Books: The Metropolitan Critic — The Perpetual Promise of James Agee |
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The Perpetual Promise of James Agee

The two volumes of Agee’s bye-writings called The Collected Poems of James Agee and The Collected Short Prose of James Agee don’t add anything revolutionary to our picture of the author, but what they do add is good and solid. The Collected Poems volume reissues the whole of the long-lost “Permit Me Voyage” and tacks on about three times as much other material, thereby vastly enlarging the field in which Agee can be studied as a poet. The results of such a study are likely to be mixed, since his disabling limitations as a poet are revealed along with the continuity of his dedication and seriousness: poetry just didn’t bring out the best in him. The Collected Short Prose volume, on the other hand, is a book which demands to be considered—some of the pieces collected in it are as weighty and as rich as scraps and shavings can well get.

“He had so many gifts,” Dwight Macdonald once wrote of Agee, “including such odd ones, for intellectuals, as reverence and feeling.” Very true, and what is more he had them at an early age. The early Harvard Advocate short stories included here are quite astonishing in their moral maturity: the emotional wisdom that other men must strive to attain seems to have been present in Agee as a gift, and it’s easy to see why he impressed his contemporaries as some kind of Rimbaud of the understanding—the range of sympathy inspires not just awe, but a certain dread. Indeed it’s possible to argue, in the light of these early efforts, that to have it all is to have too much. Men whose minds and talents grow through the recognition and correction of error probably find it easier to shape their lives. Agee had a deficient practical sense, largely bungled his career, completed only a tenth of what was in him and habitually overwrote—economy, for an artist with a faculty of registration as fertile as his, didn’t mean weeding the garden so much as chopping the orchids down with a machete. Only the kind of sensitivity which develops can come up with a novel like The Great Gatsby—to produce a book like that in its maturity, it has to be capable of writing This Side of Paradise in its youth. A saving obtuseness was simply never part of Agee’s equipment. With his entire creative life stretching ahead of him, he had almost nothing left to learn.

“Death in the Desert,” from the October 1930 issue of the Harvard Advocate, is the story of a young man hitch-hiking through the slump. At first glance it’s anybody’s story of a college boy going on the bum to discover America, and turns on the seemingly elementary moral point that the kind couple who pick him up won’t stop for a Negro in serious trouble. But the control of the narrative, the modulations of the tone, the registration of speech patterns and the presentation of character combine to turn the story away from neatness and towards complexity, judgement permanently suspended. The narrator (Agee in thin disguise) has a boil in his ear. At the beginning of the story, where he waits an eternity to be picked up while crippled hobos get lifts with ease, the boil looks like a comic device.

For a while I talked with a peg-legged man of perhaps sixty; he spent his winters with his niece and her husband in St Louis. In the summers he got out of their way. His luck was always good, he said—too damned good. This summer he’d been through St Louis twice already. Unless he did something about it, he’d be there again inside of a week. Did I have a cigarette? Thanks... . All the while, as he talked, he watched the cars come up the road, and flicked his thumb eastward as each one approached. He stood always with his peg leg towards town. Before long a Chandler, after running a half-mile gauntlet of men, slowed down for him. He took another cigarette and was gone.

For the rest of us, rides came more slowly. My ear was too sore, by now, to make talking a pastime. I sat down on my coat and decided that it was rather less than necessary on days like this. After a couple of hours, I considered the manifold advantages of being conspicuously a cripple. After another hour I had the idea of holding up a sign:


The humour reminds us of one previous writer, Lardner, and of several subsequent writers, especially Salinger, whose early stories like “This Sandwich Has No Mayonnaise” echo the tone precisely (consider the way that story’s platoon sergeant translates his man-management problems into movie marquee slogans like FOUR MUST GO—FROM THE TRUCK OF THE SAME NAME). But the sore ear turns out to be a lot more than just a comic device. It’s because of the nagging twinges he is suffering that the narrator decides to make no protest when the driver who picks him up eventually steps on the accelerator instead of the brake and races past the desperate Negro’s outstretched arms. Agee is making the subtle point that we are likely to treat ourselves as a special case when we are in pain, and defer our duties on the assumption that the Fates, or our better selves, will understand. Like the bad tooth in Darkness at Noon, the boil resists all attempts to make something symbolical of it—it’s just a fact, leading to more facts, in a sequence of marvellously analytical probings and worryings. Agee was twenty when he wrote the story. An ounce more talent and he would have sunk into the earth.

