James Agee

James Agee has long been one of my favorite writers. Recently I received a book of his film criticism from the library. It is published by one of my favorite publishers: The Library of America. Typically I’m not a fan of any particular type of journalism or journalist, but Agee doesn’t really fit a type; his earnestness, passion and frankness make his bell-​like prose all the more interesting.

I’m currently really enjoying reading his old reviews from The Nation in the 1940s. A fair number of the films I’ve seen; some I’ve never even heard of, but want to track down now. He thought Casablanca was maudlin. His writing is also a very accessible cultural snapshot of the US during WWII. His poetry isn’t the best, but sometimes it can be insidious. From Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

(To Walker Evans.

Against time and the damages of the brain
Sharpen and calibrate. Not yet in full,
Yet in some arbitrated part
Order the façade of the listless summer.

Spies, moving delicately among the enemy,
The younger sons, the fools,
Set somewhat aside the dialects and the stained skins of feigned
madness,
Ambiguously signal, baffle, the eluded sentinel.

Edgar, weeping for pity, to the shelf of that sick bluff,
Bring your blind father, and describe a little;
Behold him, part wakened, fallen among field flowers shallow
But undisclosed, withdraw.

Not yet that naked hour when armed,
Disguise flung flat, squarely we challenge the fiend.
Still, comrade, the running of beasts and the ruining of heaven
Still captive the old wild king.

He’s also the man who wrote the motto I try to live by, again from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

Isn’t every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn’t there a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?