Way of Seeing: An Argument for a Cubist Reading of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Way of Seeing: An Argument for a Cubist Reading of

James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a confrontational, political, and baffling book. In this widely lauded work of literature, James Agee defies conventions of order, employs multiple stylistic approaches, insults and frustrates the reader, and generally thwarts comprehension. Critical consensus holds that the chaos of Agee’s text stands as a rebellion against his assignment from Fortune and an attack on the commodification of the suffering of the disadvantaged in the form of such documentary projects as were popular in the 1930s. The goal of the text is not chaos and subversion for their own sake, however, but an attempt at pointing to new possibilities in the relationship between the aesthetic and the political. T.V. Reed, in “Unimagined Existence,” labels the text “postmodern realism” and reads it as an aesthetic critique of realism and political critique of modernism (157). Agee’s main preoccupation, as he states it, is the struggle to represent the “real” through text.  In the “Preface,” Agee calls the book “an effort in human actuality” (XI), and his text can be read partly as cubist answer to social realism, employing multiple perspectives in an attempt to represent the actuality of the object of study.

In “The Unity of Disparateness in Famous Men,” James Lowe argues that Agee uses dislocation, including disruption of chronology and shifts in point of view, to jar the reader out of the exploitive, artificial distinction between the middle and lower class.  His ultimate goal, according to Lowe, is to transcend the disparateness of individuals in a chaotic universe and achieve unity, resolution being the over arching aesthetic principle of the text.

  1. V. Reed, however, interprets these twists and inversions, such as addressing tenants directly, making them representative readers of the text, presenting the actual encounter with the tenants at the end rather than the beginning of the text, and rendering himself as character as intended to disrupt the relationship between reader, subject, author, and character to create a discourse at the sight of political conflict (171). Reed also proposes that by multiplying approaches to its object of study, drawing on empiricism, expressionism, symbolism, surrealism, and Dadaism, the text creates a “cubist sociology” (162).

Reed’s idea of “cubist sociology” finds support in “Drinking in the Wells Sunk Beneath Privies,” in which Hugh Davis makes an argument for Agee’s association with the avant-garde, an influence which, according to Davis, had been largely ignored by critics up to that time. Davis finds evidence of Agee’s avant-garde influences in the biographical—his personal and professional associations with avant-garde writers Eugene Jolas, James Johnson Sweeney, and Anna Kavan—and textual, in his published and unpublished works (86). Citing Agee’s 1936 essay, “Art for What’s Sake,” Davis points out that Agee sought a reconciliation between the avant-garde and social realism, believing that the techniques of the avant-garde were capable of providing tools for radical social transformation (96).

Reed coins a term for Famous Men, “postmodern realism,” saying that it tries to show the link between aesthetic vision and political relationships, keeping the real, particularly the plight of the marginalized, on the aesthetic-political agenda. Agee and Evans use the aesthetics of high modernism, according to Reed, to “drive the readers back towards the real” (172). While Reed points out the “cubist sociology” of Famous Men’s use of multiple aesthetic conventions and Davis argues convincingly for the influence of an avant-garde aesthetic, neither has addressed Agee’s use of multiple perspectives as an appropriation of cubist technique. Despite cubism’s faded significance in avant-garde visual art by the 1930s, Famous Men’s twisting of perspective suggests its continued literary relevance, at least as far as Agee was concerned.

Davis cites evidence in Agee’s journal that he practiced the avant-garde technique of automatic writing, as described in André Breton’s 1924 “Manifesto of Surrealism,” as a means of accessing the unconscious directly, to “tap into the liberating power of the unmediated workings of the unconscious” (90-91). In other words, the goal of automatic writing was to view the unconscious mind. Toward the end of the book Agee, following a diatribe against the word “sharecropper” as applied to all tenant farmers (due to its unsavory associations), peels off a list of 450-500 words (I estimate)  that begins, “god, love, loyalty, honor, beauty, duty;” continues later with “mental, emotional, spiritual, intuitive, esp, stooge, gross, clear, cleaned, communication, literature, understand, howdoyoufeelnow, sympathy;” and ends up at “orson-welles, tom-wolfe, toscanini, fifth-column, reactionary, demagogue, blitzkrieg, defense” (403).  The arrangement of the words so strongly suggests free-word association that it seems likely, given the evidence that Agee was practicing automatic writing, that this passage is just that. Here is evidence of the influence of the avant-garde on the construction of the text. Here, also, is one example of a radical shift in point of view, the “camera” of the text pointed at Agee’s unconscious.