Another Advocate story, “They That Sow in Sorrow Shall Reap,” is similarly ... well, precocious is the wrong word: prodigious. The young Agee character is immured in a dreadful boarding house, whose master is an ageing and barely repressed queer. They strike a silent bargain, in which the old man is allowed to adore but not to touch, beyond the occasional friendly squeeze of the shoulder. Agee introduces a young acquaintance into the boarding house. The old man tries the friendly squeeze and gets slapped in the mouth. All the tacit understandings upon which the house has previously run, and especially the relationship between the old man and his wife, promptly collapse. Agee the character is reduced to tacit agonies of self-recrimination and regret, while Agee the writer records the to-ings and fro-ings in the shattered household with customary mastery. Supposing Agee had dropped dead the following year—wouldn’t we be justified, on this showing, in the conjecture that he might have been one of the great writers of the century?

The real tragedy, looking back, is not in the presence of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or A Death in the Family or all the other part-realized things, unsatisfactory though they are, but in the absence of that sequence of novels which might have recollected his life—a sequence for the writing of which he had qualifications rivalling Proust’s. Unfortunately an “autobiographical novel” (his quotes) was only one among many of the long-term Agee projects. Recollection was fundamental to the cast of his mind, but it wasn’t his creative obsession. He wasn’t neurotic enough. If people had hated him more he might have taken revenge; if he had hated himself sufficiently, he might have made redress; as it was, he had only love to drive him forward, and love makes poor fuel in its pure state. It’s a heavy irony that through Agee the “positive” creative attitude which people like Archibald MacLeish were currently calling for could well have established its own tradition. That it failed to come about was not just MacLeish’s loss but everybody’s, not least those who had seen the disingenuousness of the “positive” propaganda but who would be compelled in the future to watch the American novel wave goodbye to everything Agee represented. It’s been said that Agee wasn’t bored by virtue—another way of saying that he could see what was interesting about normality. When he went down, he took three or four decades of ordinary American life with him, and the middlebrow salvage operations—O’Hara, Cheever and the like—got nowhere near lifting the hulk.

The two “satiric” pieces included in The Collected Short Prose are from later in the day and are in a familiar Agee vein of phantasmagoria: the letter from Agee to Macdonald quoted in Macdonald’s “Jim Agee, A Memoir” (printed as an appendix to the excellent critical essay on Agee in Against the American Grain) gives a better idea of the referential lushness of his intelligence when he allowed it to run wild. There was something compulsive about the way he piled on the detail, and friends who received such letters might well have frowned through their delight—why take so much time and trouble, and to what purpose? Here are some scraps from the letter to Macdonald:

I think The Brothers Karamazov deserves the co-operation of all the finest talents in Hollywood and wd. richly repay all research & expenditure. A fullsized replica, complete down to the last topmizznmst, of the Mad Tsar Pierre (Charles Laughton). Papa Karamazov (Lionel Barrymore). His comic servant Grigory (Wallace Beery). Grigory’s wife (Zazu Pitts). Smerdyakov (Charles Laughton). Smerdyakov’s Familiar, a cat named Tabitha (Elsa Lanchester, the bride of Frankenstein). Zossima (Henry B. Walthall) ... Miusov (Malcolm Cowley) ... in Alyosha’s Dream: Alyosha (Fred Astaire). Puck (Wallace Beery). Titania (Ginger Rogers or James Cagney)... . Routines by Albertina Rasch. Artificial snow by Jean Cocteau... . Entire production supervised by Hugh Walpole... . To be played on the world’s first Globular Screen, opening at the Hippodrome the night before Jumbo closes... . Artificial foreskins will be handed out at the north end of the Wilhelmstrasse to anyone who is fool enough to call for them.

