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James Agee Remembered

The Advocate

By Tina Rathborne

The Harvard Advocate: Commemorative to James Agee. Vol CV Number Four Feb. 1972 Available Thurs., March 2 at the Union, the dining halls of Harvard houses, Cabot, Currier, Holmes, Comstock, Cabot, the Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont, The Childe Room Widener, Lehman Hall.

THE GIDEONS would be wise to leave off their crusade for Bibles in motel rooms, and replace them instead with copies of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James R. Agee, hard-backed edition.

It is with this partiality that I approach The Harvard Advocate's Commemorative Issue to James Agee '32, born 1909, died 1955, President of The Harvard Advocate '32, author of Permit Me Voyage, 1934 (poetry), author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941, film reviewer for The Nation, writer of film scripts, author of The Morning Watch, 1950, and A Death in the Family, published posthumously, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

The Harvard Advocate, February, 1972, is a compilation of thirteen respects to Agee, of which six have already been published. Of the six, two are pieces of Agee's own writing, one is the "James Agee in 1936" by Walker Evans which appeared in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, one is a collection of reprints of the photographs by Walker Evans which were shown last winter in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, another is the "Chronology" which was taken from the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, and another is the "Bibliography" taken from James Agee. Promise and Fulfillment by Kenneth Seib. To Agee-philes these artifacts are already solidly part of the scanty and passionate memorabilia of the man. A retrospective reaffirmation is all they call for.

Of the remaining skimpy majority of new respects to Agee is Robert Coles' "James Agee's 'Famous Men Seen Again," refined rehash of his article, "Understanding White Rascists" which appeared in the Dec. 30, 1971 issue of The New York Review of Books. Coles points out that Agee's reverence in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is for the poor white farmers that the 60's Civil Rights Workers mentality found so hateable, for all their hates and fears. Effectively, Let Us Now Praise is a handbook in counteraction of the 60's self-righteousness. Of all the respects to Agee, this is the most compelling.

Too, Robert Coles' article raises questions which one imagines he could have asked himself. Into what kind of emphasis does Agee's having been born and raised in Knoxville. Tennessee throw his particular affection for the white families of the Ricketts, the Gudgers and the Woods? As would be expected of any child brought up in the deep South, was Agee taught at an early age to look down on the poorer white population and to hate the blacks? Was Let Us Now Praise an exorcism of an inculcated condescension?

Robert Coles questions why Agee did not see through rationalization that allowed those three families, and so many like them, to persist with their particularly Faulknerian sense of endurance. Is Agee's ignoring of their rationalizations symptomatic of his prejudice surmounted? Is, in short, Agee's extraordinary, and lyrical compassion a feat of overcoming, or is it the bleeding of a liberal heart? If the answer is the first of these, and I suspect it is, then Let Us Now Praise is a remarkable study of the blindspot in a bigotry overcome, that is, its embarrassment to condemn, where condemnation incites the powers of rebellion which sheer sympathy does not have the cruelty to demand.

FATHER JAMES H. Flye taught Agee as a young boy at St. Andrews in Swanee. Tennessee, and later was his traveling companion on a bicycle trip through France and England in the summer of 1925. "An Article of Faith", written by the new eighty-six year-old priest is a friendly, if somewhat vague reminiscence about the clearly unusual boy that Agee must have been. It is written in the same expansive, liturgical style that Agee was himself to adopt. Out of Father Flye's anonymous compassion, one reads the cosmic compassion that marks Agee's earlier prose, moving into the more articulate, and particular compassion of his later work, A Death in the Family. The father of many spiritual children, Father Flye fostered in Agee his sense of being a child among many children, a child of many fathers, which is the source of that co-mixture in Agee of penitent humility and untouchable arrogance.

Robert Saudek's "J.R. Agee '32-A Snapshot Album 1928-32" is a kindly, somewhat faded remiscence about his roommate in Thayer 45 and Eliot G-52, James Agee. In Saudek's anecdotes Agee appears vaguely out of focus in his immaturity, as the hilarious dreamer.

