On Cotton Tenants and James Agee's enduring influence
I’m in this conversation with you about James Agee and your brilliant essay—the most provocative response to Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men I’ve encountered—because twenty-one years ago I sat in a library reading Praise (underlining might be more accurate, since my pen ran continuously beneath the text) and thinking, “This. This is what I want to do.” That’s how I became a writer. I became the writer I am because I had a wise teacher who told me, “Sharlet, you’re no Agee.” Not nearly as good, but also not as doomed to failure. Or maybe not nearly as good because I’m not as doomed to failure. The teacher wasn’t cruel; he was telling me I’d have to find another way.
Even so, I’ve been thinking about Praise ever since, as I read through Agee’s other, lesser works over the years—the two volumes of his film writing, The Morning Watch, that weird collection of scraps, his letters to Father Flye, Brooklyn Is, and, of course, A Death in the Family. This last, increasingly celebrated, is to me the most overrated. It’s fiction, and worse—you’ll forgive me—a novel, a narrative, driven by character and, in its way, plot. Agee leaves the struggle of Praise to document “the cruel radiance of what is” behind. In Death, Agee doesn’t document, he only writes. Beautifully, yes, but what about the failure?
The newly published Cotton Tenants seems to me most valuable as contrast to the overwrought, crashing, hope-saturated despair of Praise. I read Tenants and think, “Yes; but fail more.” And he did. You write, “Part of the claustrophobia of Praise is its suggestion that every strategy of representation is somehow flawed or wrong. It’s a kind of paralysis: what to say, then, if nothing will be good enough?” Claustrophobia. I think that’s the right word. It explains to me why, when I teach Praise in my writing classes now, my students more often revolt than resolve to become writers. Agee is contemptuous of nearly everything that brought them into my classroom in the first place.
“Agee resists character,” you write, “by suggesting that poverty is ‘inevitably destructive’ of consciousness as we understand it; he resists narrative by continually stressing the monotony of his subjects’ lives—refusing to impose any kind of plotline—and, amid his thousand and one metaphors, he suggests the inadequacy of metaphor itself.”
That’s where my students stop. Or maybe it’s where I fail them, let them realize they’re no Agees, either, and then leave it at that. What I love most about your essay is that it shows me how to pass Praise on to younger writers. “Agee’s legacy wasn’t just journalistic skepticism,” you write, “it was the attempt to find a language of skepticism and to rewrite journalism in this language.” Or, as you put it, “You can look. You must.” Then you can fail, if you’re lucky.
Leslie, you’re a novelist and “literary journalist,” a prose documentarian. And, like me, you’re obsessed with Agee. But—and I mean this really in the best sense—you’re no Agee, either. Like me, you indulge in character and narrative. So what does Agee’s legacy mean for writers like us? What does failure—not futility—mean to you, as a documentarian as well as a critic?
I love the big crucial unabashed question you raise, the question that has been lurking underneath our other questions: What exactly do we mean by “failure”? I’m wondering if it’s worth trying to create a taxonomy of Agee’s failures: failure at narrative, failure at coherence, failure at character, failure at closure. It goes on. And on. Sometimes Agee’s failure is explicit (or rather, he explicitly calls our attention to it), while other times it’s something subtler and unstated—an obfuscation of meaning, a refusal of sense or seamlessness. Which is to say: Agee’s failure is not one homogenous thing but a complicated network of strategies and inadvertent ruptures.
I realize failure is a term I use because on a gut level it seems right, and because Agee invokes the concept as a kind of aesthetic and moral confession, and maybe even moral alibi: if he’s failing at portraying these poor families, he can’t be exploiting them as ruthlessly as if he had succeeded at portraying them. But when I think about what it means to fail—at least, to fail in that sublimely Agee-an way—I think it’s operative on a few levels: the self-aware confession of the limitations of his own documentary capacity; the deliberate refusal (as we’ve discussed) of certain conventions of narrative or character; the deliberate cultivation of syntactical and metaphoric difficulty: offering sentences that “fail” at being lucid, conclusive, or uncomplicatedly beautiful. What other kinds of failure do you find in Agee’s work? What would you add to that map?
