James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a Death in the Family, & Shorter Fiction (Library of America) Hardcover – 6 Oct 2005
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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.
Though I have not yet received the LOA edition, I was compelled to add a review if only to counter the first reviewer here who is intent on seeing only ideology rather than the writing. If the work is looked at without the rose-colored glasses of (conservative) political correctness, you'll find there is an amazing writer and thinker behind the words.
Just read the works for yourself, not through an ideological smokescreen.
I read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when I was a teenager, and it struck me then as something very unique, powerful, and transcendently beautiful. It still does. When reading it again, in my 54th year, it reads almost like a long, gorgeous fever dream; as if Agee had reached some stratosphere of writing few artist ever do. I will always consider this work one of the greatest expressions of humanity ever written - a snapshot of a life, a people, and a time that should go in the space capsule.
So, I am not recommending book based on who James Agee was as a man; I am recommending this book by saying that his writing is absolutely beautiful.
His writings, whether they be fiction or non-fiction, are thoughtful, heartfelt and he uses the English words so fluidly that all his writings read as prose.
In one of his books, he requested that it be read aloud - and he was right. When read aloud it was like a song. I have found that to be true that with all his writings...
I throw this word around VERY infrequently, but one of the words I always feel I must use with James Agee is "genius".