The perspective of Famous Men shifts radically at times and, at others, almost imperceptibly. I say “imperceptibly” because his uses of the “I” “you” and “we” are, taken on their own, indistinguishable from the conventions of the documentary genre of the time. Beginning Part II of “A Country Letter,” Agee invites the reader into the physical world of the tenant farmer using the second person. This positioning of the reader within the world of the tenants evokes the “you are there” quality of the conventional documentary genre of the decade, as Agee guides the reader visually along the road towards their houses and into the privacy of their bedrooms as they sleep (67-68). While Agee often acknowledges the I of himself as observer, in the sections “I: The Front Bedroom,” “II: The Rear Bedroom,” and “III: The Kitchen,” the I draws away altogether, leaving behind a stark empiricism in which Agee describes, as body-less eye and in pain-staking detail, the rooms and their contents (138-160). The absence of the I implies the absolute objectivity of realism, leaving the gaze, ostensibly, as strictly that of the reader without interpretation. Later in the text, reporting on his first encounter with the Gudgers, Agee shifts from the I to the we: “Out in the edge of the cotton one of the three peach trees had been torn in half: we got pieces of wire and lifted its drenching weight and wired it together . . .” (358). Agee declares himself unequivocally as a Communist (220). His shift from first to third person is a convention of reportage, a genre thought by the American Marxist critics of the 1930s to be the best for proletarian realism (Rabinowitz 154).

Yet even in that fairly conventional passage of “A County Letter,” Agee pushes the boundaries of realism: “There is a whole cluster of houses here; they are all negroes’; the shutters are drawn tight. You may or may not waken some dogs: if you do, you will hardly help but be frightened . . .” (67).  Here the text suggests the actual presence of the reader and an emotional response as being “frightened.” As the reader enters the bedroom of the sleeping Ricketts, the text gives way to abstraction, into the unconscious world of the sleepers: “She is dreaming now, with fear, of a shotgun: George has directed it upon her; and there is no trigger: Ivy, and her mother: what are the dreams of dogs?” (69). This surrealist delve into the unconscious then shifts into the mind and the point of view of Mrs. Ricketts.  It is unclear to whom Mrs. Ricketts is speaking as she refers to the we of her family. Towards the conclusion of the passage, her gaze turns upon herself, as the I of “My mother made me the prettiest kind of dress, all fresh for school; I wore it the first day . . ..” But the next line, “I made her such a pretty dress and she wore it once . . .” seems to be herself from her mother’s perspective. The concluding line, however, “Oh, thank God not one of you knows how everyone snickers at you father,” is clearly addressed to the children (70). Although this last line addresses the children, this voice (or, perhaps, these voices) does not, and cannot, address the reader, as the speaker is unaware of and unable to see or address the reader. The gaze of the text is that of the speaker’s self upon itself.

The following section begins with the declaration, “I reckon we’re just about the meanest people in the whole country,” which could be the voice of any of the adult tenants. The rest of that section, however, consists of a chorus of disembodied voices commenting upon the tenant families. While in a few lines it is evident the speaker is addressing Agee, the perspective is radically different from any of the others in the book, being neither that of the tenants, the reader, or Agee but of some others, separate from the world of all three. Their statements come across as starkly judgmental and cruel as juxtaposed with the sad shame of that of Mrs. Ricketts. “Ricketts? They’re a bad lot. They’ve got Miller blood all mixed up in them. The children are a bad problem in school” (71). The next passage brings back the voice of the tenants, the Gudgers this time, George and Annie Mae and their children, seemingly speaking only to themselves of themselves, as they are incapable of speaking to the reader. The final passage of this section becomes scripture, the words of Jesus (73). Given that the preceding voices of this section are gazing at and speaking of the tenants, the presumption is that this final passage is meant as the view of the Divine upon them. “Part II” stands as a representation of the lives the tenants as viewed by the reader (through Agee), themselves, those that know them from afar, and the Divine. In this way Agee fulfills the promise of the opening of this section: “There are on this hill three such families I would tell you of:” (68).

