(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As far as outer action is concerned, not much happens in The Morning Watch. The story itself is so short that it is best described as a novella. All of the story’s action occurs within two or three hours during the early morning of Good Friday. Only the most devout could call the action earthshaking: Three boys sleeping in a dormitory are awakened at 3:45 a.m. to take their turns in a religious vigil; they join other worshipers in the silent, prayerful watch at the school chapel; then they wander off together for a cold swim in a nearby quarry, the Sand Cut. By far the longest section of this three-part story is the middle part, devoted to an hour’s watch in the chapel.

Most of the action in The Morning Watch occurs inside Richard, the twelve-year-old whose consciousness the reader shares. For Richard, the Easter season is, like the new year for others, a time of heightened awareness, of taking stock, of awakenings and new beginnings. This particular Easter season is special for Richard because it also marks his transition from childhood to adolescence. It is his one big time of awakening to the prospects of manhood—to sexuality, to independence, to his own nature, and to the nature of existence generally. His life takes a new but fairly natural direction.

Richard’s development and his religion influence each other. Just as the Easter season stimulates his adolescent awakening, so his awakening in turn influences his religious views. With amusement and shame, Richard thinks back on himself a year before, when, as an eleven-year-old religious fanatic, he aspired to sainthood, practiced self-mortification, and even harbored crucifixion fantasies. Getting himself crucified, however, raised certain practical difficulties: In his fantasies, he thought of building a cross in...

(The entire section is 756 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Barson, Alfred. A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972. A revisionist view of Agee, whose earliest critics thought that the writer’s talents were dissipated by his diverse interests, causing him not to produce enough quality material, but who judged him to have been improving and focusing his skills at the time of his death. Barson inverts this thesis, stating that Agee’s finished work should not be so slighted, and that his powers were declining when he died. Contains notes and an index. Should not be confused with A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York (New York: Viking Press, 1965), a collection of photographs by Helen Levitt with an essay by Agee.

Bergeen, Laurence. James Agee: A Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984. The definitive biography of Agee, based on interviews with those who knew him and examinations of his papers. Also contains illustrations, notes, a bibliography of Agee’s writings, a bibliography of works about him, and an index.

Hersey, John. Introduction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. A long and thorough appraisal by one of Agee’s contemporaries who practiced much the same blend of reportage and literary interpretation that distinguishes Agee’s best work.

Kramer, Victor A. James...

(The entire section is 520 words.)