Stuff like this reminds us of the many reasons why Perelman was unassailable—to begin with, he was far funnier. And Perelman wrote his madcap collages as therapy: Agee at this time (1936) was not involved in Hollywood and had no frustrations to work off, except perhaps the frustration of not being part of it all. There is something cancerous about this side of his talent. It produces cells uncontrollably, and the longer satirical piece included here (called “Dedication Day,” and nominally given over to goosing the scientists and politicians responsible for the first atomic bombs) runs away with itself in a fashion simultaneously boring and worrying.

As convincing demonstrations of just how sensitive Agee was, there are two small fragments—“Run Over,” about a cat hit by a car, and “Give Him Air,” about a human car-crash victim dying—which are strictly unbearable: you’d need nerves of steel to read them twice. At the end of the first piece Agee notes in parenthesis that “Things like this are happening somewhere on the earth every second.” It’s one of the peculiarities of Agee’s writing that he can achieve delicacy and subtlety but never distance. He took everything right on the chin. This doesn’t mean that all his material presented itself to him as having equal value, but it did present itself with equal impact. If he’d cared less, he might have been able to shape things more easily. A man who doesn’t know which way to turn finds it hard to get his head down. His doomed application for a 1937 Guggenheim grant is printed here—there are 47 separate projects.

For the Guggenheim people it must have been like trying to estimate Leonardo da Vinci in an early period. What were they to make of “Extension in writing; ramification in suspension; Schubert 2-cello Quintet”? (“Experiments, mostly in form of the lifted and maximum-suspended periodic sentence. Ramification [and development] through developments, repeats, semi-repeats, of evolving thought, of emotion, of associates and dissonants.”) Don’t ring us: we’ll ring you. The awkward truth is that the capacity for general thought which Macdonald praised in Agee worked mainly as a drawback, blurring his creative focus. His comparatively low productivity isn’t sufficiently explained by pointing to his chaotic style of life, and it’s even possible to suggest—tentatively, remembering we are strangers—that the style of life might have been in part a reflection of a gift continually troubled by the search for the one idea that would temporarily suppress all the others. Where can will-power come from in a mind so short of limitations?

Travel notes and movie projects end the book. The fragments of filmscript bear out Macdonald’s acute remark that Agee’s scripts were the work of a frustrated director—details of camera angles and lighting (precisely the stuff that no film director ever wants to see in a script) are gone into at numbing length. As it happened, Agee spent the 1930s a long way away from the Hollywood salt mines, toiling naked in a salt mine of another type—the Luce magazines. The long (57-page) and praiseworthy introduction to the Collected Short Prose book is by Robert Fitzgerald, a friend of Agee’s, and valuably complicates the story of Agee’s connections with Time, Life and Fortune (or Dime, Spy and Destiny as Philip Barry called them) which Macdonald recounts with forbidding plangency in his memoir. (As demonstrated most notably by his embalming job on Hemingway, Macdonald has a tendency to wrap up a dead body and throw away the key to the sarcophagus: all done in the name of preservation, but a touch too slick.) “Under a reasonable dispensation,” Mr. Fitzgerald writes,

a man who had proved himself a born writer before he left the university could go ahead in that profession, but this did not seem to be the case in the United States in 1932. Neither in Boston nor New York nor elsewhere did there appear any livelihood appropriate for a brilliant President of The Harvard Advocate, nor any mode of life resembling that freedom of research that I have sketched as ours at Harvard. In the shrunken market the services of an original artist were not in demand. Hart Crane and Vachel Lindsay took their lives that spring. Great gifts always set their possessors apart, but not necessarily apart from any chance to exercise them; this gift at that time pretty well did... . Agree thankfully took the first job he could get and joined the staff of Fortune a month after graduation.