Following his description of the houses of the three tenant families, in “Notes,” Agee acknowledges the privileged gaze of the bourgeois reader in relation to the tenants who occupy those houses. Addressing the perceived “beauty” of what he has just described, Agee states, “It is best discernible to those who by economic advantages of training have only a shameful and thief’s right to it: and it might be said that they recognize the ugliness and disgrace implicit in their privilege of perception.” The beauty that is visible from the perspective of himself and the bourgeois reader disappears from that of those who created it, is “undiscernible” (178). Whether or not the houses and their contents can be called “beautiful,” however, is far less important than the fact that they are real and therefore capable of being perceived as “beauty,” regardless of intention by the creators.

In the section “On Work,” Agee seeks to resolve this discrepancy between the perception of the reader and that of the tenants by inviting the reader into the physical experience of the work of picking the cotton. While the psychological experience of the tenants is beyond the comprehension on the middle-class reader, the physical experience is more accessible. Agee moves in to the second person to describe the work: “Over your right shoulder you have slung a long white sack whose half length trails the ground behind” (299). The description of the work is detailed, relating the particularities of the pain and difficulty of each movement, the cumulative effect on the hands. Agee goes so far as to suggest that the reader:

“ . . .try, three hundred times in succession, the following exercise: touch all five fingertips as closely as possible into one point, trying meanwhile to hold loose cotton in the palm of the hand: you will see that this can very quickly tire, cramp and deteriorate the whole instrument, and will understand how easily rheumatism can take up its strictures in just this place” (299-300).


The “you” of the text is ostensibly the reader, but the “you” is also the tenant performing the work, so that in these two paragraphs of description the perspective of the tenant and the reader are as close to being the same as possible. And yet, at the end of the second paragraph, the text slips back into the third person, “ . . . and though, later in the season, you are relieved of the worst of the heat, it is in exchange at last for a coolness which many pickers like even less well, since it so slows and chills the lubricant garment of sweat they work in . . . ,” placing the reader back into role of observer.

In “Let Us Now Praise James Agee,” Robert Zallar argues that Agee’s intention is to present not the conditions of the tenant farmers but an autobiography of his own psychological experience in Alabama and in writing about it (154). Agee, says Zallar, in subverting the exploitive intentions of his employers at Fortune, becomes himself the exploiter rather than the agent and attempts to transcend exploitation by describing it in full. The most vivid moment of Agee turning the gaze of the text upon himself and his own torment occurs in “Inductions,” as Agee is driving down the road, a moment described in an impressionistic altering of outward scene and inner reflection and memory. He turns upon himself in brutal rebuke: “Who the hell am I. I don’t even want a drink, and I don’t even much want to die. I wish there was no one in all my life I had ever come close enough to harm, or change the life of, the least little bit, and what is there to do about that (339)”. While Zallar’s assertion that the entire text is autobiographical is to ignore other obvious political and aesthetic intentions, the turning of the gaze of the text upon Agee does confirm the significance of his presence and his mind, that to leave himself out would damage the wholeness of the actuality he strives to achieve.

Bruce Jackson supposes that the “I,” the character of James Agee in the text, is in fact a separate entity from the writer James Agee (4). While Zallar sees the text as purely autobiographical, Jackson sees it as two documentaries, one being a documentary about what two young men saw in Alabama in the summer of 1936 and the second, the autobiographical one, being Agee’s struggle to translate that experience (45). It stands to reason that in order to represent the experience as a whole, Agee must present himself, or the character of himself in the text, from as many perspectives as possible. There are two crucial moments in which Agee portrays himself in the gaze of others.

Perhaps the most startling and disorienting shift in perspective occurs during the scene in which the Ricketts are assembling themselves on the porch to have photographs taken by Walker Evans. In the passage which begins on page 321, Agee addresses Mrs. Ricketts directly, speaking of her shame and outrage at the exposure her husband has brought upon them. Agee describes his agony and his wish to convey to her “some warmth, some reassurance, that might at least a little relax you . . .” (323). Suddenly a look comes onto her face that Agee describes as one of “heart-broken and infinite yet timid reproachfulness, as when, say, you might have petted a little animal in a trap, beyond its thorntoothed fierceness, beyond its fear, to quiet, in which it knows, of your blandishments . . .” (323).  Robert Zallar interprets Mrs. Rickets to be the animal in the trap (146). According to Lowe, however, the animal in the trap is both Agee and Mrs. Ricketts, and in this passage he puts himself in her place, making her the captor (92). While this move does, as Lowe says, emphasize Agee’s efforts to identify with the tenants and overcome the disparateness of individuals (92), it also inverts the gaze of the text, so that it is she perceiving him and what “must have been an ugly and puzzling grimace. . .”. But when she draws her gaze away, looking now at the ground, the gaze returns to Agee’s upon her (323).

