Agee's Attempt to De-Commodify His Own Subject Matter in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"
For all of Agee’s poetic bravado and painfully conceded academic pretension, I was pleased and finally satisfied by a writer’s willingness to analyze their own strange and unnatural role in the troubled lives of random strangers. Agee verges on the hyperbolic in his self-loathing for his actions, his spectatorship, and most specifically Walker’s photography; referring to his camera as a “weapon, a stealer of images and souls, a gun, an evil eye.” I expected the excerpt from “Let Us Now Praise Men,” to ensue into another portrait of the plighted life of sharecroppers, yet with a frequent dosage of apology and shame from Agee. But instead Agee did something more remarkable; he studies the lives, happiness, and purpose of the Ricketts and the Woods and his various acquaintances, alongside his own, far more privileged set of circumstances. This is an enormous act of humility, and vulnerability. The simple and heart-breaking state of these people confronts Agee with his own most intimate musings on right and wrong, desire and want, happiness and despair.
He includes an extensive passage about the “apocalyptic Sunday,” with its oppressive heat and sunlight. It is a day so long and listless that is a “paralysis,” full of a “sense of death” (383). Throughout this saga of a day, Agee wants one thing and one thing only; he is consumed by a single desire and cares for nothing else, not food, drink, writing, his career, or even his future (musing momentarily on crashing his car into a tree in hopes that the impact will be strong enough to kill him). He wanted a woman, “not a whore,” nor an acquaintance, but a chance stranger who he could spend an easy afternoon with in company and in pleasure. Yet he can’t get it. He has no idea where or how, and knows that if he were to go into town simply to watch girls lounge by the pool he would become angry, and probably “hate them.” The fervor with which he desires so fully this one simple want, and cannot attain it, all under the blistering and relentless sun, was so perfectly analogous to me for the constant and daily “want” of the Ricketts or the Woods. Who’s to say if Agee even intended this, but it is remarkable that despite his drastically different situation (in every facet), he still wanted and could be denied. The elements of the want are different, but the sensation of the deprivation is the same.
Agee seems to address the issue further (in fact it is addressed throughout), specifically regarding the “unsatisfactory” nature of cities. The “city business,” as he calls it, is just as lonely and desperate as the dusty and dirty country life of the farmers in the south. There is work, there are city lights, but the loneliness inevitably creeps in, only to be quelled momentarily by sex, alcohol, movies or music (389). But even this is not enough to hold off the total exhaustion; “exhaustion final beyond the lifting one foot before the other.”
Despite lamenting over the sobering situation of the two families he meets, he does not pity them nor commodify them, but elevates them to a human level beyond that of simple literary or photographical subject matter. Agee exclaims, “this is a beautiful country,” and follows it by “you can take all that good art and love together and stick them up your-“ (385). There has been a mutual wounding between himself and the families he abruptly encounters and begins to involve himself with, and such an wounding can only be healed “not in forgetfulness but through ultimate trust, through love” (370).