Which settles the question of why Agee joined Luce in the first place. Nevertheless, Macdonald is surely right in arguing that the Luce ambience did Agee crippling damage by offering him the illusion of being able to do serious work. The years clocked up and words went down the drain in thousands—nothing to be much ashamed of, but nothing to be proud of either. It was the state, familiar to all young writers in harness, of doing well without doing anything properly. Perhaps Hollywood would have been better, but he was without bargaining power and without that you stood an excellent chance of getting yourself killed. It took prestige like Faulkner’s to be able to use Hollywood: failing that, Hollywood used you. As it was, Agee became the supreme critic of the period’s films, and began to participate only after the industry had embarked on its long and agonizing modification of the studio system.

Even then, results were not robust. Apart from the charming The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, there is nothing substantial except the largely unknown and fiercely underrated The Night of the Hunter, one of the key works in the whole Agee canon. The one and only film directed by Charles Laughton (who in his last years was reprising Captain Bligh opposite Abbott and Costello and who stands with Peter Lorre as an example of what the Hollywood mill could do to the European intellectual), it incarnates Agee’s conception of the struggle between love and hate—Robert Mitchum, as the homicidal preacher, has the letters of these two short words inscribed on his knuckles, and stages a wrestling match between his two hands to mesmerize his victims.

It is a unique film, a taste of what Agee might have done. But he spent too much of his time and hopes involved with John Huston, a semi-artist of overwhelming personal charm who launched Agee’s career as a script-writer by getting him to “lick the book” of The African Queen, which as a Bogart-Hepburn vehicle won its Oscars but did not add up to very much. Reputedly it was an early morning, killer-diller tennis match with Huston that first put a strain on Agee’s heart. Certainly it would be neat symbolism: Agee was not equipped to stay in the running with men like Huston, whose lives were geared to turning out work just above (never too far above) the Hollywood norm and who put their real creativity into the lifestyle that stuns and the pace that kills. Creatively, Agee had no gear except top—he could never have worked Faulkner’s trick of giving them nothing but a refined and characteristic version of what they wanted. Sometimes they were right, too. In a film like The Big Sleep, some of the most memorable Chandler dialogue isn’t Chandler’s but Faulkner’s written with his left hand: of Bogart’s famous line “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up,” the first half is Chandler and the second half—which precisely fits the lightened, racy tone Hawks gives the film visually—is Faulkner. Faulkner, who took the money and ran, got more out of Hollywood and put more back than Chandler, who gave it everything he had as a writer, saw little on the screen to show for it and was well-nigh consumed by bitterness.

In a cooperative enterprise you play percentages or lose all. The difference between the two men (a temperamental difference in the ability to see what was likely and possible) is worth drawing, since Agee was a larger and more complete example of Chandler’s type—all artist and nothing but an artist. Hollywood ate men like that for breakfast. It’s remarkable, given Agee’s psychology, that he got as much done out there as he did.

Closing these two books with that mixture of gratitude and regret which any writing by Agee seems invariably to call from us, we can vary Tolstoy’s question and ask—how much talent does a man need? “He could get magic into his writing the hardest way, by precise description,” says Macdonald, and quotes this passage from A Death in the Family:

First an insane noise of violence in the nozzle, then the still irregular sound of adjustment, then the smoothing into steadiness and a pitch as accurately tuned to the size and style of stream as any violin ... the short still arch of the separate big drops, silent as a held breath, and the only noise the flattering noise on leaves and the slapped grass at the fall of each big drop. That, and the intense hiss with the intense stream; that, and that same intensity not growing less but growing more quiet and delicate with the turn of the nozzle, up to that extreme tender whisper when the water was just a wide bell of film.

He could write, all right. But Macdonald didn’t draw attention to the underlying pathos of paragraphs—stanzas?—like this. “Words cannot embody,” Agee wrote in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “they can only describe.” Yet he poured torrents of energy into making them embody. He was beyond words. Everything he wrote, and not just the scripts, was the work of a frustrated director: the page was a wrap-around screen with four-track stereophonic sound. Fundamentally anti-economical, it was the approach of a putter-in rather than a leaver-out, and all too frequently his prose had a coronary occlusion right there in front of you. It’s the reason why even his famous essay on the silent comedians is somehow debilitating, and by extension the reason why his film criticism as a whole was finally less influential than Parker Tyler’s (who couldn’t write half so well): too much of his effort went into making the prose re-create, point for point, what he had seen.

Agee’s inability to be narrowly professional was part of his humanity. He was versatile in an age that doesn’t understand versatility. Yet it’s possible to imagine him getting more things finished—or would be possible, if it weren’t for the suspicion that something was wrong from the start. Half the reward of being an artist is becoming one. Agee missed out on that.

(Times Literary Supplement, 1972)

Postscript (i)

Agee was one of my heroes as a critic. At Cambridge, Sonny Mehta had Agee’s collected film criticism in his unique private library. I borrowed the book, practically memorized it, and added Agee to the long list of modern American critical journalists—it started with James Gibbons Huneker, although further in the background there was always Mark Twain—whose colloquial verve gave me support for writing about serious art in a conversational manner, and about unserious art as if it counted. So I was already an admirer of Agee before I read his short fiction. I had no warrant for calling O’Hara and Cheever “middlebrow”—a word I would never countenance now, because it is good for nothing except to define the sort of person who would use it. At the time I was still in the process of being bowled over by Dwight Macdonald, and especially by his collection of pieces Against the American Grain: the word “middlebrow,” if not actually coined by him, was wielded by him to some effect, although in the long run it left him in too splendid an isolation.

On the evidence of Agee’s short stories, it is now plain, he could have found a way ahead by writing very short novels, or linked novellas, in the manner later exemplified by Andre Dubus and Raymond Carver. The lure of the big novel led him astray, and eventually to nowhere. But in any case of unfulfilled promise there are usually personal factors operating to make nonsense of critical analysis. For example, Agee drank as heavily as Faulkner, but without Faulkner’s canny knack of husbanding his strength. I was taking a chance, by the way, when I ascribed that line in the movie of The Big Sleep to Faulkner: one of Hawks’s hack cronies might have supplied it during a poker game. There are no prizes for spotting that I had myself in mind when I said Agee was versatile in an age that doesn’t understand versatility. What I neglected to add was that no age ever has. Leonardo had people telling him that he was spreading himself thin.

(The Metropolitan Critic, 1994)

Postscript (ii)

Has anyone noticed how the lawn-watering scene from A Death in the Family sounds like Nicholson Baker? The same droplets fall on the same lawn in The Fermata. Smart critics looking for antecedents of Baker’s miraculously micrometric registration might care to take a look. It won’t change anything, but it is always salutary to have further evidence that even the most extreme originality is usually an inherited event.

Agee, if he had known how to work in solitude like Baker, might have left us a longer shelf of fully realized books. But Agee needed a context. The Luce magazines merely wasted his time, but Hollywood would probably have ruined him even had he been more in demand. Later on, Terry Southern, a comparably innovative writer, was led to destruction after cracking Hollywood at top level. Living up to his new income even after it disappeared, he slaved on a succession of doomed projects, assiduously dissipating the lustre of his gift as he worked his way towards oblivion. In that respect, he and Agee can be mentioned in the same breath, but we should be slow to interpret their inability to work the system as an exalted dedication to their calling. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know they were being tempted. They just weren’t canny enough when they succumbed. Today, a writer as individual as David Mamet can survive and flourish in the context of the movies, and do much to raise their standard: but it takes a nose for business on a level with his ear for dialogue. Thus equipped, he can express everything that’s in him. Taken together, Agee and Southern expressed only a fraction of what was in either: a bad way for artists to be joined in kinship. Both of them, however, resist being patronized. They did enough to show us what they could do. Hence our disappointment that they didn’t do more of it. Let us now praise famous men: it’s a harder exhortation to obey when they waste their gifts, but praise is still what they are owed, for having expressed the gift to the extent that we became aware of it at all.