Class “Truths” in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
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Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) stands between James Agee’s “best perceptions” and “best intentions” and a “performance” (Praise 30) that is deeply earnest and highly political. An admixture of stylized sermonettes, lyrical meditations, straightforward journalism, confession, ethnographic field studies, newspaper clippings, and invective, Famous Men challenges Jan Mieszkowski’s doubting assertion that “[Literature] is the site where systems of ethics and politics fail to reconcile themselves to a common aesthetic paradigm in which a representational model of language would also serve as a model of human praxis” (111). The crucial point is that Agee confronts a number of quandaries concerning the relations between representation, expression, self-determination, and social “truths” in moments that go up against the “dormancy, idleness, or irrelevance” of the work’s “poetic spirit” and its struggle “to establish itself as a wholly reliable medium or means to an external end” (Mieszkowski, “Breaking” 111).3 Indeed, constantly seeking out, in Sontag’s words, his “deepest places” and in Rukeyser’s, his “use of truth,” he claimed to find them in Praise but only when his most intimate writing and his most personal experiences came together.
KeywordsPerception Ethic Aesthetic Quality Tennessee Valley Authority Urban Middle Class Pragmatic Inquiry
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