T.S. Matthews' "Agee at Time" is the picture of a man seen only in peripheral vision, as though the prospect of Agee's life at the time was too much the front cart in the roller coaster ride for Matthews' queasy stomach. In this episode of Agee's life, he is the reviewer who stays up all night rewriting a review which already went to press.

The two pieces least imitative of Agee's own style, and therefore the most individual, are written by Harvard undergraduates. "Agee and Film" by Michael Sragow, is a tightly written, powerfully felt piece on Agee's film criticism and film scripts. Sragow dares to do what none of the other pieces dares, and that is to put Agee into critical perspective. "It is among the best film criticism ever written," he says, "any analysis of it must be, in part, an appreciation." Sragow goes on to say.

Agee was a writer of urgent social conscience. But he never sought to develop pure aesthetic equivalents for moral and political decisions. Just as his sense of community came from a confidence in the presence of his own moral impulse in each individual, he always insisted that films' larger meanings should grow out of the recording of specific human experiences.

A senior in Philosophy. Tituu Presler's piece on "The Poetry of James Agee" is beautifully written, wonderfully descriptive, but ultimately too hesitant to put the young man poet up to any judgment. Seven years after his graduation from Harvard, five years after the publication of his Permit Me Voyage, James Agee stopped writing poetry. It may be that Presler was loathe to come down critically on work that was clearly not the product of the mature artist.

Whatever his reasons, his elucidations of Agee through his poetry are sound. He emphasizes the poet's sense of history, his demi-longing after death, his impulse to celebration and ritual, and his sense of Original Sin. Where Flannery O'Conner, a contemporary of Agee's and a fellow Southerner and writer, was trapped and finally suffocated by a sense of sin, determinism made Agee all the more athletic in his insistence on love. "From the evidence of his poetry," says Presler, "it seems safe to say that the condition of love--between persons, of nature, as action in life--was the relation of life in which Agee saw himself."

ROBERT FITZGERALD'S workmanlike, understated, "Point of Order", cites Agee first for his "Discipline, delicacy, precision, and scruple," and only secondly for his "range of awareness, moral passion, and visualizing power." In its brevity, this paragraph in finale is more pithy than much that precedes it.

The four Exeter--Harvard--Advocate men, Peter Galassi, Sandi Pei, Lincoln Caplan, and Chris Ma, to whom this commemoration issue particularly belongs, should have realized the impossibility of a really substantive, revealing retrospective so soon after the author's death. Very personal material must be made public before we will ever know more about the man than he has already told us in his writing. In particular it seems that James Agee was the kind of man very vulnerable to women. For the most part, fraternity and compassion are all that he allowed himself in his fiction. His eroticism, his pride, and his tenderness were such vital parts of his expression, that until his wives and children, and the women he worked with, are willing to disclose what personal contact they had with Agee, one side of the man will be entirely lost.

The dedication of the issue, Agee's own "Dedication" to Permit Me Voyage, which stands in its sense of history, and in the eloquence of its humanity with the "Gettysburg Address," recalls the man more squarely than anything anyone could have written about him. "To those of all times who have sought truth and who failed to tell it in their art or in their lives, and who now are dead." The photographic portraits of Agee, on the front and back of the issue by Walker Evans and Florence Homolka, and those in the body of the issue by Helen Levitt, show how real was Agee's own sense of failure. The Advocate falls down in its innocence of Agee's fear of his own failures, personal and creative.

At first it seemed to me that the collaborators in this commemoration were men who would have been content with Agee's shoelace instead of his vision, who were more content to scavenge after genius than to put on their arrogance boots and go tramping after it themselves. My reaction was testimony only to the expectation which I brought to The Harvard Advocate February 1972: I wanted Agee back, the editors after all had promised him. Expectations and promises aside, The Advocate Commemoration is an example of the sentimentality and impossibility of resurrection, as much as it is a cherishing of the worth of the works of James Agee.

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