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2012 0708 images 15 agee(Solstice Literary Magazine December 21, 2014)

We Are Talking Now of James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer 1915”

In January 1971, I was living in Columbia, Missouri, where for two years I’d been an undergraduate English major at the University. (1) A surprise to literate me, I’d become pencil-sucking bored with my classes, especially the non-electives “Restoration Drama” and “Chaucer.” What’s more I’d also been struggling to write interior-laden short stories based on literary models that once excited me but now raveled through my head like cotton off a spinning jenny until I felt wire-whisked by their polish and mystery and woe—so, one day, just after my sixth semester began, I quit. (2) Because I had to, I got a job, part-time clerk at the University library. They said I could come in from one to five, work half days. Perfect. My mornings were free for writing.

In those days, I had not yet given up on fiction and poetry for long bouts of essaying in my journal; I still sketched tales about a high school friend and me in the Unitarian church, LRY (Liberal Religious Youth); and I wrote critical analyses of poets and prose writers I was drawn to, among them Arthur Rimbaud and Henry Miller, neither of whom went to college. Mostly—and I wonder now whether I recognized a calling then—I played with autobiography as a seed for imaginative recreation and reflective disclosure. How free I felt, showing up every morning at my desk, even though I had few clues how I might develop as a writer. All I knew was that I had been in school, in a row of students, in line at recess and the cafeteria, since I was five—and I needed a break. Suddenly I was interested in nothing but how fraught my life was becoming since I’d quit college. I wrote daily, Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen records on my turntable, romanticizing and darkening my mood. My first day at the library, I was late but forgiven when I did the task—retyping three-by-five cards, edited by a librarian—without complaint.

One Friday, at the end of the month, there was a party down the street from my apartment. When I arrived, its wall of sound, Led Zeppelin, was agonizingly loud. Given a drink, I was pulled on by the host. She said I want you to meet George and his fiancée, Sue, lit majors both. George, I’ve seen you in the English department where, alas, I’m no longer enrolled. What happened? I quit. And this is? This is Terri.

A young woman, my age, twenty-one, scarf-bundled, standing beside them, awkward and uncomfortable, noticeably so. That aunt-knitted scarf, wound around her neck, said she wasn’t sure she wanted to be here. I glanced at the noise of the party. And then at her: she was watching me. To my query, she said she was not from Columbia, but Kansas City. She was soon moving to Jacksonville, Florida, where she’d already got a job. Really? Yes, in a bookstore. I moved closer and said that I had worked in a bookshop after high school and loved it. She pushed back her middle-parted, saddle-brown hair from either side of her face, where I spotted tiny pimple craters, daubed at but unobscured by make-up. Several seemed recently scratched.

You loved the bookstore? she asked. I did. I loved the people who read books. I loved the owner, Mrs. Wright, (3) who took a new hardback home every day and read until sleep, then, continued at dawn until she finished. (She’d give us her quick thumbs up or down, go long either way when she was moved.) Mrs. Wright insisted each employee read a new book every week so as to recommend it (or not) to our clientele. The thing I remember most about the store was its pulpy smell. The basement was walled with Bantam mass-market paperbacks, ivory-white-faced Faulkner novels from Vintage, and trade-size Hemingway and Fitzgerald from Scribner’s with their block-colored, modernist covers and their telltale light or heavy heft—and yes, the odor of their papery flesh when I razor-opened the deep cardboard boxes, spun one’s pages to release the aroma, and stacked them four deep in the racks. Even then, the basementy ripe smell of books convinced me there was more to literature than words on the page.

I felt Terri’s curiosity, and assumed it was for the language I used. When I stood close to her, she was unfazed. So you didn’t graduate? she asked, looking at my mouth. No, I’d had enough. It was louder still, so I motioned her to a quieter spot. I need to concentrate on my writing, I said. And you? Surely you graduated? No, I also quit, she said. From where? From Antioch, in Ohio. (Antioch, America’s most liberal college.) My head cocked in pursuit, and she asked if there was someplace else we could go to escape the noise. I knew a café.

