Liza Birnbaum on Why James Agee Matters


Birnbaum writes on the beautiful failures of Agee's writing @ Open Letters Monthly.

In a 1962 piece for The New Republic, John Updike, 30 years old and suddenly in the spotlight for both the receipt of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the publication of his novel Rabbit Run, diagnosed a variety of maladies in what he deemed “a very sick literary situation” in America. His representative case – or, perhaps more accurately, his cadaver? James Agee. The article, “James Agee, Talker,” does not so much tear Agee and his writing apart as attempt to neatly expose in them the pernicious presence of decay; here, Updike says, holding up Agee as a model, is what contemporary American authors are – wastrels in work, in talent and in life, claiming their very failings as things to be revered. Agee, along with the rest of the reckless and difficult bunch for whom he stands in, failed to live up to his potential – in the words of Salinger’s Seymour Glass, his best works are “so much better than they should be. They read waste, waste, waste.” Updike’s ameliorative prescription is vague – more craftsmanship, less crying out – but it seems that for him, a good start is not taking James Agee too seriously, at least not beyond his “few, uneven, hard-won successes.”

Despite having arrived about 50 years too late to this discussion, I read Updike’s commentary with great interest, for I am a longtime admirer of Agee’s work. And it’s only fair to admit that the article isn’t entirely unkind: though it dissects and discards much of its subject’s prose with a kind of contemptuous economy, it also does not hesitate to point out that “[t]he author of the best pages of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family owes no apology to posterity.” Still, I’d like to argue a little with Updike – because I think that it’s precisely the qualities that he finds damning that make reading Agee singularly worthwhile, even today. Perhaps in a peculiar way I even love the Updike article: because, by its dismissals, it has given me reason to write what I’m pleased to try to write – criticism that arises, as George Steiner has suggested, from “a debt of love.” It’s my belief that we might all owe James Agee, if we would carefully read him; here, then, is my attempt to begin to pay my debt.

I first read Agee when I was seventeen, the summer after my senior year of high school. My uncle, a university professor, had recommended Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to me several years back, one of many titles in an unwritten, impromptu, and far-over-my-head reading list whose creation was one of the hallmarks of the few days we spent together every year. One day in late May, after school had ended, I finally picked it up.
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