James Agee, and the delicate pursuit of narrative non-fiction.

I’ve written on my admiration for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” before, and in fact an essay is somewhere on this website.  But now, more on Agee’s great treatise on American poverty from the New York Times:

If a greater humanist or more honorable soul ever practiced journalism, I can’t conjure the name.  Agee showed a lot of people not only how to report and write about other human beings, but how to behave while doing so.




  • As an aside, his fiction writing was superb as well. A Death in the Family is brilliant. Such a pity he didn’t live to finish editing it.

    • Extraordinary talent. Not at all prolific and a tormented fellow in a lot of ways, but when he was good…man.

  • David, thanks again for this recommendation.

    I remember reading about this book on your blog last year. The book had such an effect on me I ended up leaving the city to work on a farm for the winter/spring season (the busiest). Nowhere close to the poverty described in the book but an interesting experience none the less.

    Have you heard of the filmmaker Michael Glawogger? The empathy he weaves into his films is beautiful. In particular relevance is Working Man’s Death, which Aljazeera has up on their website http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/workingmansdeath/
    His most recent film Whore’s Glory is equally magnificent.

    Are there any other pieces of extraordinary journalism you could recommend?

  • If narrative non-fiction was a pie, and a writer like James Agee was a piece of that pie, I’d like to see Wendell Berry somewhere in the mix.

  • I have not read this book, but I intend to. I read the New York Times article, and I’m reminded how important manuscript collections are. The article says Agee’s son-in-law mistook the 30K word work for a draft for ‘Famous Men.’ It was the researchers at the University of Tennessee who discovered the work’s true identity. Bravo to Paul/Dee Dee Sprecher for having the wisdom to donate the papers. Kudos to John Sommers and Melville House for getting it to publication.

  • Too bad your successors in the news writin’ business won’t follow his example. Or yours.

    One of the “favored few” at New York’s Finest Litter Box Liner had a column this past weekend to the effect that “as bad as we are nowadays you still need us.” Boy, did he get nailed to the wall in the reader’s comments! They were all over the place but the common thread was “if you people actually did your jobs, things would not be as bad as they are.” I am sure you would agree with that. As a former journalist myself I certainly do.

    Unfortunately, rather than follow the example of James Agee, too many of today’s “reporters” want to follow the example of Bob Woodward – not the Woodward 1.0 version from 40 years ago, but the Woodward 3.5 who is stenographer to the scum today. Had Woodward 3.5 been arouned 40 years ago Tricky Dick would be President for Eternity. (I am so proud that I managed to go down to Yorba Linda and pee on his grave)

    Sadly, reading a great man like Agee reminds us today how many midgets we are surrounded by.

    • “I am so proud that I managed to go down to Yorba Linda and pee on his grave”

      That sentence right there tells me more about you than the man you’re criticizing (and I don’t mean to defend him as I’ve never even heard of anyone mentioned in this post, its comments nor int the article referred in the post) — I’m way outside the US.
      But after that ‘badge’ you wear proudly I’m sorry to say that I could not possibly read any of your work without prejudice.

      Other than that I do agree that journalism these days is generally terrible further more this is sadly a world-wide (or at least a western world-wide) issue fueled by a commercially more profitable but at the same time dumbed down audience.

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