We walked downtown, street lamps haloing and hiding her textures. A tan mohair coat. A pleated skirt below her knee. A turtleneck wool sweater and a big belt buckle like the Pilgrims we drew in grade school wore. Tall, dark socks for the freezing night. Thick-soled shoes. The collar of her coat upturned and spreading over that collar, her auburn hair. She like an atrium under glass and I side-gazing in.

We passed a beauty salon, a sign for cuts, trims, perms—wigs, lashes, nails. Such intimate words, I said. They sound like what they do. I asked her about George: where had they met? At a friend’s wedding. He was always drawing her out, she said. But, she told him, I’m not a party girl. Still, he insisted. You need to get out. Meet people. Give those books a rest. She conceded, she said. I’m so glad he convinced me; I’ll listen to him again. In that moment, how rare she seemed—restrained and willing, serious and entranced. By what? By a desire to be entranced? You say you write, she said. Would you read something to me?

That meant going to my room. I asked, she agreed. It was freezing in there. I borrowed a space heater from a downstairs roommate. Thank you; I’ll return it posthaste. Plugged in, its coils hummed and glowed. Terri sat on my bed. I took the chair from my tidy desk with its notebooks and jacketless library hardbacks, a box underneath with alphabetized files. A tin can of pens and pencils like a sulk of waiters on a slow night. I gathered up some loose-leaf pages.

OK, I said—this, in third person, is when I, I mean the character I’ve created, is twelve, living with his family in northern Wisconsin.

He remembered the cold that came in November, the light snows of December, and the blizzards of January. He remembered the spring of a year before, when the chill evaporated, and the flowers timidly appeared for their brief stance of summer, and he remembered the autumn as a drive in the country, and the winter growing again, quicker than you could say, Jack Frost. He remembered too the Aurora Borealis he saw in late October. The alluring beauty of the Northern Lights called his imagination to its design, which appeared like floodlights on the theater of heaven. It made him feel small and terrified, and in that vice, he felt the awkwardness of his own heart. The contemplation of the dangerous beauty of the Aurora would pull him out of life and into legend, a grief detached from humanity.

In the evenings, in his parents’ home, the battering cold would gather into his being and reserve his emotions like hibernation. He had nowhere to go, so he lay in his room and contemplated the winter. He listened to the gales, wailing furiously off the roof and under the eaves. The sound consoled him. He was safe. And often during the winter, he would lie on his bed, his fingers interlocked, and watch his black window, the frost bitterly clear and crystalline, etched by the wind.

And then this, I said, enlarges what I just read.

He realized the beauty of this moment, but, in feeling the beauty, he felt it carried death, too. The rapture was always present and inviting him deeper and deeper, and this free-fall was the only thing to sustain him. He needed a duration beyond anything he had ever conceived. He needed the duration of life to sustain him. Yet where was life? Was it the design of nature, the design of his taking it in, his own life up until then, tacking on the wind of existence, its motion billowing his sail, securing his mast? Why did everything have to change?

All of time was a moment, centuries were moments, his life was a momentary bump against the moments to come. But it was not a definition of time he wanted. He wanted a definition of life in the moment. He wanted the instinct of what he saw, to be bold in him like a crop, coming up every spring. He wanted to live amidst these moments, and he was passionate to them whenever they came. He waited for the miracle. He waited for God. And he waited for death, not knowing that death was the appearance.

Terri was gazing at me. (I felt as though my words had rattled loose something pinned in her.) She reached for my pages. I handed them over, and she brought the skinny stack, torn from its yellow pad, to her nose. She closed her eyes, and she inhaled. She repeated my phrase—the theater of heaven—and I saw/heard her trace her fingertips across the page. The sound was a rustle, her fingers gliding over the inscribed grooves and punct of my pen on the pad. (4)

I sat on the bed, close to her. And then we lay down together, our bodies sepulchral-like on my soft, single mattress, our hands clasped, her coat off, then mine, our shoes, the heater warming the room, and I sensed a lost other, a twin, who vibrated and stilled as we touched, my bones telling me this fits, her body habiting mine, yearned for and at last arrived, those years of waiting for such love dissolved, all of which would become interdependent during our epistolary fondling over the next eighteen months—binding us together, rending us apart.

