d r a f t
Editor’s (admin’s) note: Miscellaneous notes and quotes for possible later use, on the staff writer for Time magazine who did the cover story in August 1945 on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of World War II and a prescient take on what the new “atomic age” would mean, formed by Agee’s upbringing in the Episcopal church in Knoxville and Sewanee. Especially timely now, perhaps, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised the specter of nuclear holocaust for the first time in decades.
Posted here because it came up in my “memories” yesterday on Facebook, and I want a copy where I can retrieve it with a keyword search. (Click HERE to see why I use my blogs as sort of an “electronic filing cabinet,” and a link to a more elaborate explanation on my first blog back in 2006; plus a really good recipe for roasted cauliflower with turmeric). It’s an article I got published in Christian Century in 1984, the year after I got my master’s in journalism at Penn State and went to work for the Rock Island Argus. It was based on a paper I wrote for a “literature of journalism” class (if I remember correctly). About one of my favorite authors.
James Agee is known today — at least by aging English majors — mostly for his novel A Death in the Family, published after his death in 1955, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a 1941 photojournalistic study of sharecroppers in the Deep South, to which he contributed the text and Walker Evans the photographs. He was a staff writer for Time and Fortune magazine, and a movie critic as well. He also wrote the screenplay for the classic 1951 movie African Queen (which starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, and which I kinda think may be his best work of all). But as far as I’m concerned, his main claim to fame is his association with Knoxville and Sewanee.
Also Samuel Barber’s song Knoxville, Summer 1915, based on a prose poem Agee wrote in the 1930s, reminiscing of his childhood in Knoxville, just before the death of his father when he was 6 (or thereabouts).
BARBER – Knoxville, Summer of 1915 [YouTube blurb]
- Russell Thomas – Tenor
- Simon Lepper – Piano
Rosenblatt Recital: London 21.09.2015 – Praised as a “superb singer” (The New York Times), tenor Russell Thomas has quickly established himself as one of the most exciting vocal and dramatic talents on the international opera and concert scene. Here he is in his making his Rosenblatt Recitals debut at Wigmore Hall accompanied by pianist, Simon Lepper.
The prose poem is lengthy, and wonderfully evocative. Several years ago I found an excerpt online describing his father and mother singing the spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” on a summer night at his home on Highland Avenue in Knoxville. I shared it to Hogfiddle, a trad music blog I was keeping at the time. An excerpt from my excerpt:
[…] They sang it a little slower towards the end as if they hated to come to the finish of it and then they didn’t talk at all, and after a minute their hands took each other across their child, and things were even quieter, so that all the little noises of the city night raised up again in the quietness, locusts, crickets, footsteps, hoofs, faint voices, the shufflings of a switch engine, and after awhile, while they all looked into the sky, his father, in a strange and distant, sighing voice, said “Well …” and after a little his mother answered, with a quiet and strange happy sadness, “Yes …” and they waited a good little bit longer, not saying anything, and then his father took him up into his arms and his mother rolled up the quilt and they went in and he was put to bed.
Agee grew up in the Fort Sanders neighborhood adjacent to UT-Knoxville, and I lived there in off-campus housing from 1965 to 1974, when I moved back to Norris and took a part-time job with The Oak Ridger after finishing my dissertation.
While I was an English major and we were aware of Agee, he wasn’t taught in the UT English department. I did attend some memorable drinking parties in the James Agee Apartments, built on the site of his childhood home, and I read Death in the Family, along with most of his stuff that had been collected and published by then, on my own. I think we all did.
Agee spent his summers at Sewanee, and a collection of his letters to a teacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal boarding school was later published under the title Letters of James Agee to Father Flye. I read it several times, and it struck a chord with me as a lapsed Episcopalian. I haven’t looked at it in years, but I’ve still got a copy in my basement.
Agee’s unsigned lead to the Time magazine cover story is available online — “The Bomb,” Time, Aug. 20, 1945 http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,797639,00.html. An excerpt:
Even as men saluted the greatest and most grimly Pyrrhic of victories in all the gratitude and good spirit they could muster, they recognized that the discovery which had done most to end the worst of wars might also, quite conceivably, end all wars—if only man could learn its control and use.
The promise of good and of evil bordered alike on the infinite— with this further, terrible split in the fact: that upon a people already so nearly drowned in materialism even in peacetime, the good uses of this power might easily bring disaster as prodigious as the evil. The bomb rendered all decisions made so far, at Yalta and at Potsdam, mere trivial dams across tributary rivulets. When the bomb split open the universe and revealed the prospect of the infinitely extraordinary, it also revealed the oldest, simplest, commonest, most neglected and most important of facts: that each man is eternally and above all else responsible for his own soul, and, in the terrible words of the Psalmist, that no man may deliver his brother, nor make agreement unto God for him.
Man’s fate has forever been shaped between the hands of reason and spirit, now in collaboration, again in conflict. Now reason and spirit meet on final ground. If either or anything is to survive, they must find a way to create an indissoluble partnership.
Some screen grabs follow. (If you follow the link in the caption to the embedded Facebook file above, and click on the plus sign at upper right, you can enlarge them enough to read comfortably. First, my lede:
And here’s a screen grab of what Walker Evans, who observed him up close interacting with the sharecroppers when they were collaborating on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, said in his introduction to the book:
I first read the Walker Evans profile before I read the book — I think it was in a freshman English anthology, but I don’t remember if it was at UT or later when I was teaching at Lincoln Land Community College and SCI. At any rate, I read it before I started going back to church, and it made a powerful impression on me as a lapsed Christian. Yeah, I remember thinking. That’s it, just that. That’s what it meant. That’s what it still means now. Here it is in a more readable format:
His Christianity — if an outsider may try to speak of it — was a punctured and residual remnant, but it was still a naked root emotion. It was an ex-Church, or non-Church, matter, and it was hardly in evidence. All you saw of it was an ingrained courtesy, an uncourtly courtesy that emanated from him toward everyone, perhaps excepting the smugly right, the pretentiously genteel, and the police. After a while, in a roundabout way, you discovered that, to him, human beings were at least possibly immortal and literally sacred souls.
According to Agee’s Wikipedia profile, There’s also an earlier version of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, probably written for Fortune magazine, that I’ll have to get. Says his Wikipedia bio:
Another manuscript from the same assignment discovered in 2003, titled Cotton Tenants, is believed to be the essay submitted to Fortune editors. The 30,000 word text, accompanied by photographs by Walker Evans, was published as a book in June 2013. John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in the Summer 2013 issue of BookForum that, “This is not merely an early, partial draft of Famous Men, in other words, not just a different book; it’s a different Agee, an unknown Agee. Its excellence should enhance his reputation.”