Agee’s gaze is returned in another significant moment by Louise Gudger, who holds his gaze fearlessly, “with extraordinary serene reception and shining and studiousness . . .” (353). She holds him in a gaze that he perceives as “knowledgeable, on her part” and yet he can gain no knowledge from it. It betrays nothing of her feeling for him, neither fear nor curiosity, warmth nor coldness. Her gaze is opaque, or is rather it is like a mirror in which the observer sees only himself being observed. Agee is aware only that it is he who is being perceived, and writhes a little under her watchfulness, begging forgiveness if his eyes have betrayed any harm: “ . . . [G]ood god, if I have caused you any harm in this, if I have started within you any harmful change, if I have so much as reached out to touch you in any way you should not be touched, forgive me if you can . . .” (353). And yet her own eyes convey to him nothing but her perception of him.

At the beginning of “Inductions,” in the section labeled “first,” Agee again employs the second person, this time addressing the tenants themselves (319) and, as T.V. Reed has pointed out, putting them in the place of representative readers of the text (171). In so doing Agee sets up a new relationship between the text and the subject of the text, but also between the actual, privileged reader and the tenants as hypothetical reader. This section is an inversion of the passage on picking cotton, which places the reader in the place of the tenants. The point of view, however, is Agee’s, as he recalls the experience of first meeting the tenant families. The tenant farmers as representative readers view themselves through Agee’s eyes, and the actual reader views the tenant farmers viewing themselves through Agee’s eyes.

These shifts in perspective serve as useful disorientation and follow Agee’s purpose to jar the reader out of preconceptions and expectations, but they can also be seen as an example of cubism technique in literature. In his review of Jacqueline Vaught Brogan’s Part of the Climate: American Cubist Poetry, Alan Michael Parker criticizes Brogan’s definition of cubist literature. Although Brogan cites Cubism in both poetry and prose, she defines literary Cubism only in terms of poetry, offering that cubist poetry is marked “by a distortion of normal stanza, line, and word boundaries; by thematic concern with its own modernism and intense preoccupation with perception; by narrative and temporal disjunctions that, in a collage-like fashion, employ multiple voices, sections and textual fragments; and finally by a heightened sense of textuality” (107). By Brogan’s definition, Famous Men, which some critics take as a long prose poem, could easily be identified as cubist. But Parker objects to this definition as “so broad as to be meaningless,” complaining that by that definition “it would appear that almost any innovative literary work might meet Brogan’s criteria” (107). Parker’s ultimate objection to Brogan’s definition, however, is that she mistakes the use of multiple voices as analogous to the introduction of multiple perspectives in cubist visual art (107). As I’ve shown, Agee’s text employs not only fragmentation, temporal disjunction, and multiple voices but also multiple perspectives. But identifying the use of multiple perspectives does not in itself justify the labeling of Famous Men as necessarily cubist.

Hugh Davis has pointed out Agee’s associations with the avant-garde of the 1930s, but there is other evidence in the text of Famous Men of Agee’s intellectual relationship with the avant-garde and specifically with the concerns of Cubism. Bruce Jackson attributes the chaos of the book to Agee’s struggle to represent the actual through text, which is by necessity serial and therefore linear. “But the world of human experience is multivalent: in the same instant we are fully capable of experiencing all five senses and a range of passions as well. He was trying to sing a multivalent song in a serial world (39).” Agee specifically discusses this dilemma. “But it must be added of words that they are the most inevitably inaccurate of all mediums of record and communication . . ..” One of the reasons for this, he says, is the “inability [of words] to communicate simultaneity with any immediacy.” (209).  Agee’s problem of representing the simultaneous through the linear is a temporal one and bears relationship to a concept that was a concern of the cubists: the fourth dimension.