In thinking about the other side of your question—in what ways do I find the residue of Agee-an failure in my own work, if I haven’t completely done away with things like character and narrative?—I find myself coming back to the fact that my own work often operates by a logic of rupture. Which is to say: I’ll start telling a story, or drawing a character, but then I’ll offer some kind of seam or crack in that story, in which I confess something that thwarts or contradicts the story or character I’ve created so far—or at least confesses the constructedness of that story or character. This is a courtship of failure that isn’t beholden to paralysis so much as peeling away skin to show raw flesh beneath. It’s not about feeling silenced by the possibility of failure; it’s about being willing to narrate that failure when it happens.
Maybe a concrete example would be useful: When I went to interview a prisoner incarcerated in West Virginia—a man I was profiling for another OA piece, “Fog Count”—I found myself telling not just the story of the man himself but the story of my somewhat bungled attempt to visit him, how many mistakes I made during that process. This seems like a way of embracing “failure” that doesn’t involve shutting down the process of creating narrative—or creating character—so much as exposing the mechanisms of that process. So maybe “failure” isn’t the right word for it anymore. What about your own work? If you are no Agee—as, I agree, I’m not, none of us are, not in humility but as a simple statement of fact—then how do your failures differ? Does “failure” feel like a fruitful/relevant framework for your work?
I guess the other big question I want to throw back at you has to do with what you think of Cotton Tenants, whether you find it valuable in its own right or mainly valuable insofar as it shows us why Praise is so extraordinary. You write: “The newly published Cotton Tenants seems to me most valuable as contrast to the overwrought, crashing, hope-saturated despair of Praise. I read Tenants and think, ‘Yes; but fail more.’ And he did.” So in this sense, do you feel like Tenants simply creates a hunger that Praise satisfies—for something raw? Some kind of confession of impossibility?
I’m trying to put that reaction (which I share in many ways) alongside my feeling that part of what Tenants did was actually reveal the ways in which Praise isn’t quite the failure Agee would have us believe it is—that failure is part of the packaging, but there is also a lot that hasn’t failed. We can get so distracted by Agee’s confessions of inadequacy and failure that we don’t notice how much information and illumination are actually present on the page, and Tenants helped remind me of that presence, the ways in which Agee was offering the goods with one hand while the other hand was disclaiming, saying No, no, I couldn’t begin to offer anything at all. This is part of why I like the distinction you draw between “failure” and “futility”—that failure suggests the incomplete nature of the portrayal, while futility suggests that it hasn’t done anything, or can’t offer anything. “Futility” suggests more resignation, and Agee is anything but resigned—he’s simmering and agitating and scheming and regrouping all across these hundreds of pages.
I’m also delighted by your phrasing “crashing, hope-saturated despair,” which feels like an extraordinarily apt description of what Praise contains, though I am still figuring out the terms of its aptness. Can you unpack it a little? To me it summons the way in which Agee’s despair can’t even fully slough off the kind of hope that comes from feeling so much awe and wonder toward his subjects (hence “praise” as something other than ironic in the title)—but what about “crashing”? I love this as a way of talking about Agee’s writing, which does seem to progress through mood swings on almost every level possible—in terms of content and syntax. But can you talk me through your sense of his “crashing”? What does that mean? Why does it matter?
One more thing I’m curious to hear your thoughts on: What about how big the “I” looms on the page in Praise, the way in which Agee’s guilt makes him so large? His guilt means he takes up so much space. Is this something you struggle with in your own documentary writing—how much space to take up? When and how and where you deserve that space? Or, I should rephrase—I’m fairly sure you do struggle. It’s one of the big, basic, axiomatic struggles. But can you talk about that struggle—in relation to the feeling of shame? That particularly recursive struggle in which guilt about taking up space can mean you take up even more of it? What have you learned from Agee while navigating that struggle? Is he the angel or the devil on your shoulder? Or both at once—as is, perhaps, his particular gift and legacy?
