Writer's Guilt

Caleb Crain reads up on depression era culture:

The Depression-era writer who thought mostand felt guiltiestabout what it meant to make art out of suffering was probably James Agee. In “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (1941), his book-length essay about three families of tenant farmers in Alabama, illustrated with photographs taken by the F.S.A.’s Walker Evans, Agee seems sickened by his freedom to write about the unhappiness of others. When, for example, in the course of his reporting, Agee inadvertently startles a young black couple by walking up behind them, he writes that “the least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet.” A sort of trespassing is involved in writing about other people, even when the writing is as gentle as one can manage, just as it’s a violation, however mild, to photograph a person, even though it’s in an artist’s nature to want to capture experience.

[Morris Dickstein author of Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression] writes that Agee “takes full accounttoo full, some would sayof the relation of the observer to the thing observed.” Agee’s prose becomes contorted by desire and guilt, as if he were trying simultaneously to trespass and to atone for trespassing. He repeatedly disavows literary ambition. “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here,” he writes. “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.” But the longing to surpass words leads him, paradoxically, to a highly self-conscious style that is anything but matter-of-fact. Whereas Evans’s photographs sit calmly at the front of the book, arranged so that portraits of family members appear beside one another, Agee’s text is hectic. He complicates it with lists and facsimiles; qualifies it with footnotes whose tone of earnest overelaboration brings to mind David Foster Wallace; redescribes in first person a scene that he has already described largely in third person; and breaks a meditation on the problem of representation into pieces, which he then scatters throughout the book. With fond exasperation, Dickstein calls the baroque structure “confusing, even sophomoric,” and writes of a particularly gooey passage, “Were I not so moved by it, I’d be tempted to dismiss this as self-indulgent prose poetry.”

Further thoughts at Crain's blog.