A spy, traveling as a journalist

Recently I spent some weeks among teetering piles of books. Moving house during a lockdown has its interests, but waiting for deliveries of bookshelves is not one of them. The upshot of this was a sort of fortuitous reacquaintance with old friends, and by friends I mean books that I had forgotten I had. James Age’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) was one of these books, and its cover, a photograph by Walker Evans of a mother comforting her toddler in her lap, was one I pored over as a teenager. The photographs me in first, but I quickly found myself moved by the combative tone of Age’s account and the lengthy lists of devastating details that went on for pages without a full stop. Rereading Agee as an adult has revealed a greater confusion of purpose than I had been prepared to see.

In 1936, Age and Walker were sent by Fortune magazine to live with tenant cotton farmers in Alabama. Agee knew that he would profit from these people’s lives and that his writing would not result in a positive change: this appealed to my cynical teenage self. I liked his honesty: “Nothing I write could make any difference whatever”, he explained, and he expressed contempt for readers who consumed his writing for their own voyeuristic pleasure. This account “is written for all those who have a soft place in their hearts for the laughter and tears inherent in poverty viewed at a distance, and especially for those who can afford the retail price”, he wrote. I felt I was being taken to Alabama by Holden Caulfield himself. Yes! I thought. We’re all phoneys! Tell me more!

Since then I’ve spent years studying social historians and their work – from the mother of investigative social inquiry, Beatrice Webb, to Ronald Blythe’s honest if at times bucolic interviews with members of a vanishing rural world in Akenfield, Suffolk, to Craig Taylor’s sensitive twenty-first-century return to the same village, and Robert Caro’s devastating chapter on the women of the Texas Hill Country in The Years of Lyndon Johnson – and I can see more clearly Agee’s problem.

He didn’t seem to know what he was trying to achieve. He made it abundantly clear what he didn’t want to do – he didn’t want to pretend that he could elicit positive change and he didn’t want to produce a work of art: “In God’s name don’t think of it as Art”, he begged. “Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor.” His struggle to come to terms with his limitations as a writer are endearingly youthful.

So what did he want? He wanted to make us see and feel what he did, to make his writing the conduit for conveying the unlike truth of his experience: “How is this to be made so real to you”, he asked, when language, music, is so limited? His question recalls Joseph Conrad, who in his Preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus” explained that what “I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see”. Like the novelist, Agee wished to involve himself “in the actual and in the telling of it”. Intellectually, he was interested in the process of recording, but his emotions kept getting in the way.

There is an interesting play in the book between flippancy and deep feeling that leads to tension: “all I want to do is tell this exactly and as clearly as I can and get the damned thing done with”, he claimed, before stating that he hoped his account would ‘stay in you as the deepest and most iron anguish and guilt of your existence.’

The result of that tension is a book (the article itself was rejected by Fortune) that veers between journalistic anger, scientific observation, philosophical tract and poetry. It is a Modernist experiment with language and its limitations, and a study into the relationship between subjectivity and fact, poetry, prose and music. It’s James Joyce meets Thornton Wilder and I.A. Richards. The book is a chaotic whirlwind of impressions and associations, a jumble of reminiscence and regret. A description of a mother nursing her son evokes images of the Madonna and child. But Agee aimed at shock. After painting a picture of “human divinity sunken from the cross at rest against his mother”, we learn that “the penis is partly erected”.

Agee called himself “a spy, traveling as a journalist” and Evans “a counter-spy, traveling as a photographer”. He was honest in the book about his snooping, and we see him sniffing bedding and clothes, the insides of shoes. He puts his lips to children’s pillows and looks through drawers. “I move silently, and quickly”, he explained, before adding that “it is not going to be easy to look into their eyes”. He was the worst house guest.

I’ve moved a long way from those teenage days, reading Agee in my bedroom in California while the hot sun beat down on the dust outside and traffic roared past my window. I was born in Mexico, grew up in Los Angeles, and left for England when I was twenty-one. Then, four years ago I moved to the Netherlands with my English husband and children who like to tease me about my accent. It strikes me now that Agee’s book, begun when he was twenty-six years old, might also be read as an excellent piece of travel writing. Agee, a Northerner, was a foreigner by class and geography. He did what outsiders do. He watched, listened and tried to make sense of what he saw. At one point in the book, he visits a nearby town and nearly gets in a fight with a few bored locals. He looked at adverts on the walls of a diner for clues and described the clay landscape as a character, god-like and irascible.

A scene I could not remember having read before – though I must have done, unless I simply skimmed over it – stands out now. Having roused the Gudger family from their hard-earned sleep, Agee asks to spend the night. In their hospitality he begins to feel a warmth that is strangely familiar. He clings to this feeling, as perhaps only a true outsider can, with a growing sense of belonging: “all that surrounded me, that silently strove in through my senses and stretched me full, was familiar and dear to me as nothing else on earth , and as if well known in a deep past and long years lost”. It is a sense of nostalgia that grips him, but a nostalgia for a past which is not his. It is what the writer Vernon Lee, who was also always an outsider, called “the Kingdom of Might-Have-Been”, a sort of sad but pleasurable limbo. Agee calls it “a precious nostalgia as I can scarcely otherwise know; a knowledge of brief truancy into the sources of my life”. He is fed by the husband and wife, in their bare kitchen by a dim light, and in that moment they “seemed not other than my own parents, in whose patience I was so different, so diverged, so strange as I was”. But Agee’s father had died suddenly and tragically in a car accident when Agee was a small boy. And this scene, of a mother and father welcoming their grown son home, unquestioning, to feed him and comfort him, never happened. He is feeling a past that never was. And like those of us who leave a home to which we can never truly return, he feels himself “robbed of a royalty I can not only never claim, but never properly much desire or regret”. The feeling doesn’t last, of course. He does not belong, and daylight reveals all the differences again. Agee looks around, blinking in the heat of the sun and announces, “God damn such a life”.

Ana Alicia Garza is a writer and researcher based in The Hague. She writes about the Victorians and Dickens for The Year’s Work in English Studies

The post A spy, traveling as a journalist appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment