Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Improper

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men begins with thirty-one photos. The most famous one being there, to your left. And the first words are these: "(Serious readers are advised to proceed to the book-proper after finishing the first section of the Preface. A later return will do no harm.)"

Though they are in whispered parentheses, Agee's message is no nonsense: narrative is for dilly-dallyers. Real readers need be active participants in literature. Do not expect for this to be easy. Do not expect sequence. That is for the lazy.

This is fitting in the context of this book, once you realize there is no table of contents, but instead a page titled, "Design of the Book," and that Agee was uncomfortable with the book-form at all. He writes, "This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the author and those of whom they tell."

Agee continues to play with his reader, demanding their attention and participation, with such tongue-in-cheek bits as the following "cast-list" he includes in the beginning of Book II:
James Agee: a spy, traveling as a journalist
Walker Evans: a counter-spy traveling as a photographer
Unpaid Agitators: William Blake, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Ring Lardner, Jesus Christ, Sigmund Freud, Lonnie Johnson, Irvine Upham
Jesus as an "unpaid agitator"? Provacateur. Funny man.

To begin the book, there is no title page, no words at all: just a blank page followed in the first edition by 31 photographs arranged in three groups. The photographs have no captions or locating information of any kind. These images were shifted so they appeared before all words--before the title, before the copyright, before the table of contents. And why?

Agee tells us, "The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative." He insisted that the publisher not distribute bound galleys without the photographs because reviewers would be incapable of understanding what the book was about if they received only the words.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is Agee's discontent distilled and given its most convenient form, the book. But convenience is far from perfection. Indeed Agee is tortured by the act of writing—the act of showing, and so enabling, maybe even encouraging, voyeurism. He cannot stand "that you are what you are, and that she is what she is, and that you cannot, for one moment exchange places with her, nor by any such hope make expiation for what she has suffered at your hands, and for what you have gained at hers." Is this all exploitation? He agonized over Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in part to rebel against his fear that, yes, all this is.

1937 Winter Carnival Queen1938 Winter Carnival Queen
There are included here to demonstrate the gap in privilege that so chafed Agee.
He would never recover from the book's poor reception (it was remaindered after selling only 600 copies), and continued on to a troubled life of alcoholism, dying early at 45, in a taxi en route to a doctor’s appointment. After the posthumous publishing of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Death in the Family, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men exploded in popularity and is now considered a classic, precisely for all the quirks and experimentation that make it so challenging a read.

Let's end with Agee in his own words (taken from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men): "Isn’t every human being both a scientist and an artist; and in writing of human experience, isn’t there a good deal to be said for recognizing that fact and for using both methods?"

To see all this energy given book-form, ask for Rare F 326 .A17. It’s a first edition.

Posted for Maggie Tierney '14

No comments :

Post a Comment