The Trouble with Writing: Agee’s Dilemma — Stephen Orr

Working Title/Artist: After Walker Evans: 2 Department: Photographs Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: 1981 mma digital photo #DP109276 .

‘This is a book only be necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader in no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.’

James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

There are much easier ways of making a living, of making some sort of living. Writing stories, novels, and non-fiction seems easy enough from a distance, but the deeper you go the darker it gets. Eventually friends, family, people you meet become subjects; relationships, fodder; stories, plot that can be stolen, reworked. As thoughts spiral, become unhelpful obsessions, dragging their owner through a mud puddle of depression, ecstasy, and sometimes (rarely) gladness when something is published, praised, understood. Although then there are the haters, reason enough not to write. The reviewers who get their facts wrong, finding meaning where none was intended, reasons to think the worst of a storyteller. The hate mail claiming you were writing about me, and what happened that summer in Rye, you bastard! And what about a writer’s relationship with his or her subjects? That he (I’ll explain) lives in the world, writes about it, becomes a piece of Donne’s continent, but is often shunned for what he says. Criticised; strung up (Dalton Trumbo refusing to be un-American); locked away (Hans Fallada). Or worst of all, ignored.

He, American writer, James Agee, was twenty-seven when he made his first journey south in July 1936. Agee was a Harvard graduate turned journalist, and movie reviewer (W.H. Auden claimed his work had ‘extraordinary wit and felicity’) – funny, smart, sharp. Sent by Fortune magazine to write about sharecroppers in the South, struggling to make a living in the wake of the Depression. Although they didn’t, couldn’t: no home, no land, working for landlords who took half their corn, cotton and seed, who charged them for rent, rations, fertilisers – leaving them with less than nothing. Their kids destined to pick cotton, live, barefoot, in hovels, no school, no hope of doing any better than their parents.

Agee had an abiding interest in human beings, their lives, their sufferings. So he was quick to accept the job; to set off, with photographer Walker Evans on a road trip that has become an American classic. They arrived in Hale County, Alabama, and, on a Sunday afternoon, drove through the deserted town of Centerboro. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal had done little to revive the town’s sagging fortunes. Dogs, panting on the porch of every home. The land itself thirsty for prosperity, half a century of over-cultivation leaving the cotton lands barren, offering up little to tenant farmers surviving on a few hundred dollars a year.

Agee and Evans soon found their first subject: the Burroughs – a poor family scratching a living from the land. The New Yorkers offered to pay for a room and moved into the family’s small, wooden shack, Mills Hill. Bare boards, a few pieces of handmade furniture (simply photographed by Evans with his 8×10 inch camera). The men didn’t tell Burroughs or his wife what they were doing. The family would eventually find out, and live with the legacy for decades. But for now, for the father, Floyd Burroughs, the money was welcome. A few clothes for his children. Sheets. Meat for the table.

Every day the Burroughs went out to work, and every day, Agee observed, scribbled, and Evans photographed the shack’s rooms, objects, secrets; the children in their dressed down splendour. Floyd’s wife, Allie Mae, the gritty matriarch; her sister, Mary, living with her in-laws, sweeping the eternally dirty floors (the house was clean, the family proud); ten-year-old Lucille (sitting in Evans’s famous family portrait with her hair combed back, best dress, but somehow detached from the group); oldest son Floyd Junior; younger son Charles; youngest daughter Othel Lee (‘Squeaky’).

As Agee thought (perhaps), Am I being honest? Should I tell them they’ll soon be known across the nation, vivisected, studied, discussed? Although, it’s what I do, isn’t it? Write? Years later, when his observations were published in Let us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the guilt was already obvious: ‘I watched the house like a special sort of burglar….’ He explained how he was uneasy prying ‘into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings…for the purpose of parading [their] nakedness…’

Although Agee knew a good story when he saw it. Recognised, in these decent people, something others would want to read about. Felt the urge to record, scribe, share, which is the lot of every writer. Sometimes at their own peril. In his book Steinbeck: Citizen Spy, author Brian Kannard explained that John Steinbeck received many death threats after the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, a book that was, in part, an indictment of sharecropping in the Deep South. ‘John was advised by a member of the Monterey County Sheriff’s office to carry a firearm… [he] took the advice to heart.’

As with George Orwell, on his own journey towards an English classic (minus his own Walker Evans); a book written only a few months before Agee’s. The Road to Wigan Pier was an examination of the living conditions of coal miners in the north of England. Born of different parents; instead of Fortune’s fascination with the South, here was publisher Victor Gollancz, who believed that ‘if only people could be made to know the nature of poverty, they would want to eradicate it, remove from power the government that tolerated it…’ Heady stuff, but all part of Gollancz’s vision, as expressed through his Left Book Club.

