November 22, 2006


Caption: If I could write like Agee, I'd praise famous hummingbirds.

This is the third post in a series on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the earlier entries.

As mentioned before, this book was the result of an effort by Agee and Evans to live among and write about sharecroppers during the Great Depression.

The book is wildly impressionistic and hard to describe, so consider this series to be a sampler, a reminder to those who have read it before and an invitation to new readers.

Agee’s book is in large measure a protest against what poverty and oppression do to the human potential:

In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility towards human life; towards the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of error, and of God

His viewpoint ranges from the very concrete to the universal. Here are examples of both:

At one point, he imagines this monologue from a farm woman:

How did we get caught? Why is it things always seem to go against us? Why is it there can’t ever be any pleasure in living? I’m so tired it don’t seem like I ever could get rest enough. I’m as tired when I get up in the morning as I am when I lay down at night. Sometimes it seems like there wouldn’t never be no end to it, nor even a let-up. One year it’ll look like things was going to be pretty good; but you get a little bit of money saved, something always happens.

At another, the viewpoint is cosmic:

Each is intimately connected with the bottem and the extremest reach of time:

Each is composed of substances identical with the substances identical with the substance of all that surrounds him, both the common objects of his disregard, and the hot centers of stars:

All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe…

Finally, this deep sense of the human potential and the damage done to it under conditions of inequality and injustice forms the basis of his politics:

believe that every human being is potentially capable, within his 'limits,' of fully 'realizing' his potentialities; that this, his being cheated and choked of it, is infinitely the ghastliest, commonest, and most inclusive of all the crimes of which the human world can accuse itself; and that the discovery and use of 'consciousness," which has always been and is our deadliest enemy and deceiver, is also the source and guide of all hope and cure, and the only one.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I feel bad ~ I'm so un-intellectual that I don't understand a lot of the things you write about, but I LOVE the pictures. Do you take most of them, or does La Cabrera?