Yes—“a logic of rupture.” I mean yes to every question you raise, and to your logic of rupture I respond with a physics of failure, which is just a fancy way of saying crashing, the term of mine you suggest needs further elaboration with regard to Agee. Agee doesn’t set out to fail; he simply recognizes that he does. Rather than give us an approximation of the thing he means to document, an illusion we might enjoy as truth, he documents his active failure to do so, the crashing of his endeavor. Then he tries again. And crashes again. And tries again, even though he knows he will crash again. What could be more hope-saturated than that? His hope is not in opposition to his despair, it’s the fruit of his despair. He is, after all, a kind of Christian writer, seeking redemption. But he mistrusts redemption, sees its approximations in religion and art as the vilest of deceptions. What to do? Reach for redemption and confess your sins. Make the attempt and fail, lurching, not slouching, toward Bethlehem.
I think that accounts for “the way Agee’s guilt makes him so large,” as you write. It’s also why I love Praise more than Cotton Tenants. Praise is the full equation, confession included. And that’s how I can reconcile my reverence for Praise with my own reluctance—or maybe inability—to take up as much space in most of my writing. I lack Agee’s courage, and I lack his beautiful hubris. I would never be so bold as to seek redemption. I’m content, mostly, to write about other people’s crashes. That’s not modesty by any stretch. It’s a different kind of vanity, the hope of being an Ishmael, the shmuck who survives to tell the tale.
“Does ‘failure’ feel like a fruitful/relevant framework for your work?” you ask. Leaving aside the critics who’d assure me that it’s my only framework, my answer is still yes, even if I can’t dream of failing as radiantly as Agee. I think you’re right when you suggest that Agee’s failure was as much a strategy, a “scheme,” as it was a fact, on the one hand a defensive maneuver, relieving him of some of the guilt of documentation, and on the other allowing him to give us so much information that we might otherwise resist.
You write that your strategy is to “offer a seam or a crack in the story.” That sounds about right for my own minor scheme, though I think I tend to insist on the cracks more than offer them. Showing the seams—seeing them and then showing them, that is—sets us free from the claim of a narrative coherence we know isn’t true. That’s one part of Agee’s legacy: stories at odds with themselves.
That reminds me of a guy a friend told me about, a would-be writer who’d corner some hapless victim at a party, rattling on about his latest nihilistic masterwork: “See, the story defeats itself.” Fortunately, Praise doesn’t defeat itself. It’s not nihilistic. It is above all a generous book—with its subjects and, eventually, with its readers and even its author. That’s the other big part of Agee’s legacy, the generosity of a book he called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with only partial irony. To praise is to attempt to suggest the glory of a thing, God or a tenant farmer. Words will fail—how could they not when compared to the radiance of what is; so you try again, fail again, try again, crash again. That failure can be a generosity, a recognition of democratic brokenness that allows us to forgive one another rather than await redemption from art or religion.
Maybe crashing, or failure, or whatever term we want to use for Agee’s gift in Praise, as compared to his more ordinary genius in Cotton Tenants, brings us round to the radical generosity of his work and the possibility of generosity in ours. Which leads me to question just one assertion in your original essay, that Agee’s “legacy wasn’t just journalistic skepticism, but the attempt to find a language for skepticism and to rewrite journalism in this language.” Yes, inasmuch as Praise is, among other things, a work of media criticism. But I wonder if it’s right to say that Agee was ultimately trying to find any language at all.
Once again, I love the deeply human way—open-hearted, keen-eyed—you articulate your admiration for Agee, and your humility in describing the way his work has inspired your own, your attention to the ways in which that inspiration always includes divergence. It’s fascinating to me, the way you love Agee’s large presence in his own work but admit your own tendency to carve yourself a smaller space in essays. Though I have to say, in my own reading of your work, I do love the delicate, utterly deft ways you make yourself present in the text—in terms of shame or regret or longing or the sheer facts of bodily movement and intrusion in the world. It strikes me—in your own writing and in your take on the writing of others—that you share with Agee a kind of ruthless honesty, and that this honesty (more than a certain number of “I” sentences) is the way in which you confess yourself into the story.
I also like this notion of hope as the flipside of despair—not the opposite of failure but its necessary bedfellow, the force that keeps producing it, or rather, producing the attempt that keeps producing it. Agee wasn’t giving up; he was transcribing what happened every time he refused to do so. Can you indulge an unnecessary tangent in which I imagine myself in crudely and precociously and perhaps inaccurately Agee-an terms? (Speaking of “I” sentences and our willingness to include them . . .)
