James Agee: Vistas of Perfection

James Agee: Vistas of Perfection

The Self-Dissatisfied Life and Art of James Agee

James Agee has become a kind of legend for his tormented life and early death, no less than for his great books, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family. If Agee had been able to exert greater control over his life and talent, he might have written more and lived longer; but he would not have written at the particular pitch of desperate sincerity and fearful compassion that has made him so beloved.

When he died at the age of 45 in 1955, Agee seemed to many of his admirers like a case of tragic unfulfillment, a victim of journalism, his not-quite-chosen profession, or of uncontrollable alcoholism, or of the sheer impossibility of being an artist in America. The critic John Leonard, writing about Agee in 1960, pointed out that the 1950s were “a time when postwar American culture conflated art with martyrdom and manhood with excess. Think of the poets lost to lithium, loony bins and suicide, the jazz musicians strung up and out on heroin, the abstract expressionists who slashed and burned themselves. Delmore Schwartz, Charlie Parker and Jackson Pollock pointed the way for Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Truman Capote, John Berryman, Elvis, Janis and Jimi.” Agee fit all too neatly into this tragic pantheon.

It did not take long after Agee’s death for him to find the literary fame that had largely eluded him in life. In 1957, his novel A Death in the Family was published posthumously, and won the Pulitzer Prize. In the 1960s, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with photography by Walker Evans), which had vanished without a trace when it first appeared in 1941, became enormously popular among a new generation of readers drawn to Agee’s concern with spirituality and social justice.

James Agee and Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Slide Show: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Photography by: Walker Evans

(Please Click Image to View Slide Show)

Read more about James Agee in the Harvard Magazine here.

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A Father’s Day Moment: Only a Dad, But the Best of Men

A Father’s Day Moment: Only a Dad, But the Best of Men

Only A Dad

By Edgar Albert Guest

Only a dad with a tired face,
Coming home from the daily race,
Bringing little of gold or fame
To show how well he has played the game;
But glad in his heart that his own rejoice
To see him come and to hear his voice.

Only a dad with a brood of four,
One of ten million men or more
Plodding along in the daily strife,
Bearing the whips and the scorns of life,
With never a whimper of pain or hate,
For the sake of those who at home await.

Only a dad, neither rich nor proud,
Merely one of the surging crowd,
Toiling, striving from day to day,
Facing whatever may come his way,
Silent whenever the harsh condemn,
And bearing it all for the love of them.

Only a dad but he gives his all,
To smooth the way for his children small,
Doing with courage stern and grim
The deeds that his father did for him.
This is the line that for him I pen:
Only a dad, but the best of men.

Sharecropper Bud Fields at Home with His Family in Hale County, Alabama (1936)

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

James Agee

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through
his great power from the beginning.
There be of them, that have left a name behind them,
that their praises might be reported.
And some there be which have no memorial; who perished,
as though they had never been born; and are become as
though they had never been born; and their children after them.
But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.
With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance,
and their children are within the covenant.
Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes.
Their seed shall remain forever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth
for evermore.

Bright Eyes: First Day of My Life

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