Dead these 30 years of a headlong disregard for his own well-being, having continued to smoke and drink heavily even after the warnings of death were upon him, the poet-critic-novelist-journalist James Agee now has the near-legendary status of those who die young (he was only 46) after an incandescent passage.
"Agee: A Life Remembered" does not aim to replace Laurence Bergreen's full-dress biography "James Agee, a Life" (Dutton, 1984). It is the text of a documentary by film makers Ross Spears and Jude Cassidy, including interviews with those who knew Agee--John Huston, Dwight Macdonald, Father James Flye (his mentor from prep school to death)--and a worshipful, regretful, frank narrative by Robert Coles. The book is also a lovely gallery of photographs of Agee, formal and candid.
"He couldn't define himself. . . . He couldn't limit himself; he was oceanic. And in a way that was his great strength," said Macdonald, whose correspondence and friendship with Agee began when Agee was still a teen-ager at Exeter. He was, Macdonald added, "the most brilliant, the deepest, most creative prose writer of my generation."
Macdonald had helped him find a job at Fortune magazine, which led to Agee's collaboration with the photographer Walker Evans on "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," their reportage, realistic but also poetic, on Southern sharecropping families during the Depression. It continues to find new generations of readers and, perhaps even more than "A Death in the Family" or his eloquent, informed film criticism, is at the heart of Agee's persisting attraction.
Robert Fitzgerald, the poet-translator who was a colleague at Time and lifelong friend, said that more than anyone he knew, Agee insisted on a respect for the real: "To respect this in all its details, ambiguities, peculiarities, and finesses was his aim. . . . To be true to things as they were."
Coles measures the extent to which Agee fell short: the promising poet "who never became the mature lyrical and even metaphysical poet he might have been"; the storyteller who never became "the controlled narrator of fiction. He never, that is, got beyond himself and his given world--the distance a great novelist must gain on life."
Still, what matters is the achievement, and Coles salutes him as "a voice of brave and candid dissatisfaction with the way things are--the inhumanity, the injustice, the meanness and callousness, the smugness and arrogance; . . . a teacher, who through poems and stories and essays made us morally uncomfortable, morally alert, a bit more morally searching; and, not least, a pilgrim . . ."
It may be in the nature of pilgrims to be unmindful of time and matters of earthly preservation. "He wouldn't have been Jim if he'd been one to protect himself and look after his health, and do what was best for his body and his interests," John Huston said. "Jim lived regardless of consequences of that kind. He was beyond taking care of himself." The reckless disregard of self is part of Agee's romantic aura, as it is of F. Scott Fitzgerald's. The difference is that Agee's excesses seemed to have had less to do with pleasure than with his unceasing, sprawling and crazing pursuit of some grand, elusive, literary perfection. It is hard not to feel impatient at the wastefulness of it, and impossible to imagine that it could have been any different.
Some who imagine it could have been different claim that it was the waste of Agee's talents in journalism that held him back from greatness. Editor Paul Ashdown quotes Dwight Macdonald: "The trouble with Agee as a journalist was that he couldn't be just workmanlike. He had to give it everything he had, which was not good for him." Ashdown objects: "But it is precisely because he gave it everything he had--and what he had was genius--that his neglected journalism needs rediscovery." The selection offered includes Agee on the Tennessee Valley Authority, the atomic bomb, and other topics too varied to list. Broadly, the subject of his journalism was the subject of the books for which he is best known: Rural America and the impact upon it of great events beyond its borders.