David Denby’s review of the collected works of James Agee in the latest New Yorker contains an interesting comparison of Agee and Orwell as cross-cultural fieldworkers.
For Agee, … the point was not that these families suffered from atrocious social conditions. The point was that they existed. In an age concerned largely with the “masses,” Agee was impressed by the notion that other human beings idiosyncratically are what they are, in every ornery fibre. Flesh, bone, desire, consciousness–in almost every way, the farmers were different from him and therefore obdurate in their singleness and as capable of pleasure and misery as he. A young couple sitting on a porch and staring at Agee had in their eyes “so quiet and ultimate a quality of hatred, and contempt, and anger, toward every creature in existence beyond themselves, and toward the damages they sustained, as shone scarcely short of a state of beatitude.” [A little projection of self-hatred here, perhaps?–J.] Agee, born an Episcopalian, and deeply religious as a child, was no longer an orthodox believer. But he had a consciousness of the sacred in people and in ordinary objects that believers associate with God’s immanence. He loved, and took literally, Blake’s proclamation “Everything that lives is holy.”…
Agee’s lyrical gift set him off from other writers of liberal or radical conviction of the day. At almost exactly the same time that he and Walker Evans were in Alabama, George Orwell was exploring living conditions in coal-mining towns in the North of England, and it’s instructive to compare Orwell’s remarkable report, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” with “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Orwell boarded for a while in a little house that took in miners:
The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances.
So often in Orwell there is a strong sense of the sordid–the scandal of meanness, decay, filth. And he was appalled by sloth and inanition. When, with much greater sympathy, he describes the miners and their wives in Wigan and other towns he typically catches them not “creeping” but moving vigorously–working, washing, cooking, or searching a slag heap for usable coal. Orwell is a chronicler of man as actor, and the second half of his book is a call for action in the form of socialist reform. But Agee chronicles being. He evokes the farmers and their families not just in sleep but at rest, sitting on a porch, or staring shyly and saying nothing. And he was incapable of physical disgust. For him, there is only an endless variety of shapes, textures, and dispositions, none of them beyond redemption in words.
In “Famous Men,” Agee is not a political writer but a poetic and metaphysical writer, who wanted to honor reality, and also to abolish it. There is a trap built into his kind of intense receptivity. That a person or a thing is itself and nothing else, and is therefore worthy of notice and celebration, may be the beginning of morality, but it’s also the beginning of tragedy. As Agee sits on the porch or alone in a room in one of the houses, he tries to take in, all at once, everything that the family is, everything that exists in the house–for instance, Mrs. Ricketts’s dress, which is shaped “like a straight-sided bell, with a little hole at the top for the head to stick through, the cloth slit from the neck to below the breasts and held together if I remember rightly with a small snarl of shoelace.” He stares at a pair of coarsely sewn and nailed work boots, or at a tattered doll, or at the worn-through oil cloth on an old table, and is amazed at how much life went into the making and use of that table, amazed by how much life is going on in similar households, unnoticed, unrecorded. The mood is one of Wordsworthian awe and submission, though Agee extended his sympathies to objects–even mass-produced, industrial products–as well as to nature. At the same time, however, he is stunned by how limited the families are. Being so vividly and absolutely themselves, they are unable to be so many other things, and some of the angriest, most eloquent pages of the book are devoted to the deformations wrought on the children by early work and poor schooling. They have been cheated out of the most elementary ways of teaching themselves–and therefore cheated out of pleasure. When they grow up, and become similar to that disdainful couple Agee encountered on a porch, the fierceness of their pride will be created as much by ignorance as by anger. The rhapsodist of things as they are is necessarily caught in a position of infinite regret. That is why the book, for all its celebratory tone, never falls into bathos. No one could confuse the tenant farmers’ days with a complete mastering of life.
UPDATE: As much as I admire Orwell, I’m beginning to develop an interest in Agee (born in Knoxville, TN), whose works I am far less familiar with. Part of it may be a vague admiration for the chutzpah of Southern writers who manage to invade and colonize New York City on their own terms. Among those I’m most familiar with are Harper Lee, William Styron, Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, and Richard Wright. (I must confess that I don’t much admire such purveyors of bald stereotypes–northern and southern, respectively–as Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Mitchell.) The beginning of a 1964 William Styron review in the New York Review of Books explains what they were up against.
‘There is a saying among the Negroes in Harlem,’ James Baldwin said recently, ‘to the effect that if you have a white Southerner for a friend you’ve got a friend for life. But if you’ve got a white Northerner for a friend, watch out. Because he just might be the kind of friend who decides to move out when you move in.’ This is a sentiment which may be beguiling to a Southerner, yet the fact does remain that a Southern ‘liberal’ and his Northern counterpart are two distinct species of cat. Certainly the Southerner of good will who lives in the North, as I do, is often confronted with some taxing circumstances. There was the phone call a number of years ago in the distant epoch before the present ‘Negro revolt,’ and the cautious interrogation from my dinner hostess of the evening: a Negro was going to be present–as a Southerner, did I mind? If I wished to stay away she would surely understand. Or much later, when Prince Edward County in Virginia closed its schools, the deafening and indignant lady, a television luminary, who demanded that ‘we’ drop bombs on ‘those crackers down there.’ (She got the state wrong, Virginians may be snobs but they are not crackers [you’re wrong, Bill; we’ve got all kinds!–J.]; nonetheless, she was proposing that ‘we’ bomb my own kith and kin.) Or quite recently, a review in The New Yorker of Calder Willing-ham’s [sic] Eternal Fire, a remarkably fine novel about the South which the reviewer, Whitney Balliett, praised extravagantly without knowing exactly why he was doing so, charging that the book was the definitve [sic] satire on Southern writing (through the book is funny it is anything but satire, being too close to the bone of reality), and polishing off Faulkner, Welty, Warren, et al. with the assertion that Southern fiction in general, in which the Negroes had served so faithfully as ‘a resident Greek chorus,’ had now terminated its usefulness. It is of course not important what this particular reviewer thinks, but the buried animus is characteristic and thus worth spelling out: white Southern writers, because they are white and Southern, cannot be expected to write about Negroes without condescension, or with understanding or fidelity or love. Unfortunately, this is a point of view which, by an extension of logic, tends to regard all white Southerners as bigots, and it is an attitude which one might find even more ugly than it is were it prompted by malice rather than ignorant self-righteousness, or a suffocating and provincial innocence. Nor is its corollary any less tiresome: to show that you really love Negroes, smoke pot, and dig the right kind of jazz.
Yes. Familiar types, all.