This had been on my shelf for a while – as a classic, as a model of non-fiction writing, as a possible link to my interest in Steinbeck’s work. But it was Leslie Jamison’s comments about the book in her stunning collection of essays – The Empathy Exams that finally prompted me to pull it off the shelf.
It was a challenging read. Agee makes it clear that he is aiming for writing style akin to his perception of Walker Evans’ (stunning) photographs. It’s not that I think Agee’s perception is wrong; it’s just tied to the times. Agee ascribes a kind of documentary quality to the photographs that I think most viewers would no longer accept. This effort of Agee’s, though, can lead to some pretty dry writing – lists of furniture, for example.
But there are enough other elements interspersed throughout the book to maintain my interest. (Though I can’t claim to have understood Ulysses, I got to the point where I could appreciate Joyce’s range of styles.) I’ll risk hubris here and suggest that Agee’s range is impressive as well.
I particularly appreciated some of his more reflective sections – on what it means to be an observer (a topic Jamison takes up as well), on his efforts – not always successful, in my opinion – to avoid romanticizing (or creating poverty porn) out of the lives of the tenant farmers. He is a writer and is fighting himself about what that means.
He is fully present in the writing and is not shy about acknowledging it. Evans is less so and based on his photographs and his Foreword, I wish he had been more a part of the narrative.
Agee’s writing style is intense. Sentences and paragraphs go on for so long that I often lost the subject, and it would – when I wanted to – take a lot of energy to dig back through an unearth it. He uses colons like they’re going out of style.
So read it, perhaps not straight through as I did, but read it nonetheless. Even the Table of Contents is fascinating. This is a provocative book, both in terms of form and content.