The day you read to her of the theater of heaven.

Suddenly, she announced, as though waking from a dream, I’m not doing anything.

All I want is to be here, beside you, I said.

On the bed our bodies lengthened, our chests pressed, our toes rubbed each others’ arches. My arm circled her shoulders, and she released something of her not doing anything. I inspected her lips and saw them chapped, pursed. Chapped as if bitten. I kissed her, and the kiss was neither sloppy nor grinding nor hesitant nor somber nor ecstatic—the kiss was less than ardent, acknowledging in its less than the kiss we couldn’t live up to, perhaps one in the offing.

Now the room was hot, and she pulled her socks off. She said she had shaved her legs three weeks before, but nothing grew. My hand brushed her smooth stubble, and I kissed her calf. She yielded, she giggled, she grabbed my shirt and pulled me to her. I asked her what I was feeling under her wool sweater. Taffeta, she said.

When I’m holding you, Terri, there is nothing I need to think about.

That’s true, she whispered.

Whatever it was that so needed to be spoken for in me has stopped.

I knew you wouldn’t try anything, she said. I knew I could trust you.

When we awoke, it was eleven.

The day you read aloud about the theater of heaven you fall in love.

I walked her to George’s porch. Another kiss: haltered, unsustained. I felt her hip wedge against mine. We held on, swayed in stillness. Only when my mind clicked back—I was staring at the yellow porch lamp, its brightness masked by a scuffed globe—did I feel a sexual urge. But the urge bobbed warily away. The mind’s gambit folded then under another embrace where I felt our sum was neither one nor two nor more. It was zero, from which nothing is taken. Zero has no equals. No dread, no conscience. We were zero, vanished or curtained, I couldn’t tell which.


Next month, after Terri moved to Florida, we began writing letters. Dozens piled up that spring. Daily my ears fluttered and cocked for the post. I don’t have my letters to her but I do have hers to me. (5) In one she wrote that her words were not composed or edited—I feel with you and that you will not condemn me in my silliness—that you do not force me to be what you imagine but rather what I am. Another’s salutation was the word love, written in Greek. And then this: What I want to write to you is everything and can best write that by saying—I love you—and uniquely—to the extent that I am confused and want to consume you and at the same time I want truth and dialog and—. Glean this from my words—You love well and you are an endless wind in my hair.

She sent me books from the shop where she clerked, ones by authors I told her I’d read and liked. The first, The Collected Poems of James Agee, she inscribed:


            To consider the distance as an extension of skin. This—touch.

            Love    Love    Terri

That cinched it. A book, “an extension of skin.” I have shelved this book and its sender’s note near my desk for years, her identifying what is instinctive in us as readers—the flesh of language—and which materialized only when she and I had someone with whom to share it: that books touch, that she, six Southern states away, was touching me through Agee. What’s more, Agee’s poems were like promises, like doors, bearing key and lock, which my writerly life would one day open. I remember praising his prose to Terri—passionate praise, too, for she remembered. (I believe that part of love is another person’s attentiveness to the things we love in ourselves, and love is real when we are reflectively valued, mirrored by our neurons, if you will.) In high school, I had devoured Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), two unsettling colossi, so different from the class-assigned Hawthorne-Twain-Frost-Hemingway-Salinger sirens of American literature. (What does one do with that lineage other than laud it, at times, deafeningly so, and, in time, move on, unring its bell, perhaps stick its tires and hear the air escape.) I have to admit it: Agee’s poems, even then, seemed cryptic, grandiose and old-fashioned, antediluvian, their stentorian style shunning William Carlos Williams’s dictum: no ideas but in things. I found Agee’s lines vexing (I still do):

O, let me set to this new wick,
Dry, and a-thirst for light, love’s name.
So, we may watch the slow descent
Of wax ascend in steady flame.

