James Agee Essay - Critical Essays

James Agee American Literature Analysis

During the course of his career, James Agee wrote in a wide variety of genres. It is difficult to place a single label on him, and even within a given genre his work often frustrates conventional expectations. Through the broad range of his poems, stories, essays, articles, novels, reviews, and screenplays, his voice expresses the clarity of thought and depth of passion that characterized his life.

Agee first considered himself a poet and as a young man admired the poetry of John Keats, William Blake, the seventeenth century “ metaphysical poets”—John Donne, George Herbert, and Andrew Marvell—and, among his contemporaries, W. H. Auden. From these poets Agee took formal and stylistic influences—a devotion to metrical formulae, a meditative tone, complex thought and imagery, romantic lyricism—that give his poetry intellectual and spiritual elevation and sometimes an archaic or stilted quality. His volume of verse, Permit Me Voyage, includes portrayals of urban and rural scenes, a tragic narrative about an infertile farmwife, sonnets of marital discontent, versified prayers, and an impassioned dedication to an exhaustive list of the poet’s personal heroes, friends, and inspirations.

The ability to combine given forms with intense personal passion is seen beyond Agee’s poetry. All of his works draw on his personal life or attitudes: His style is inherently subjective. This tendency to interpret his subjects in a personal and intimate manner is reflected even when he is on assignment to cover a luxury cruise, roadside America, the new Tennessee Valley Authority, or the Borough of Brooklyn, New York. By the same token, Agee’s fiction is always partially or wholly autobiographical. He had little interest in making up or disguising stories; rather, he sought to observe and experience real life and then to render and evoke it through the written word.

On the other hand, Agee’s years as a staff and freelance journalist inculcated in him the ability to tell a story simply and directly when necessary and to render detail with detached and even scientific precision. While his poetry betrays occasional emotional indulgence, his novels and essays exhibit steady control. Mere suggestions serve to add brief but vivid color, after which the narrative or thrust of the argument is duly resumed. In some cases, Agee’s concern with maintaining the movement or structural integrity of a piece may seem to deny the emotional or evocative power inherent in the subject matter; however, the emotional power is enhanced through the subtle treatment, and realism is not sacrificed to artistic license. In this way, Agee’s writing is often deceptive in its simplicity; character transformation and the depiction of mood are achieved not explicitly but gradually, almost imperceptibly.

Agee’s family and educational background inform his unique style. Raised in a religious home, he spent his life defining his relationship to Christian institutions and beliefs. This background steeped him in the Bible, the catechism, the confession, and the sermon; his writing therefore often exhibits biblical simplicity and rhythm, an attention to detail, a relentless examination of moral condition, and a passionate rhetorical power. Similarly, Agee’s wide knowledge of philosophy and music (above all, the music of nineteenth century composer Ludwig van Beethoven), along with the traditional canon of English and American literature, gave him a grounding in cultural history and a rich pool from which to draw intellectual or allusive power.

This cultured and literate background enhanced Agee’s natural abilities with language, and his writing is masterfully crafted, with a subtlety of gesture and careful attention to detail. While capable of extremely economical usage in turning a striking phrase or image, Agee is not a particularly economical writer. His attention to detail and desire to replicate real people or situations with unflawed accuracy, in both external attributes and internal implications, result in long sentences, complex constructions, expansive catalogs, meticulously qualified arguments, and use of some of the finer technical devices of logic and rhetoric. While brevity was not a central concern of Agee, however, his writing is not verbose or diffuse, for the full and often dense prose reflects the precision and breadth of Agee’s powers of observation and discernment.

Nowhere are these powers more evident than in his writings for and about film. On one hand, his love of the quickly developing medium infused his journalistic and novelistic endeavors with the power to evoke images and entire scenes with cinematic fullness. On the other hand, it led him to devote his intellect and labor to elevating film as an art form, and Agee’s reviews helped revolutionize attitudes toward film. He approached film with lucidity and treated it with as much respect and severe scrutiny as have been devoted to poetry and painting through the centuries. In writing about film, Agee found an eloquence that few others had—and that he himself often lacked elsewhere. Rather than simply report on a film’s entertainment value or intellectual...

(The entire section is 2118 words.)