November 21, 2006


Caption: If I could write like Agee, I'd praise famous peacocks (or peafowl, to use inclusive language).

This is the second 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 previous post.

This book, intended to be a description of life among impoverished Alabama sharecroppers in the 1930s, has become an impressionistic classic. This post and the next few are intended to give a little of its flavor.

It’s hard to describe this book. It’s full of quotations, biblical and liturgical reference, poetry, descriptions, political barbs, musings and random rants. Good though, as Utah Phillips would be quick to say.

To get a sense of the irony, quirkiness and outrage, try this:

‘…this is a book about “sharecroppers,” and it is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price; in the hope that the reader will be edified, and may feel kindly disposed toward any well-thought-out liberal efforts to rectify the unpleasant situation down South, and will somewhat better and more guiltily appreciate the next good meal he eats; and in the hope, too, that he will recommend this little book to really sympathetic friends, in order that our publishers may at least cover their investment and that (just the merest perhaps) some kindly thought may be turned our way, and a little of your money fall to poor little us.’

‘Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art.

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

(El Cabrero totally agrees about all that public acceptance stuff, provided y'all keep reading Goat Rope and helm me find fresh victims for it.)

Next time: cool Agee rants on education.


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