But in those days I yielded to all that Parnassian lacquer; indeed, I aped Agee’s style in my own poems, which pressed discs of purple vinyl. However, his 1936 Depression-era prose documentary, Famous Men, about three Hale County, Alabama, tenant families, an epic of participatory journalism and lyrical flight, was captivating: that his book compelled me to pour through the marvels of his other work—his guilty prayer, the child’s novella, The Morning Watch (1951), and his existentially uplifting A Death in the Family (1957), in which the six-year-old Rufus (Agee’s childhood name) is, over thirty-six hours, kept from learning of and shocked by his father’s death, an autobiographical novel whose “sort of prologue”—placed there by the book’s editors two years after his death: Agee died of a heart attack in the back seat of a New York taxicab, May 16, 1955—was “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” one of the finest lyric essays ever written. (6)

What was it about Terri that meant so much to me? That January evening, my face card came up the moment I told her I was a writer. I had uttered those words to no one, never having bragged with such tact—that I was what I hoped to be. (I see now that the truth I wanted to convey was, Please notice me for I’m engaged by the writer’s activity—a writer is he who writes, like Jack Kerouac, incessantly, madly—and not that I had published stories or begun a career at the Columbia Missourian, the town’s coveted newspaper, where, we were told, real authors took any post, even the obit beat, to learn the trade. If my claim sounded ambiguous to me, doubtless it sounded the same to Terri.) The miracle was, she believed me.

It makes no sense to say you saw her coming. How could you be so aware? What radar had you set beaming toward the stars? To say you saw her coming cheapens the gift, for she cannot conform to an expectation you never had. The point is the gift, that which is neither called forth nor believed. The mystery of being given to, of knowing not why. Give the gold to Kierkegaard: Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards. You were so fixated on your own life and the arc of discovery you supposed you were making up that you believed you had some tablet-bearing hand in commanding that which had summoned her. The truth is, you’re not in the captain’s seat. Neither then, nor now. You weren’t even in the wheelhouse and to think you were means you’re ludicrously unaware. And just as you didn’t know you were searching for someone, it’s a good bet that she was not looking for you, either. Mirrored unawareness keeps company. The very day you read aloud. And yet there are Forces That Connive such contrivances, seemingly random, even though the most volcanic and the deepest buried of those vessels put her one block away that night and drew you and her out and to each other. What was she doing that had nothing to do with you? You never thought to ask—one of many things you left unquestioned. Still, she must have been as unaware of you as you were of her—otherwise the fix would not have been in.

My reading aloud to Terri—and, firming it up now, more than forty years later—is still transfixing; the act breached from the ovum my self-regard as an author. What’ more, her presence, her touching the flesh of my pages, has meant I’ve let the listener in, counterpointed other songs against mine, danced with a partner, sought contrast and accord, been relational. This round, it isn’t hard to peg with whom: James Agee. I use Agee and his vocalic sensitivity to define how the writing I do and the authors I love bellow and bear the improvised voice—its music, its evanescence, the extension of its skin toward the other, the point, the proximal earful of words that washes over and through the other, the point.


What is literature? One definition says that what I had written in 1971 is not that, though the paragraphs climb, I admit, cloyingly, toward their lofted nest. Whatever that autobiographical sketch hoped to accomplish, its words still stir the heat of their reading; they and the reading remain enflamed. I once believed literature was housed in a temple on a peak in Darien, enshrined by the gods of its prior assemblage. I’ve rolled that boulder up and down the mountainside a thousand times. Now, though, my youthful dalliance with literariness no longer matters. What does matter is communication, how it evolves in a culture’s tide and the tick-tock of my life, the McLuhanesque realm of language, especially now as literature’s linearity and print-bias, its narrative/descriptive cast, is being re-inscribed, with the celebrity as author, via the Internet and video and TV more quickly than we thought possible. In lieu of literature’s slide, writing is what’s important. This idea that today I want the unfinished, the untidy, the expanding universe of what we create—in drafts and journals, essays and letters and blogs, in speech, interview, conversation, and video, the messy hybrids I love—to be as platformed and valued as the literature we treasure, erupted in me with Terri’s palpable response to my pages. She took my literary bent because I bent my passion to her in person. (Dare we imagine one of literature’s traits, from now on, as live?) That intimacy began challenging the meditative silence between me and my voice with a new one, which said: the art of writing is to make its reception an equal part of its creation. That because you write, someone is listening—as though you were speaking.

