Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Reading for Pleasure Wednesday: Evans/Agee

Dr. Crazy, who always has the best ideas, has instituted a new blog-world activity: Reading for Pleasure Wednesdays (her rules/suggestions here). I'm not sure whether it's totally fair for me to review a book that I'm only just starting, but given that I didn't expect to be reading it--and that I didn't really expect it to be pleasure reading if I did--it seems like fair game.

So. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which I picked up a few weeks ago in a nice, hardcover, 1960 copy for $16 on the theory that I really "ought" to own the book, and that the Walker Evans photos alone were probably worth it, and that I really liked this particular bookstore and its owner--and so shouldn't I show some goodwill by buying something other than that $5 paperback copy of God's Englishman?

I bought it, but I didn't, as I say, actually plan on starting to read it. But then I started looking at the photos, and then I read the preface, and now I'm hooked on Agee's language as much as the stories themselves. Goddamn! Why doesn't anyone write like this any more?

This is Agee in the "preliminaries" to the work's first book, talking about the curiousness of the entire project that he and Evans set out on, initially at the behest of Fortune magazine, to live with a family of tenant farmers in the south for a month, and provide a straightforward journalistic account of their lives (it's a damned long quotation, I know, but so worth it. Read it out loud):
It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and change and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of "honest journalism" (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money, and for a reputation for crusading and for unbias which, when skillfully enough qualified, is exchangeable at any bank for money (and in politics, for votes, job patronage, abelincolnism, etc.); and that these people could be capable of meditating this prospect without the slightest doubt of their qualification to do an "honest" piece of work, and with a conscience better than clear, and in the virtual certitude of almost unanimous public approval. It seems curious, further, that the assignment of this work should have fallen to persons having so extremely different a form of respect for the subject, and responsibility toward it, that from the first and inevitably they counted their employers, and that Government likewise to which one of them was bonded, among their most dangerous enemies, acted as spies, guardians, and cheats, and trusted no judgement, however authoritative it claimed to be, save their own: which in many aspects of the task before them was untrained and uninformed. It seems further curious that realizing the extreme corruptness and difficulty of the circumstances, and the unlikelihood of achieving in any untainted form what they wished to achieve, they accepted the work in the first place. And it seems curious still further that, with all their suspicion of and contempt for every person and thing to do with the situation, save only for the tenants and for themselves, and their own intentions, and with all their realization of the seriousness and mystery of the subject, and of the human responsibility they undertook, they so little questioned or doubted their own qualifications for this work.
Some of you know that I'm a closet Modernist (I've only ever once taught modern lit, as a TA some years ago, but it remains one of my favorite periods to read for fun), and I think I've mentioned how in love I am with Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, and Agee reminds me all over again of one reason why that is: those sentences!

The book is a crazy mishmash, and it's easy to see why Fortune (then a more general-interest, features-y magazine than it is now) rejected the thing right quick, and why Evans and Agee had such a hard time getting it published as a book--and then a hard time getting an audience until the 1960s. But as the review on says, the book is "far more interesting. . . than the sort of guilty-liberal tract for which it is often mistaken"; it's not a part of a social crusade; indeed, it's hardly political in any conventional sense, although it's angry and anguished and eloquent. (Well, most of the time it's eloquent--I have to admit that Agee's infrequent forays into verse leave me cold; whatever he's doing there, it hasn't aged well, if indeed it was any good to begin with.)

One more taste:
There were three on the porch, watching me, and they must not have spoken twice in an hour while they watched beyond the rarely traveled road the changes of daylight along the recessions of the woods, and while, in the short field that sank behind their house, their two crops died silently in the sun: a young man, a young woman, and an older man; and the two younger, their chins drawn inward and their heads tall against the grained wall of the house, watched me steadily and sternly as if from beneath the brows of helmets, in the candor of young warriors or of children.

They were of a kind not safely to be described in an account claiming to be unimaginative or trustworthy, for they had too much and too outlandish beauty not to be legendary. Since, however, they existed quite irrelevant to myth, it will be necessary to tell a little of them.
Okay, how can you not love that? And if you don't, how can you not love Evans's photos? (poor-quality reproductions available here.)

[Don't worry. It's not all crusading journalism and epic-length sentences on the nightstand Chez Flavia. Next week I'll talk about some of my favorite etiquette and "girl's-guide-to" books.]


meg said...

I'm a big fan of the USA trilogy too. It sure leaves *Grapes of Wrath* in a cloud of imitative dust.

phd me said...

Alas, I wanted to enjoy this book but Agee's language leaves me cold. There are moments of beauty but, overall, I can't get past the prententiousness - I feel like Agee is all too aware of his vocabulary and aren't we all impressed by it. I get that feeling with Wolfe, too, but not as much. Don't mean to be rude and diss your choice! I do think the pictures are incredible.

Dr. Crazy said...

Of course it's fine to pick this book. And I think it's fine if you're not finished. See, that's the thing with the project, is that all of the rules are designed to make pretty much anything except work-reading fair game, and I DON'T want people to feel pressured to be brilliant as they talk about stuff (though, of course, all of the people who are participating have been, thus far ;) )

I'm so glad you participated!

meg said...

I forgot to add: The first place I lived all by myself was Agee's house, the one from *Death in the Family*. It has since been torn down.

Flavia said...

PhD Me: Well, there's no telling--I may get sick of it myself, once I get further along! For now, though, I'm loving it.

And Meg: How totally cool. Thanks for sharing that story.