When I was younger I used to ask my mother what I’d done that she was proudest of—which single thing—and she’d always mention a school fair when I kept playing the dime toss because I wanted to win a goldfish so badly. It took me a long time—nearly an hour, many dimes—and the stubborn determination my mother admired felt little more than pathetic to me: that desperate, continuing attempt, dime after dime after dime, each one illuminating my clumsiness as clearly as my determination. I wanted my mother to remember all the times I’d succeeded at something, instead of the time I’d remained undeterred by failure—but she loved the over-and-over-again quality of how I’d kept gunning for the goldfish. She loved the many failures; there was hope in them.
That’s your point about Agee: we can look to all his moments of reflexivity, pointing out the inadequacy of his own language, and find something more than self-recrimination or journalistic guilt. We can find the persistence of a hope that made him keep writing anyway. This double-edged blade—some kind of symbiotic relationship between shame and hope (recognizing one’s failures and persisting anyway)—reminds me of an idea people mention in addiction recovery: that self-loathing is just another form of narcissism insofar as both are centered wholly on the self. I wonder if this might work in the other direction as well: that the kind of self-recrimination that makes Agee feel so self-obsessed is also—amidst all this self, self, self, guilt, me, mine—evidence of a genuine striving toward otherness; that we can’t collapse the whole thing into an ultimately egotistical project.
I do think all of this gets back to your final question about whether Agee was seeking a language or not. That question—was Agee trying to find language?—takes me back to Agee’s own words:
“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 excrement . . . a piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”
Agee yearned for the bodily insistence of bodily parts, human waste, things that might reek. These things could do more than words. In a sense, then, Agee wasn’t hunting for language, but he found himself stuck with it—he wasn’t trying to find language, but he couldn’t get away from it, so he had to do something with the medium in which he found himself entangled. He was trying to find language in the most basic sense, which is to say, he was struggling to put words into arrangements of meaning on the page—and so his dismissals or critiques of his own language were also necessarily part of the language he was making.
That particular phrase you point to, “Agee’s legacy wasn’t just journalistic skepticism, it was the attempt to find a language for skepticism and to rewrite journalism in this language,” was, interestingly, the product of an editorial exchange with a good friend (who has a keen mind and ear). So it’s my own thoughts translated by the editorial sensibility of another. I wanted to suggest—on a gist level—that Agee wasn’t just critiquing extant documentary modes, he was suggesting a new one. I think it can be easy to look at everything Agee critiques or disclaims or interrogates and feel like you’re in a hall of mirrors—all of this has been torn down, what’s left?—and I want to say: hey, there’s a lot left. Not just the meta-stuff (reflexivity, self-questioning, self-awareness), but genuine accounts of otherness, too, all the not-Agee that Agee found when he went to stay in Alabama. Cotton Tenants helped me remember all the raw material in Praise—amidst all the reflexivity—all the material description of houses and clothes and faces and food, the ways in which Praise is not just confession but documentation. So perhaps, insofar as Agee is seeking any language, he is seeking a double-edged blade, or a two-way mirror (how like him, of course, to refuse the choice between metaphors)—he was (is, the book keeps the hunt in present tense) looking for a language that can hold his descriptions and his confessions of their inadequacy.
Though whenever I think about what kind of language he was seeking, or shaping, I think about questions of audience and accessibility: what kind of readership was he looking for and what kind of experience did he want to craft for them? I don’t always ask those questions about authors or their texts, but Agee articulated his own project in terms of social justice and public awareness—and I think of how many readers he alienated (and continues to alienate) with his elaborate and confusing metaphors, his twisty, endless syntax, his analysis of his own paralysis, in all of the forms this paralysis takes: emotional, conceptual, aesthetic, political, spiritual. Point being: in a book like Praise he is losing so many readers who would be fully immersed in the more discrete, approachable account of poverty we find in Tenants (though I agree with you, in terms of my own taste, Praise is the fuller account). For those readers alone, I’m glad Tenants has been published.
You say: “Praise is the full equation, confession included.” The glory of Praise is that its equation—like the equations, or hypothetical equations, we get from all great books—is still desperately incomplete—which is why you and I keep talking about it, which is, perhaps, its final act of generosity towards us: to give us this opportunity to find a language suited to our own collaborative praise.
Read Leslie Jamison's article on Agee in the Oxford American's fall 2013 issue.