Every day I succumb to my calling’s most intrinsic charge: its wildness, its rapids, its running from full to empty, the wellspring of vocalized language, written once, and heard, and restated, and redone dozens of times. My claim is that prose, as it’s composed, merges speech and writing, wants to take the writing, its face worked over like a contender’s, back to—back through—the felt sound of speech. This reflexive activity is its meaning. Prose floods from an internal demand that its author constantly revise and renew its voicing. Trouble enters, of course, once that activity gets fixed and finalized. Why? Because when we read the “work,” its finish and polish, its motion and accumulation, ring true, so we think it’s done, and anymore fussing over it will ruin it. That’s so and that’s not so. Sitting on this teleological mushroom cap too long is every writer’s dread: as print and critics and school boards and (we) teachers codify the Harvard Classics, the Seminal Books, and the Negotiable Canon, we believe writing should be of that ilk. That may be what literature is or should be but it’s not what authors do. Writing, like jazz, is an improvisatory act that insists its players be all-in performers: I’m a writer who drifts across the swamp of time, and the bog of memory, and stops meandering only for that ego-begetting bugbear, publication. Communicating, at last, where it is I got to. For me—and here I diverge from the wholly improvised—first word is not best word except when calling 9-1-1. As writers, the next word and the next wording and the next rewording, and then backing-up to reword those two sentences prior, and then, of course, those two sentences after, makes the thing better or more expressive, and thus truer, or, at least, changes it enough to seem improved, and, given the time, to seem as if we’re getting somewhere, that purposeful ongoingness which John Gardner calls profluence and which prose aspires to with me, its vehicle. How do we define “literary” from the point of view of the writing, as it’s created and revised? Such a definition must be contradictory: ever amendable and ever abandonable.

Here I wonder how I might metamorphose this into something you can grok—and know, right off, to use music, the only art that fully escapes its paradoxes, as Schopenhauer taught us. Listen to Keith Jarrett’s live January 24, 1975, solo piano concert in Kӧln, Germany. The ECM recording captures what happened that night and what is still happening, as we listen: that simultaneity. No matter how many times we hear it—or because we’ve heard it so often—the concert sounds as though Jarrett is improvising a never-before-played composition, whose materialization feels fully-formed, set in stone. Listening to it, it is old and new, a beguiling conundrum since our ears yearn to hear what’s new reimagine itself as new forever. (7)

Jarrett’s solos in Kӧln (his producer has recorded dozens, maybe hundreds, of these concerts in locales around the world and released very few) enact the energy, slipped into and seized on and let go of, wandered away from and sidled back to and seized on again, of a few musical ideas. What’s the link to the writer? Author and improviser engage this activity over time and build a work via accretion. The difference is, evidence of the writer’s revisions—the road to the composition—is absent from the product while Jarrett’s creation becomes the product: the road is the composition. Adding and subtracting, the shovel emptying as much as filling, bespeaks the writer’s labor. Here is a process one is easily enamored of and regenerated by and wishes would be enough and never is.

What I’m trying to achieve by rewriting these long paragraphs—oh, I don’t know, forty or more times by now, the equivalent of finding and latching onto a groove as Jarrett does, though you neither see nor hear the in-time verity of the groove as I invented it—is to unleash the changeling, sculpt its turbulence, attend to the demon of dissatisfaction, even though the paragraph may, as I read it/read it last night, feel whole, feel sensible, but is only the most recently sounded twist and turn of the tale and the indeterminacy one gains by writing into its neverending end—so many, many, many times. Such modifiable expressivity is its truth. And an expressive truth makes, in part, my intentionally imagined partnership with James Agee, less literary and more writerly, since I deem him a co-conspirator whose maximally revisionary style, in poetry, fiction, journalism, and essay, clangs and clouds his moon-bloomed phrases with an improvisatory, spoken joy.

