Item description for James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, Shorter Fiction (Library of America) by James Agee...
Overview Three key works by the early twentieth-century author include the "prophetic journalism" experiment of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family, and the novella The Morning Watch.
Publishers Description A passionate literary innovator, eloquent in language and uncompromising in his social observation and his pursuit of emotional truth, James Agee (1909-1955) excelled as novelist, critic, journalist, and screenwriter. In his brief, often turbulent life, he left enduring evidence of his unwavering intensity, observant eye, and sometimes savage wit. This volume collects his fiction along with his experiment in what might be called prophetic journalism, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a collaboration with photographer Walker Evans that began as an assignment from Fortune magazine to report on the lives of Alabama sharecroppers, and that expanded into a vast and unique mix of reporting, poetic meditation, and anguished self-revelation that Agree described as "an effort in human actuality." A 64-page photo insert reproduces Evans's now iconic photographs from the expanded 1960 edition. A Death in the Family, the novel that he worked on for over a decade and that was published posthumously in 1957, re-creates Agee's childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the upheaval his family experienced after his father's death in a car accident when Agee was six years old. A whole world, with its sensory vividness and social constraints, comes to life in this child's-eye view of a few catastrophic days. It is presented here for the first time in a text with corrections based on Agee's manuscripts at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. This volume also includes The Morning Watch (1951), an autobiographical novella that reflects Agee's deep involvement with religious questions, and three short stories including the allegory "A Mother's Tale."
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Est. Packaging Dimensions: Length: 1" Width: 5" Height: 8" Weight: 1.4 lbs.
Release Date Sep 22, 2005
Publisher Library of America
ISBN 1931082812 ISBN13 9781931082815
Availability 0 units.
More About James Agee
James Agee (1909--1955) is the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the renowned study of Alabama sharecroppers during the Depression. Born in Tennessee, he died two years before the publication of A Death in the Family, his most famous work.
Reviews - What do customers think about James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, Shorter Fiction (Library of America)?
An American Classic Mar 27, 2006
This recently reissued collecton of Agee's work includes the brilliant, touching photos of Walker Evans with James Agee, photos made during the Depression Era of the 'thirties. Agee's writings are true Americana, his prose flows and the reader is made a part of the families about which he writes. This compilation belongs in the library of anyone concerned with human feelings in times of hurtin', hunger, and need. If you lived through the time,as I did, you will know it again through Agee's superb reflections on it.
Rich Reading Experience Feb 3, 2006
Lately, I find myself returning to literature written before I was born (1956). When I saw the review of LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN in THE NEW YORKER, I became instantly convinced that I should purchase it. I'd known Agee's work since I was 13, when I first read DEATH IN THE FAMILY. I belonged to the Scholastic Book Club and every month my mother gave me change out of her the bottom of her purse so I could buy the books I had faithfully marked on my order form. I was haunted by this book as a teen, and I remain haunted still. I will always believe that few American writers ever achieved anything comparable to the beginning of DEATH IN THE FAMILY, a short italicized introduction which begins: "We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child." Agee's sensory details throughout DEATH amaze. Another stunning passage reads: "Supper was at six and was over by half past. There was still daylight, shining softly and with a tarnish, like the lining of a shell;" I could go on, because every page of this book is a treasure. But I would like to turn my attention to LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN, which I had never read until now.
I will preface my remarks by saying that I am a writer currently very interested in the distinction between fiction and non-fiction writing. Agee addresses this issue by saying: "In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger." It's perhaps this interest of mine in the craft of writing itself that has made FAMOUS MEN so fascinating to me.
Another thing: In the beginning pages, Agee writes with absolute humility towards his own writing and his subject matter. This was stunning to me, because I've also read Agee's movie reviews, and in those writings Agee is witty, merciless, honest, and very confident in his own opinion. In short, they are some of the best movie reviews I have ever read. However, FAMOUS MEN is another kind of writing altogether. As Agee admits, his efforts to capture his subject matter through words were a failure. Words are inefficient, inadequate in matters so huge. He wrote: "If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement."
