The Art of Agee

November 27: James Agee was born on this day in 1909. In an attempt to portrayAgee’s driven, sometimes desperate personality, the biographies cite twolegendary snapshots of him during his employment at Fortune magazine. In the first, he is working through the night onthe fifty-second floor of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, fueled bycigarettes, whiskey, and Beethoven: “Something attracts me very much aboutplaying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphonythere,” he wrote to his friend and mentor, Father Flye, “with all NewYork about 600 feet below you, and with that swell ode, taking in the wholeearth, and with everyone on earth supposedly singing it.” The secondsnapshot has another Fortune employeeentering Agee’s office unannounced to find him dangling on his windowledge.

These fleeting images havea companion, taken from the concluding paragraphs of Agee’s introduction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In asarcastic tone, Agee first wonders if the book will make his publishers somemoney and please the tastes of liberals empathetic to the sharecroppers’poverty. He then asks his readers not to give Let Us Now Praise Famous Men the ultimate, middlebrow death-kiss: “Aboveall else: in God’s name, don’t think of it as Art.” To test whether a workhas lost its “fury” and “soul” through cultural “castration,”says Agee, proceed as follows:

Get a radio or phonographcapable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to listen to aperformance of Beethoven’s SeventhSymphony or of Schubert’s C-MajorSymphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn iton as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear asclose into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing aslightly as possible, and not moving…. Concentrate everything you can into yourhearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be gladof it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only insideit, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is theshape and substance of the music.

Is what you hear pretty?or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It isbeyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium inhuman life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all thatdeath….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.