I add here a short explanation Agee wrote for the program notes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, April 9, 1948, at the first performance of Samuel Barber's setting of "Knoxville." I discovered this post-essay and post-publication, quoted in Barbara Heyman's biography, Samuel Barber: The Composer and His Music. It fits with my description above of an improvisatory voice many of us try to adhere to in our writing, which Agee certainly knew.

I was sketching around, vaguely, on a possible autobiographical novel (about 1937), and was so much involved and interested in early childhood memories. I was greatly interested in improvisatory writing, as against carefully composed, multiple draft-writing; i.e., with a kind of parallel to improvisation in jazz, to a certain kind of "genuine" lyric which I thought should be purely improvised. This text [Knoxville] turned up more out of both states of mind, than anything else: specifically, remembrance of the way water from garden hoses looked and sounded at twilight. This brought nostalgia for much that I remembered very accurately; all I had to do was write it; so the writing was easier than most I have managed. It took possibly an hour and a half; on revision, I stayed about 98 percent faithful to my rule, for these "improvised" experiments, against any revision whatever. There is little if anything consciously invented in it, it is strictly autobiographical.

Did I have any idea of where I’d be now before I began? Hardly. Yet another reason to put Agee’s “Knoxville” into play—bounce off of and interrupt and contend with his voice in my two-part invention. His part is like a ground bass over which I syncopate my riffs: among them, Agee’s style and person, a woman I once loved, my family and childhood, and my musical sensibility whose inclusions cushion my squirming and summon, I hope, Agee’s rhapsodic voice, which he spoke and wrote with so brokenly well that he and I might dialogue and dispute these yips and growls as they come what may. If literature were to accept the living writer as its classic author, which I fear tops the spires of literary tradition and its ostensible aesthetic—but let’s worry that one later.

Let’s begin again and give Agee his say, that provocatively raw opening sentence of his little lyric whose improvisatory feel merges the loneliness of every child with his wonder.

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.


(1) Everyone knows the bucolic college towns of the American Midwest—Iowa City, Iowa, or Bloomington, Indiana—which feel similar to Knoxville, Tennessee, James Agee’s birthplace and site of his exquisite little essay, “Knoxville: Summer 1915.” These are towns where, despite their city centers ringed with disquieting interstates and burger franchises, the nostalgic reigns and insures they will not, not now, not ever, change.

(2) More than a part of me feels I should apologize for this sentence, in part, because I eventually returned to college several years later, in music composition, but then, still finicky, went to graduate school to study American literature—my masters’ thesis was on leftwing writers of the 1930s: Michael Gold, Richard Wright, and Sherwood Anderson—but then apologizing sounds so disingenuous, especially in this culture where, if we confess our flaws, we feel we should be forgiven, which is nothing more than a newly sickled path to narcissism.

(3) My essay, “Mrs. Wright’s Bookshop,” is available here.

(4) Somewhere in Dante’s oeuvre he writes: The voices all sounded as one so perfect was their accord.

(5) I contacted her in 2003 to see if she had kept my letters—in part, because I wanted to write a memoir about us—and, if so, would she copy and send them to me. While we corresponded briefly, she never mentioned my request. I dropped it. Did my letters fall into the incinerator with her old Valentine’s Day cards and college lecture notes?

(6) Now is as good a time as any to argue that in terms of breadth and depth and quality, Agee’s creative output is the equal of his critical work, and, therefore, an anomaly in our pantheon of authors. He is one of the great American writers—the Leonard Bernstein of our literature. (Along with Lillian Hellman, Agee wrote lyrics for Bernstein’s Candide. His were not used.) I and a few other critics claim that Agee’s uniqueness lies in his toiling brilliantly and originally and unevenly in eight writerly arenas; in most of these works, he upbraids himself for using only a small portion of his talent.

