A real-world application of literary criticism (and other tangents)

This first paragraph is an afterthought, but I now recall why I sat down to write this. I moved a bookshelf from my den to a back room (where I house way too many comics), and am in the process of putting the books back on it. Anyway, every time I do this, I can’t help but think of the process as one of the rare, personal and physical applications of literary criticism. It’s as if each placement of a book – those on low shelves stacked and tucked away, others prominently displayed square in the middle shelf with no regard to genre or title – is a little symbolic essay on the title, or the author; a metaphor for how much the book affected me, or how much I value the book in terms other than monetary. It seems like one of the few times that one can truly apply literary criticism, physically, without words and instead in the real world – a thing which too often feels absent from the literary classroom. It is such a pleasure.

I know I already posted about it a few months back, but I’ve been re-reading parts of James Agee’s notebooks for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The copy I was reading belonged to a library, and I eagerly wanted to own it and write in it and so forth, to properly digest it. So, my wonderful girlfriend gave it to me for my birthday. She rocks. Anyway, I’ve been looking particularly at sections before Agee made his trip to Alabama, looking for subtle, probably indescribable changes in his writing, or just getting a general feel of his word flow and language. I haven’t really noticed anything extraordinary, besides the text itself, but still it is exciting just to imagine him getting prepared for the experience. While I will certainly commend editors Michael Lofaro and Hugh Davis for the daunting task putting this together must have been, it makes me really want to see his notebooks in their entirety and not just the parts that related directly to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I think part of this is because I imagine so much more is indeed related, albeit indirectly, to the novel; Agee underwent a transformation, and so many events in his tumultuous life must have had some bearing to the final product. Then again, I haven’t seen them, I don’t know – and the editors I’m certain know much more about Agee than I do.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is probably my second favorite novel of all time – and “novel” is probably not the right word to use. I realize most people, if they know Agee, know him for A Death In The Family, which won the 1958 Pulitzer. It is certainly well written, but I’ve always held Famous Men far above his other novels. It isn’t because his other works aren’t good, they are; rather, it’s because they don’t stay with me the way Famous Men does, in a number of ways: as southerner, as writer, as American, as human being. If you’ve never read it, it is a true account of Agee (along with photographer Walker Evans) visiting and living with poor tenant farmers in Alabama, for 8 weeks, in 1936. He was sent by Fortune magazine, to write a socially-aware article about sharecropping in the wake of the depression. What he came back with was (to Fortune) an unpublishable, lyrical novel that addressed art, aesthetic representation and aesthetic obstruction of representation, communism, politics, economic inequality, and, of course, tenant farming. On top of all that, it was about the people in the families he lived with, and in turn the text captures the great struggle Agee faced in his determination to portray the real people, and to not use them as literary device, or canvas for aesthetic decoration. There is little to no drama in the novel at all, once you exclude Agee’s personal concerns with writing the book. It is more like a several hundred page lyrical poem written in prose, with photographs by Walker Evans.

One thing I really enjoy about the notebooks is how adamant he is that only Walker Evans be the photograph that comes with him; anyone else “would turn up a lot of Dramatic shots,” according to Agee. What he is addressing is Evans’ keen sensitivity and demand for his photographs to be real, candid, unposed and if possible taken while hidden from the subject. There was a popular book that came out at this time called Have You Seen Their Faces, by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White, which was mostly posed, typical photos of southerners, with “witty” lines written as captions. Agee found it near-offensive (and I have to agree with him), and it represented the exact opposite of what he wanted to do. Faces was artificial and pretty, even the ugly parts; it delivered pretty much what one would expect: removed looks at southerners that you could pick up, look at, and put back down. It was as much a depiction of the south as those commercials for Christian Children’s Funds are depictions of Africa (that is a generic name I made up, but you get the idea). And of course, it sold fairly well. When Agee finally published Famous Men in 1940, it did not. It wasn’t until about 20 years later, after his death, that the book found an audience and the book’s merit was appreciated.

I grew up in Alabama, so it will always be home to me, and I admit it might cause a slight bias in favor of this work. Nevertheless, I can’t recommend this book enough. Granted, it isn’t an easy read; but it isn’t a difficult read, either, not the way something like Ulysses or Eliot can be. What I mean is, don’t expect a story, a narrative, or anything like that. Just read and go with it. Well, I know I’ve said half of this before, and I don’t know why I’m writing it, other than it is on my mind, and after reading so many “best books of 2007” lists that just look completely disinteresting, I felt compelled to write about books that don’t come in comic form. So, there you go; be warned, I’m tempted to write about my other top five favorite books (though not at such tiring lengths).

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