"Here I can only say that in the people of this country you care most for, pretty nearly without exception you must reckon in traits, needs, diseases, and above all natural habits, differing from our own, of a casualness, apathy, self-interest, unconscious, offhand, and deliberated cruelty, in relation towards extra-human life and toward negroes, terrible enough to freeze your blood or break your heart or to propel you toward murder; and that you must reckon them as "innocent" even of the worst of this; and must realize that it is at least unlikely that enough of the causes can ever be altered, or pressures withdrawn, to make much difference."
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,
It is ironic that when Agee brought out LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN in 1941, along with the incredible photography in it--the book was a flop. Not until 1960 was there a resurgance in the popularity. Agee died in 1955 and did not witness its rebirth. A passage from the book shows us
what a poet Agee was, though he was working under the guise of reporter:
The Gudgers' house:
"The odor of pine lumber, wide thin cards of it, heated in the sun, in no way doubled or insulated, in closed and darkened air. The odor of woodsmoke, the fuel being again mainly pine, but in part also, hickory, oak, and cedar. The odors of cooking. Among these, most strongly, the odors of fried salt pork and of fried and boiled pork lard, and second, the odor of cooked corn. The odors of sweat in many stages of age and freshness, this sweat being a distillation of pork, lard, corn, woodsmoke, pine, and ammonia. The odors of sleep, of bedding and of breathing, for the ventilation is poor. The odors of all the dirt that in the course of time can accumulate in a quilt and mattress. Odors of staleness from clothes hung or stored away, not washed."
As poets we trust our olfactory memories, for they spice up and color our recall, and fuel our
Nice. I love the description of the one family's disdain of soap as being a waste of money ("What's cleaner than water?"). Agee presents it completely without guile--a perfect opportunity to mock that he uses as solid characterization without devolving into caricature.
He also had a hard time publishing it, if I recall--the first publisher backed out, didn't they? Or demanded changes?
I think there are some flaws in Famous Men, but it's one of those books I keep coming back to because it at least approaches greatness. I struggled through A DEATH IN THE FAMILY last year and didn't care for it nearly as much. Agee's descriptions have definately influenced me as a writer.
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