That’s how I felt the first time I jumped out of an airplane. And that’s how I feel reading James Agee’s sentences.
It is July, 1936. Young Jim Agee and Walker Evans are on assignment from Fortune magazine to document the lives of white tenant farmers (sharecroppers) in Alabama. They hardly know how they will do this, these northern, urban strangers. Evans will take the photographs, but Agee struggles with the words that will eventually become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
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.
But he can’t give us those things, so he writes hundreds of pages that read like a symphony and unfold like scenes from a motion picture.
One of the first incidents Agee describes is being taken by white landowners to a tenant farmer’s house. In the telling of it, Agee’s lyricism interweaves the particular moment, the social history, and the dilemma of the outside observer:
A quarter of a mile back in a flat field of short cotton a grove of oaks spumed up and a house stood in their shade. . . . We drew up in the oak shade as the doors of this house filled. They were Negroes. . . . Here at the foreman’s home we had caused an interruption that filled me with regret: relatives were here from a distance, middle-aged and sober people in their Sunday clothes, and three or four visiting children, and I realized that they had been quietly enjoying themselves, the men out at the far side of the house, the women getting dinner, as now, by our arrival, they no longer could [emphasis mine].
The sparse, layered details of the scene (Sunday clothes, the far side of the house, getting dinner) are interwoven with the words of the strangers’ interruptions at crucial junctures, so that the word “realized” occurs between the introduction of the visitors and the description of their interrupted activities, and the word “arrival” appears where it will interrupt the getting of dinner as well as the general enjoyment of the afternoon.
The general feeling “regret,” becomes the realization of the situation – the Sunday ease, free from white outsiders – and then the final powerlessness to undo any of the harm: “now… they no longer could.” This single sentence structure carries not only the immediate and particular situation, but calls out and illustrates the overwhelming social codes in which Agee finds himself confined.
But the body of the book is about the lives of three white sharecropper families, told in such complex detail, so finely nuanced, that the sentences grow and grow in parenthetical and semi-coloned clauses, as here in a list of the particular qualities of several of these people at work:
the infants of three families, staggering happily, their hats held full of freshly picked cotton; the Ricketts children like delirious fawns and panthers; and secret Pearl with her wicked skin; Louise, lifting herself to rest her back, the heavy sack trailing, her eyes on you; Junior, jealous and lazy, malingering, his fingers sore; . . . Annie Mae at twenty-seven, in her angular sweeping, every motion a wonder to watch; . . . Mrs. Ricketts, in that time of morning when from the corn she reels into the green roaring gloom of her home, falls into a chair with gaspings which are almost sobs, and dries in her lifted skirt her delicate and reeking head; Miss Molly chopping wood as if in each blow of the axe she held captured in focus the vengeance of all time….
Reading such comprehensive sentences is a little like falling slowly earthward. One cannot read them fast. They require slowing down, breathing evenly, letting the colors and the weariness, the heat and the never-ending-ness fill the wholeness of life in this place and time.
Jois Child writes and reads manuscripts from a tiny patch of forest in North Idaho. Her work has appeared in The Sierra Sun, High Desert Journal, and Women Owning Woodlands.