Note that this runs contrary to the critic W. M. Frohock who believes Agee may have wasted his talent because he did not choose one genre, stick with it, and “perfect” it. Why is it, Frohock claims, America “invites talent to disperse”? I would argue such dispersal defines some of the best American writers. Still, talent and accomplishment aside, I know of no writer who has attempted Agee’s maverick range and come close to his ingenious expression:

a) the novel (Pulitzer Prize for A Death in the Family in 1958);

b) poetry (Yale Younger Poets Award for Permit Me Voyage);

c) feature journalism (Henry Luce said Agee’s 1933 article on the TVA was the best piece Fortune magazine had ever published; also celebrated is Agee’s unsigned Time cover story, “The Bomb,” published August 20, 1945);

d) screenplay (co-writer of the Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn/John Huston masterpiece, The African Queen, for which he received an Academy Award nomination, as well as Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter);

e) documentary nonfiction (Agee invented the form with his hyper-confessional work of personal journalism, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a sort of Charles Ivesian version of bedding an aesthetic perspective on poverty with the writer’s guilt—long before Janet Malcolm noted that a journalist’s claim to objective reporting on his subjects is morally indefensible—which was preceded by Cotton Tenants, not published until 2013 by Melville House);

f) television series (Agee’s five “Mr. Lincoln” scripts in 1952, for the CBS/Ford Foundation program, Omnibus, may have been, along with Edward R. Murrow’s special reports, the first television documentaries, raising the medium’s programming standards and fostering a pre-PBS viewership and the documentary series, think Ken Burns);

g) film criticism (a critic for Time and The Nation, from 1942 to 1948, Agee is thought by some film historians to be, with Manny Farber and Pauline Kael, one of our three best essayists on the movies);

h) letters (see his three-decade correspondence with Father Flye, his mentor during his early teens at a boarding school, a passionate epistolary document that reveals one writer’s inner torture and confusion: “I know I am making the choice most dangerous to the artist, in valuing life above art.” Agee’s friend, Robert Phelps, who introduced the Flye letters, wrote, “I have even wondered why, when we look for masterpieces, we keep thinking in terms of novels and poems, when it may turn out that our truest, our subtlest uses of the word have gone underground and borrowed other, less official forms.” In short, letters—and these in particular—as literature);


i) perhaps the most arguable of my claims, memoir: in addition to his reporting, his novels and poems, his feature writing, and his criticism, Agee used writing as the means to know himself and explore the range of his talent. This is why his fiction is patently autobiographical and why he cannot keep himself out of his journalism, whether stylistically or in fact.

Dare we add to this hat-filled rack, still more pegs and caps:

his wooden attempts at acting in a few films;

his piano playing and musicianship, an interest which, he said, might have developed toward composition; his stint with fellow writer Whittaker Chambers as one of Time’s regular book reviewers;

his self-reflexive style, which, as J.C. Hallman notes in his essay “On Repetition,” seems to be the first instance in our literature of an author making his insecurity about the very book he is writing, most notably in Famous Men, a focal part of the story, decades before Geoff Dyer made a career of being a thorn in his own authorial hide;

plus Agee’s regularly anthologized short story, “A Mother’s Tale,” and his essays, “A Way of Seeing,” with photographer Helen Levitt, “Brooklyn Is,” “America, Look at Your Shame!” and “Knoxville”?

Name another writer who can compare to Agee’s accomplishments and trials in the twenty-five years of his writing/publishing life!

(7) In live renderings of this essay, here we listen to the first two minutes of Part 1, that 26:15 improvisation. Kӧln concert. From minute seven to minute fourteen, roughly, when Jarrett starts rocking between the I and the IV chords in G major, he becomes so enamored of his own soulfulness that he sings/shrieks along with and, at several points, moans so loudly, whooping and wailing, that we, too, fall farther into his private world.