That FAMOUS MEN is not more popular does not surprise me, nor was Agee surprised, I think, when the book got bad reviews and suffered poor sales. FAMOUS MEN, I think, is not the sort of book that would ever gain wide acceptance. It is a flawed masterpiece that takes a lot of work to absorb, but well worth the effort.
I don't know the extent to which Agee may have been devastated, nonetheless, at the way America turned its back on his masterpiece. I do know that Agee seemed to suggest in the early pages of FAMOUS MEN that the worst thing that can happen to any artist is mass acceptance. Perhaps mass acceptance is something the writer both wants and fears; I don't know. But Agee does say in FAMOUS MEN that he felt that as soon as, say, Beethoven's music is used as a form of relaxation or as a background to the mundane activities human beings inevitably become so wrapped up in, then the music has lost its vitality. That is why Agee suggests:
"Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to a performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony or of Schubert's C-Major Symphony. But I don't mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down onto floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won't hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it."
The same might be said for FAMOUS MEN. You can't read it as you would some other books, even DEATH IN THE FAMILY, which has a nice and clean chronological structure. You have to really pay attention when you read FAMOUS MEN. If you concentrate, you will hear FAMOUS MEN in your whole body. And if it hurts you, you will be glad.
An Overlooked-Writer Sep 26, 2005
Let me be clear... I've not read the present volume though I've read the individual books collected in it years ago. "A Death in the Family" remains vivid in my memory, depite almost 30 years since I last read it, and "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" is an absolute classic.
Though I have not yet received the LOA edition, I was compelled to add a review if only to counter the first reviewer here who is intent on seeing only ideology rather than the writing. If the work is looked at without the rose-colored glasses of (conservative) political correctness, you'll find there is an amazing writer and thinker behind the words.
Just read the works for yourself, not through an ideological smokescreen.
Let Us Now Reexamine Famous Men Sep 22, 2005
Agee was an outrageous bleeding-heart, a man whose life and work were compromised by posturing, mawkishness and complacency in anguish. The gush of his prose--the hemorrhaging of that bleeding heart--is deeply and cloyingly purple. His endless rhapsodies betray a stubborn adolescence that will delight those who see an artist as a perpetual kid and repel those who don't.
Immense suffusions of tenderness are not the most helpful or respectful way of responding to fellow human beings, and they signal an obsession with one's own feelings instead of their ostensible object. In this regard, one notes that Agee's tenderness did not prevent him from engaging in serial adulteries and enforced threesomes, devoting his life to personal fulfillment rather than self-denying altruism, and indulging himself to death by the age of 45. Of course Agee felt guilty about all this (his writing fairly reeks of a rotting conscience), but he saw his guilt as a reassuring index of purity, like the parishioner who sees confession and absolution as a license to go on sinning.
Moreover, Agee's tenderness was reserved for the disadvantaged. The obverse of this solicitude was an affected brutality of reference to just about everyone else (except family and friends, his favorite artists and his latest lover). This tough-talking pose, which has not worn well, assumed a moral superiority that the record does not bear out.
Art and morality are not the same thing, but Agee thought they were, and this confusion permeates his work. Again and again he makes moral claims upon us which he thinks that his aesthetic project will validate. It does nothing of the kind: it merely aestheticizes.
What did Agee actually do for the Gudgers, Woods and Ricketts other than make the hearts of his readers bleed for them in as transient a fashion as his own? In one respect at least he did more harm than good. He over-idealized "Louise Gudger" to such a degree that he left her with a permanent sense of failure. Unable to reconcile Agee's fantasy portrait with the reality of her ordinary self, she finally committed suicide--further proof that sentimentality can be pernicious as well as meretricious.
Agee did possess extraordinary powers of lyric observation, and a sharp mind when he wanted to use it; but aching sensitivity, metastasizing into ecstatic intoxication, tended to distort his vision, soften his rigor and sentimentalize his voice. He has his devoted followers, or rather his cultists, but one doubts that his place in the canon is as secure or exalted as they might wish, or as this Library of America volume would suggest.