Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623
During their travels in the U.S. South, author James Agee and photographer Walker Evans met and interacted with hundreds of people. While their experiences with the three tenant farmer families are featured in the text and images, the overall texture of the book is enriched through the multiplicity of persons. The people primarily featured are identified as members of the Gudger, Ricketts, and Woods families. As the book is nonfiction, the people included are not characters in the strictest sense, but Agee definitely shapes their presentations into literary form. They are also called by pseudonyms. In another regard, Agee himself is a character, as he often probes his reasons, reactions, and behavior in carrying out the project.
Interactions not only with the subjects whose impoverished lives they sought to document, but random meetings with others along the way and attributions to random fellow-travelers also augment the environment that Walker aims to create—an impressionistic, personalized landscape that cannot be mistaken for objective, realist journalism. In an initial list, along with family names and relationships, Agee includes himself and Evans, literary and historical sources spanning from William Blake to Ring Lardner, and even Jesus Christ.
Agee emerges as decidedly uncomfortable with his role, portraying himself not as just an intruder but even a spy. Prying into people’s lives does not come naturally to him. Paradoxically, this frank self-consciousness very likely influenced people to open up to him and even reveal hidden truths—very like a spy. Their right to privacy, however limited when their images are also included, was supported by the use of pseudonyms; their actual identities were later revealed. The Gudger, Ricketts, and Woods families’ real names are Burroughs, Tengle (or Tingle), and Fields, respectively.
The three families are related by marriage, as two Woods daughters are married to Gudger and Ricketts men. The Gudgers are George; his wife, Annie Mae, nee Woods; and their four children. The Rickettses are Fred and Sadie, also both a Wood;, and their six children. The Woodses are Thomas (“Bud”) and Ivy, and three children.
George and Annie Mae are amply represented, and Agee’s text often corresponds well to Evans’s portrait of Annie Mae as he describes the effects of poverty on her body: “slender, and sharpened through with bone, that ten years past much have had such beauty…,” and he compares her to her “pure” self at sixteen when she was married. Agee’s preoccupation with the bodies and sexuality of the female persons about whom he writes—for example, calling Ivy Woods “a hot and simple nymph”—has often been noted (Wagner-Martin 1992).
In broader terms, because Agee spends a lot of time describing the environment, the characters do not always emerge as whole or fully formed. Agee seems self-conscious about the limitations of his art in conveying essential truths, and explains why he does not invent things about the people he is observing. Writing about George Gudger, the father of the family, he says that as a human being and a man, George is “not like any other human being so much as he is like himself.” Agee’s efforts to make artistic statements about him, even to invent events and enhance the surroundings, would fall flat.
But somehow a much more important, and dignified, and true fact about him than I could conceivably invent, though I were an illimitably better artist than I am, is that fact that he is exactly, down to the last inch and instant who, what, where, when, and why he is. He is in those terms living, right now, of flesh and blood and breathing, in an actual part of the world in which also, quite irrelevant to imagination, you and I are living.