James Agee’s gift was not wasted, but neither was it fulfilled. He is best known for the florid, baroque prose of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but the more restrained beauty of his novel A Death in the Family is much to be preferred. He produced in addition a good deal of fine narrative journalism and one of the finest bodies of film criticism yet achieved.
Agee is being noticed again because the original version of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a report commissioned by Fortune magazine but never run by them, has recently been published. John Jeremiah Sullivan — the closest thing we currently have to a journalistic heir to Agee — has written a fine reflection on this original version and its place in Agee’s career. I look forwarding to reading Cotton Tenants as soon as my life is a little less complicated.
Some years ago, when Agee’s work began appearing in the Library of America, I wrote an appreciation in the Boston Globe, in which I argued that Agee is so far the only poet of the urban South. That essay is not available in full online, but here’s an excerpt, focusing on A Death in the Family:
Even the way that the book treats religion seems more appropriate to our own time than to what (we imagine) life in 1915 Tennessee must have been like. Jay’s wife Mary is a devout Christian, but not of the stereotypical Southern-evangelical variety: she is passionately Catholic. (Her Catholicism is of the Anglican rather than the Roman variety, but you can only tell that near the very end of the book when Mary, seeking consolation, reads aloud from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer.) More noteworthy still is the complete absence of religious belief among most of the other characters, including Mary’s father — who proclaims himself an agnostic and reads The New Republic, at that time a daring and brand-new intellectual journal — and her brother, who as a teenager had modeled himself after the famously atheistic poet Shelley. Jay himself was a complete unbeliever, something which Mary can hardly think about until, in an extraordinary scene, she discerns Jay’s ghostly invisible presence among them and then among their sleeping children. This is anything but the “Christ-haunted South” of which O’Connor would later write; it is the skeptical, intellectual, pluralistic world of the modern city.
Agee himself, who lived almost his whole life in that pluralistic world, could never embrace nor wholly reject his mother’s faith. All his life he corresponded with an Anglo-Catholic priest, James Flye, whom he had met when, at age nine, he had been sent to St. Andrew’s School for Mountain Boys in Sewanee, Tennessee. In 1945 he would tell Father Flye, “It seems incredible to me not to be a Christian and a Catholic in the simplest and strictest senses of those words.”
Yet however incredible, such was his condition. A Death in the Family ends strangely but appropriately, with the newly fatherless Rufus poised uneasily between his mother’s faith and his uncle’s hatred of priests and their religion. Though Uncle Andrew’s fury is directed against the priest who would not offer the full rites of the church to the unbaptized Jay Follett, Rufus cannot help feeling that the anger is directed equally against Mary. (“He wished he could ask, ‘Why do you hate Mama?’, but he was afraid to.”) The last word of the book is “silence,” and the silence Agee leaves us with — leaves himself with — is meant for contemplating the mysteries of belief and unbelief, too deep for words.