AFTER A SUMPTUOUS repast not long ago, some writers sitting around a table in the corner of a large dining hall got on the subject of the coming depression--always only coming for most Harvard students. Amid the gossip of what's being written in other parts, one Kentuckian, amber-voiced and somnolent, got to talking excitedly about a book about poor back-hills people commissioned by the Louisville Courier Journal "in the style of Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Another Southerner quipped smilingly--not wanting to disparage such excitement but with full knowledge of Agee--that the commissioned writer would only have to take a few years off and read about 20,000 books. Then he'd be ready.
Agee would probably not condone his imitator's work, inspired as it seems to be by a new resurgence in Agee's popularity and only partially a genuine at compassionate interest in its subject. He would probably also balk at Remembering James Agee, self-indulgent in its length and in its profound sentimentality. His famous men and women were not well-known figures to be dealt with as he said, "journalists, sociologist, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists" would deal with them, but seriously."
Remembering James Agee is a collection of remembrances by writers who play all of these roles, except perhaps the role of seriousness. All of the essays in this slim volume have appeared elsewhere (some in the Harvard Advocate) with the exception of David Madden's flawed but respectable attempt to regain the spirit of James Agee at a commemorative gathering.
ONLY ONE ESSAY in the book really struck home, Robert Fitzgerald's "A Memoh, Reprinted from The Collected Short Prose of James Agee. Fitzgerald's memories show a recognition of all the possible roles he could use to talk about his friend, and through this awareness there comes a seriousness that comes closest to understanding Agee as artist, journalist and man. There seems to have been a certain distance in their relationship that allowed Fitzgerald 'o use his keen sensitivity to us fullest extent. But there was also a great deal of shared experience.
At Harvard, they learned metrics together in poetry class and studied under the guidance of I.A. Richards. Fitzgerald read Agee's poetry then and disliked it--and they both had an intense interest in contemporary writers. This common interest eventually brought Fitzgerald and Agee together writing book reviews at Time magazine. It was here Fitzgerald says that they found their, strongest shared idea, one which became constant and in time inveterate: the precise relation between any given real situation or event and the versions of it presented in print. "And it was at Time that they came to a common agreement as artists first and journalists second: "We simply mistrusted the journalistic apparatus as a mirror of the world and we didn't like being consumed by it."
AS ALTERNATIVES to journalism. Fitzgerald eventually chose poetry while Agee moved further away from it, unable to reconcile his strict metrics and heavily religious verse with the looseness of modern poetry. What Agee eventually chose was a kind of journalistic prose that expressed the two writers' central idea:
He was after the truth, the truth about specific events or things, and the truth about his impressions and feelings. By truth I mean what he would chiefly mean: correspondence between what is said and what is the case--but what is the case at the utmost reach of consciousness.
Aside from his portrait of the development of Agee's ideas, Fitzgerald also presents some of the most vivid of Agee's letters about his work and the dissolution of his first and second marriages. There is a desperate air about these letters, as if Agee were always living from one creative moment to the next, waiting for the necessary inspiration, but never working toward it. And his relationships seem to be so incomplete, so tied to his writing, that they have the same tormented reliance on inspiration: selflessness was in him but it did not come easily.
In describing these personal letters Fitzgerald comes closest to making that link between the reader and Agee, to capturing the spirit of the writer:
Jim Agee's agonies and his nobleness are equally the affair of no one who cannot keep still or as good as still, about them and there is no chance that all of you can. But some of you can and some of you are hard beset and bound to someone in brotherhood perhaps in art and you may see that the brotherhood you know is of a kind really wider than you may have thought binding others among the living and the dead.
A writer friend recently sent one a copy of Let-Us Now Praise Famous Men saying, Now more than ever we need writing that celebrates man, his unpredictable spirit at its best." In Remembering James Agee there is occasionally and most often in Robert Fitzgerald's remembrance, that kind of celebration which we cannot do without.
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