James Agee in 1936

Now an associate editor of FORTUNE, WALKER EVANS has claim to the double distinction of writer and photographer. In 1936 Mr. Evans was a roving photographer for the New Deal government, and his sharp,telling photographs complemented perfectly JamesAgee’s text for LET us NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN.This extraordinary study of Southern tenant families will be republished this fall by Houghton Mifflin Company.


AT THE time, Agee was a youthful-looking twenty-seven. I think he felt he was elaborately masked, but what you saw right away — alas for conspiracy — was a faint rubbing of Harvard and Exeter, a hint of family gentility, and a trace of romantic idealism. He could be taken for a likable American young man, an above-average product of the Great Democracy from any part of the country. He didn’t look much like a poet, an intellectual, an artist, or a Christian, each of which he was. Nor was there outward sign of his paralyzing, self-lacerating anger. His voice was pronouncedly quiet and low-pitched, though not of cultivated tone. It gave the impression of diffidence but never of weakness. His accent was more or less unplaceable, and it was somewhat variable. For instance, in Alabama it veered toward Country-Southern, and I may say he got away with this with the farm families and himself.

His clothes were deliberately cheap, not only because he was poor but because he wanted to be able to forget them. He would work a suit into fitting him perfectly by the simple method of keeping it on most of the time. Eventually the cloth would mold itself to his frame. Cleaning and pressing would have undone this beautiful process. I exaggerate, but it did seem sometimes that wind, rain, work, and mockery were his tailors. On another score, he felt that wearing good, expensive clothes involved him in some sort of claim to superiority of the social kind. Here he occasionally confused his purpose and fell over into a knowingly comical inverted dandyism. He got more delight out of factory-seconds sneakers and a sleazy cap than a straight dandy does from waxed calf Peal shoes and a brushed Lock & Co. bowler.

Physically, Agee was quite powerful, in the deceptive way of uninsistent large men. In movement he was rather graceless. His hands were large, long, bony, light, and uncared for. His gestures were one of the memorable things about him. He seemed to model, fight, and stroke his phrases as he talked. The talk, in the end, was his great distinguishing feature. He talked his prose, Agee prose. It was hardly a twentieth-century style; it had Elizabethan colors. Yet it had extraordinarily knowledgeable contemporary content. It rolled just as it reads; but he made it sound natural something just there in the air like any other part of the world. How he did this, no one knows. You would have blinked, gaped, and very likely run from this same talk delivered without his mysterious ability. It wasn’t a matter of show, and it wasn’t necessarily bottle inspired. Sheer energy of imagination was what lay behind it. I his he matched with physical energy. Many a man or woman has fallen, exhausted, to sleep at four in the morning, bang in the middle of a remarkable Agee performance, and later learned that the man had continued it somewhere else until six. Like many born writers who are floating in the illusory amplitude of their youth, Agee did a great deal of writing in the air. Often you had the impulse to gag him and tie a pen to his hand. That wasn’t necessary; he was an exception among talking writers. He wrote, devotedly and incessantly.

Night was his time. In Alabama he worked I don’t know how late. Some parts of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men read as though they were written on the spot at night. Later, in a small house in Frenchtown, New Jersey, the work, I think, was largely night written. Literally, the result shows this; some of the sections read best at night, far in the night. The first passage of A Country Letter is particularly night permeated.

Agee worked in what looked like a rush and a rage. In Alabama he was possessed with the business of finding out everything he could about the lives he intended to describe. He must not have slept. He was driven to see all he could of the families’ day, starting, of course, at dawn. In one way, conditions there were ideal. He could live inside the subject, with no distractions. Backcountry poor life wasn’t very tar from him, actually. He had some of it in his blood, through relatives in Tennessee. Anyway, he was in flight from New York magazine editorial offices, from Greenwich Village social-intellectual evenings, and especially from the whole world of highminded, well-bred, money-hued culture, whether authoritarian or libertarian. In Alabama he sweated and scratched with submerged glee. The families understood what he was down there to do. He’d explained it, in such a way that they were interested in his work. He wasn’t playing. That is why in the end he left out of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men certain completed passages that were entertaining, in an acid way. One of these was a long, gradually hilarious aside on the subject of hens. It was a virtuoso piece heightened with allegory and bemused with the pathetic fallacy.

He won almost everybody in those families — possibly too much — even though some of the individuals were hard-bitten, sore, and shrewd. Probably it was his diffidence that made them accept him. That nonassurance was, I think, a hostage to his very Anglican childhood training. His Christianity — if an outsider may try to speak of it — was a punctured and residual remnant, but it was still a naked, root emotion. It was an exChurch, or non-Church matter, and it was hardly in evidence. All you saw of it was an ingrained courtesy, an uncourtly courtesy that emanated from him toward anyone, perhaps excepting the smugly rich, the pretentiously genteel, and the police. After a while, in a roundabout way, you discovered that, to him, human beings were at least possibly immortal and literally sacred souls.

The days with the families came abruptly to an end. Their real content and meaning has all been shown. The writing they induced is, among other things, the reflection of one resolute, private rebellion. Agee’s rebellion was unquenchable, selfdamaging, deeply principled, infinitely costly, and ultimately priceless.