Willard Bohn proposes in a fairly recent article the influence of the fourth dimension, as originally born of mathematics, on the written literature between the world wars.  Before Einstein’s General Theory of relativity, which eventually cemented the fourth dimension as a temporal concept, cubist painters borrowed the concept as a spatial one. However, Bohn lays out evidence that, even before Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, certain authors perceived the fourth dimension as a temporal principle (122). In “On the porch 2,” in which Agee discusses at length the difficulty of representing the actual through words, he states that to “to get my own sort of truth out of the experience” he must handle it from four planes, the fourth being the “problems of recording; which, too, are an organic part of the experience as a whole” (214-215). Agee’s “four planes” suggest the concept of a fourth dimension. Evidence for the correspondence between the two lies in other ways Agee seems to be responding to the influence of the concept of the fourth dimension and relativity.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity confirmed for the avant-garde that the “the laws governing the physical universe were relative to an observer’s position” (127). Agee is clearly concerned with this very concept. He writes–on telling the truth of George Gudger as he sees him—of relative truth: “Name me one truth within human range that is not relative and I will feel a shade more apologetic of that” (211). The General Theory of Relativity and the concept of the fourth dimension sparked among the intellectuals of the day a discussion of the dichotomy between science and art, one on which Agee comments directly: “Must [the imagination] therefore interfere with still another way of seeing and telling of still another form of truth which is in its own way at least as sound? Is there such a cleavage between the ‘scientific’ and the ‘artistic?’(213).”  Agee’s concern for the interplay between the scientific and the artistic strongly suggests his intellectual participation in the avant-garde’s reception of The General Theory of Relativity.

Bohn provides several interpretations of the fourth dimension from thinkers of the day. Two of the earliest writers to discuss the fourth dimension in print, Max Weber and Guillaume Apollinaire, chose to identify the fourth dimension with the creative imagination. Because the domain was purely imaginary, they said, it could not be apprehended through three-dimensional methods (123). William Carlos Williams (whom Brogan labels as “cubist,” much to the ire of Parker [107]) defined the fourth dimension as ‘the imagination on which reality rides’ (123). Mexican author Amado Nervo equated the fourth dimension with, among other things, the human soul (123). Ildefonso Pereda Valdes said Cubism was only a manner of viewing things that corresponds to the fourth dimension (130). Applying such interpretations of the fourth dimension to Agee’s “problems of recording” would suggest that the problems of recording, for him, are those of imagination, or the human soul, to which Cubism is a response.  Agee’s “problem” is that stated by Valdes, that most people are incapable of conceiving the imaginary universe created by the artist (130). Agee’s use of cubist techniques can be seen as his attempt to solve the problem of recording and the problem of how the reader might experience the consciousness, the artistic imagination, of another.

Reading Famous Men as cubist literature opens new possibilities for interpretation, but I’m not suggesting the exclusion of other interpretations and approaches. The text inherently resists any singular definition or mode of understanding. What I’m suggesting is that to consider the strong influence of the avant-garde on Agee’s creative activities during the writing of this book and to thus imagine the text as a cubist attempt to apprehend and represent the actuality of experience in its wholeness might shed useful light on some of the more baffling aspects of its seeming chaos.


Works Cited


Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. First Mariner Books edition 2001 Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1939. Print.

Bohn, William. “Writing the Fourth Dimension.” Comparative Critical Studies 4.1 (2007): 121-138. Web. 27 Nov 2010.

Davis, Hugh. “‘Drinking at Wells Sunk Beneath Privies.’ Agee and Surrealism.” Agee Agonistes. Ed. Michael A. Lofaro. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2007. Print.

Jackson, Bruce. “The Deceptive Anarchy of ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’.” Antioch Review 57.1 (1999): 38-49. Web. 24 Nov 2010.

Lowe, James. “The Unity of Disparateness in Famous Men.” The Creative Process of James Agee. Ed. Fred Hobson. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1994. Print.

Parker, Alan Michael. “Review: Cubist Poetry.” Art Journal 51.4 (1992): 106-107. Web. 27 Nov 2010.

Zallar, Robert. “Let us Now Praise James Agee.” The Southern Literary Journal 10.2 (1978): 144-154. JSTOR. Web. 30 Sept. 2010.

Reed, T.V. “Unimagined Existence and the Fiction of the Real: Postmodernist Realism in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Representations 24. (1988): 156-76. JSTOR. Web. 17 Sept. 2010.