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Class “Truths” in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

  • William Dow
Chapter
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Part of the American Literature Readings in the 21st Century book series (ALTC)

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Perception Ethic Aesthetic Quality Tennessee Valley Authority Urban Middle Class Pragmatic Inquiry 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    Evans Chan, “Against Postmodernism, etcetera—A Conversation with Susan Sontag,” Postmodern Culture 12, 12 (2001): 8.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Muriel Rukeyser, A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. Jan Heller Levi (New York: Norton, 1994 ), 121.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Of course, Agee had to subvert standard documentary forms to try to make Famous Men succeed in reaching such an end. This chapter will explore several ways in which he does so. On this issue, see the excellent work of Michael Staub, Voices of Persuasion: Politics of Representation in 1930s America ( Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994 ), 21–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Alan Wald, “The 1930s Left in U.S. Literature Reconsidered,” in Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture, ed. Bill Mullen and Sherry Linkon (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1996 ), 13–28.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Walker Evans’s retrospective comments on his “independent” but mutually beneficial collaboration with Agee in Famous Men characterize, as Stuart Culver notes, how “Agee provided Evans with an atmosphere or medium in which images of the sharecroppers emerged in response to the writer’s efforts to represent them in language” (194): “I was really able to trail along and take advantage of an atmosphere that James Agee created with these people” (Evans 320). See Walker Evans, “Discussions with the Students of the University of Michigan,” in Photographic Essays and Images, ed. Beaumont Newhal (New York: Museum of Modern Art Press, 1980), 311–320.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    On the importance of the tropological function of language and a text’s symmetries, see Paul de Mann, “Introduction à la littérature allemande contemporaine,” in Wartime Journalism, 1939–1943, ed. Werner Hamacher, Neil Hertz, and Thomas Keenan. ( Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1988 ), 200–201.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    For some of the voyeuristic and sexual implications of sleep involving the narrator and female characters, see Linda Wagner Martin, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—and Women: Agee’s Absorption in the Sexual,” in James Agee: Reconsiderations, ed. Michael A. Lofaro. Tennessee Studies in Literature, vol. 33 ( Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1992 ), 44–58.Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    See Theodore W. Adorno, “The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel,” in Notes to Literature, vol. 1, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia UP, 1991 ), 30–36.Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    See Jon-Christian Suggs, “Marching! Marching! and the Idea of the Proletarian Novel,” in The Novel and the American Left: Critical Essays on Depression -Era Fiction, ed. Janet Galligani Casey (Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press, 2004 ), 159–161.Google Scholar
  10. 22.
    For a feminist “focus on gender not as a predetermined condition of the production of texts, but as a textual effect,” see Robyn Warhol, “Guilty Cravings: What Feminist Narratology Can Do for Cultural Studies,” in Narratologies: New Perspectives on Narrative Analysis, ed. David Herman (Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1999), 342–348;Google Scholar
  11. 22.
    and Sally Robinson, Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women’s Fiction ( New York: State Univ. of New York, 1991 ).Google Scholar

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© William Dow 2009

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