Lately, I find myself returning to literature written before I was born (1956). When I saw the review of LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN in THE NEW YORKER, I became instantly convinced that I should purchase it. I'd known Agee's work since I was 13, when I first read DEATH IN THE FAMILY. I belonged to the Scholastic Book Club and every month my mother gave me change out of her the bottom of her purse so I could buy the books I had faithfully marked on my order form. I was haunted by this book as a teen, and I remain haunted still. I will always believe that few American writers ever achieved anything comparable to the beginning of DEATH IN THE FAMILY, a short italicized introduction which begins: "We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child." Agee's sensory details throughout DEATH amaze. Another stunning passage reads: "Supper was at six and was over by half past. There was still daylight, shining softly and with a tarnish, like the lining of a shell;" I could go on, because every page of this book is a treasure. But I would like to turn my attention to LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN, which I had never read until now.
I will preface my remarks by saying that I am a writer currently very interested in the distinction between fiction and non-fiction writing. Agee addresses this issue by saying: "In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger." It's perhaps this interest of mine in the craft of writing itself that has made FAMOUS MEN so fascinating to me.
Another thing: In the beginning pages, Agee writes with absolute humility towards his own writing and his subject matter. This was stunning to me, because I've also read Agee's movie reviews, and in those writings Agee is witty, merciless, honest, and very confident in his own opinion. In short, they are some of the best movie reviews I have ever read. However, FAMOUS MEN is another kind of writing altogether. As Agee admits, his efforts to capture his subject matter through words were a failure. Words are inefficient, inadequate in matters so huge. He wrote: "If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. 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."
That FAMOUS MEN is not more popular does not surprise me, nor was Agee surprised, I think, when the book got bad reviews and suffered poor sales. FAMOUS MEN, I think, is not the sort of book that would ever gain wide acceptance. It is a flawed masterpiece that takes a lot of work to absorb, but well worth the effort.
I don't know the extent to which Agee may have been devastated, nonetheless, at the way America turned its back on his masterpiece. I do know that Agee seemed to suggest in the early pages of FAMOUS MEN that the worst thing that can happen to any artist is mass acceptance. Perhaps mass acceptance is something the writer both wants and fears; I don't know. But Agee does say in FAMOUS MEN that he felt that as soon as, say, Beethoven's music is used as a form of relaxation or as a background to the mundane activities human beings inevitably become so wrapped up in, then the music has lost its vitality. That is why Agee suggests:
"Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or of Schubert's C-Major Symphony. But I don't mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down onto floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it."
The same might be said for FAMOUS MEN. You can't read it as you would some other books, even DEATH IN THE FAMILY, which has a nice and clean chronological structure. You have to really pay attention when you read FAMOUS MEN. If you concentrate, you will hear FAMOUS MEN in your whole body. And if it hurts you, you will be glad.