed in every line of the manuscript,â” he writes. â“Where Fortune required a straight-forward, factual account, Agee, under the influence of his deeply subjective, eccentric sharecropper book, drafted a halfheartedly impressionistic survey mingling rhetorical flights of fancy with grotesque detail.â”

Indeed, Agee was simultaneously scrambling to finish what would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , which would be ultimately rejected by Fortune as well, and not critically acclaimed until after his death. The text of that work exhibits great obsession, frustration and brilliance. It was his magnum opus, and it seems he viewed this Brooklyn assignment as a petty distraction.

Always a drinker, Agee's boozing issues were becoming more of a problem at this time as well. His relationships were notoriously tumultuous, and he and his second wife Alma were drifting apart. When she became pregnant, he even convinced her to attempt to induce abortion. That attempt failed, and they would carry on in a dysfunctional marriage until he met Mia, his soon-to-be third wife, in 1941. His cynicism about the institution of marriage is evident throughout Brooklyn Is .  

The horror of â“unsuccessfulâ” marriagesâ"unsuccessful that is, as shown by an open or legal break; the lethal effort of Carry On is well thought ofâ"this horror is that there is a special bank to which husbands come one day to deposit, estranged wives the next to be fertilized by this genteel equivalent of alimony. It seems significant of Brooklyn that it is probably the only city that has such a bank.

At the north brow of Prospect Park, where a vast number of these marriages are, in the medical sense, contracted, and where indeed, the whole sweep of infancy, childhood, and the descending discords of family life is on display, there stands a piece of statuaryâit is a man and a nude woman in bronze, and their plump child, eager for the Park, and it represents the beauty and stability of Brooklyn, and of human, family life. The man and woman stand back to back, in the classical posture of domestic sleep. It is a thoroughly vulgar and sincere piece of work, and once one gets past the esthete's myopic scorn, is the infallibly appropriate creation of the whole heart of Brooklyn .

Agee seemed to stand outside of all this provinciality and thumb his nose. Even though he'd marry three times, he seemed to wholly disapprove of the institution. Nonetheless, at times he seemed to yearn for that simple innocence. As Maharidge notes in his book, Agee expressed envy of his subjects, of their ignorant happiness with the lot they were given in life. It had to beat being lonely and frustrated, always clamoring for something.

But the observations of a frustrated man can be quite gorgeous. The Brooklyn essay is a free flowing, if volatile work of prose that echoes with loneliness and a hunger for what is â“real.â” His voice is, in a sense, that of the quintessential outsiderâ"which is also to say a quintessential New Yorker. A modest percentage of New Yorkers are native, and the rest of us are going about trying to understand it all. As trite as it may sound, the kind of person who delights in New York is the type who delights in anonymity more than he does even in cordial familiarity. Even in the â“city,â” we relish the provincial aspectsâ"the guy who checks ID in your building, the crazy woman who sells half-price papers at the subway entrance at 5 o'clock, the pigeon's flustered landing. But it's a distant familiarity, at most.

The Brooklyn essay, naturally, also hits on a good many social issues. Some aren't surprising; Agee liked to write about poverty with a raw, almost insensitive honesty. As in Famous Men , Maharidge notes Agee's tendency toward the â“canonization of poverty. I think he was guilty of that. I've been guilty of it, especially when I was 28â"that's the sin of all young writers, not being fully honest about your characters.â”

Again, Agee's hypersense of humanity enters into this tendency. As Maharidge writes in And Their Children After Them , Agee always feared he was a â“figurative rapist.â” As both Maharidge and Whitford discovered in revisiting the offspring of Agee's Alabama subjects, people either loved or hated him, and once they formed their opinions, they stuck with them.

Maharidge noted in his book that he himself was â“a journalist who struggled to retain detachment.â” He was referring to the painful and delicate nature of the stories of poverty he documented. But, in regard to Agee, whether studying him, chasing his legacy, or just reading him, it is also impossible to remain detached. He doesn't allow it.

Agee, despite his evident disdain for Brooklyn, does manage to capture its spirit of provinciality and dizzyingly heterogeneous culture. Like a cult musician's scrap recordings dredged up and released posthumously, the Brooklyn essay is not his masterpiece, but it's all we have in the way of something â“new.â”   As always, his words are stunning, profound and telling of a mind that could not be caged.

One legacy Agee left, that will surely reverberate forever in the hearts of those who make margin notes (even in the books that aren't quite â“masterpieces,â” like Brooklyn Is ), is a jab of regret. Maharidge says, â“There's always that tendency to ask, â‘If he'd lived another 10 years, what the hell would he have created?'â”

Molly Kincaid is a former Metro Pulse staffer who now lives in New York City.


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