Whereas Agee was a humanist, putting people first, Gollancz and Orwell were political animals, seeking ways to improve society through a new consensus. Gollancz advanced Orwell £500 and the author of Animal Farm set to work in Wigan, Sheffield and Barnsley. Observing. Cataloguing. Chapter One, for example, showing Orwell living with his own Burroughs – the Brookners, a better-to-do shopkeeping family. Orwell moved into their lodging house, wrote what he saw in the first few months of 1936. ‘[Mrs Brookner] lay permanently ill, festooned in grimy blankets. She had a big, pale, yellow anxious face. No one knew for certain what the matter was with her; I suspect that her only real trouble was overeating.’ Again, Orwell the most objective of writers, although in the end even facts start sounding like judgements.

All this had happened before. Upton Sinclair spent seven weeks working in the Chicago stockyards in 1904. His research culminated in The Jungle, the story of several immigrant families in the abattoirs and meatpacking plants. Low wages, tubercular beef, homelessness – perhaps one of the most depressing reads ever. The struggles of Jurgis Rudkus prompted Teddy Roosevelt to send inspectors to Chicago, and they agreed with Sinclair. Their report led to the federal Meat Inspection Act, which eventually became today’s Food and Drug Administration. Was this the sort of outcome Orwell had hoped for? Agee?

Even in the Australian outback. Daisy Bates, ethnographer, done up in a white blouse, stiff collar and ribbon tie; a dark skirt, sailor hat and fly veil. This ‘grand dame’ of the desert lived from 1919 until 1935 with the Wirangu people at Ooldea Soak (Yooldilya gabbi), hundreds of miles from civilisation. Dressed with a ‘fastidious toilet…to the simple but exact dictates of fashion as I left it when Victoria was Queen.’ Like Agee and Orwell, trying to understand a world outside her personal experience, but unlike them, seeing herself as an early Mother Teresa, providing food, health care, and protecting the women from the sexual advances of white settlers. ‘Trudging many miles, day and night, across the sand hills between camps, my methods were my own, grandmotherly cough mixtures, massaging with oil, nourishing foods, and much cheeriness.’

After sixteen years in the desert Bates returned to Adelaide and wrote a collection of articles (‘My Natives and I’) for a local newspaper. But this was no Let us Praise, or Wigan Pier. None of the robust writing of Agee, the clinical detachment of Orwell. Bates saw history through a cracked lens, feeling nothing but pity for ‘her’ natives. Although at the time, readers saw things differently. This wild world of ‘cannibals’, restaged for an eager audience like some Boys’ Own adventure.

History hasn’t been kind to Bates. She was a complex figure; living in unbearable heat, with only her Dickens’ novels for companionship. She studied and used Aboriginal language, and saw herself as a bridge between cultures. Believed there was no way of protecting the ‘stone age from the Twentieth Century’, and that ‘[the Aborigines’] disappearance is only a matter of time.’ How hard is it to know, and write about other cultures? What is the difference between empathy, imagination, and appropriation? Author Karen Lord suggested culture ‘resembles light…it reveals itself by illuminating whatever it touches.’ Exactly what we see in Walker Evans’s photographs: a pair of boots at the door; a room with nothing but a handmade chair and a broom.

Agee burrowed his way into the heart of the Burroughs clan. Years later it was all bitterness. That the family had been placed in a test tube; that when Let us Now Praise Famous Men was published, Agee didn’t bother sending the Burroughs a copy. Charles would be the angriest. The boy in the calico shirt, all grown up, trying to come to terms with the events of that summer. Finding a lawyer, who told him a statute of limitations prevented him from suing the publishers.  Maybe this is because Agee had described him, at five or six, as ‘a cripple, of whose curability one must at least have serious doubt… I foresee great difficulty for Charles.’ Charles’s older brother, Floyd Junior, also resented the intrusion: ‘It [wasn’t] right to do…I don’t think they should [have done] it…’ This bitterness persisted. In a 2005 interview with Fortune magazine, ‘The Most Famous Story We Never Told’ (Fortune never published Agee’s finished article), Floyd Junior’s son, Phil Burroughs, told how his father remained angry about the intrusion. ‘You were looking at people who were struggling to put food on the table, you know. It was a simple life. They didn’t have anything… They were cast in a light that they couldn’t do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant. How would you feel if somebody cast your folks, your parents or your grandparents in that light?’

But all of this, years later. At the time, things seemed innocent enough. As Agee drew closer to ten-year-old Lucille. Now, it’s hard for us to know what he really felt for this child. Nothing untoward, but perhaps she held the greatest fascination. Sitting, aloof, but deeply involved with her family. Lucille, born 2 February 1926, wed at thirteen, two unhappy marriages, eventually ending her life with rat poison in February 1971. Like Agee was seeing the future, predicting lives. ‘She sits watching me, without smiling, whether in her mouth or her eyes…and it is while I am watching you here, Lucille, that suddenly, yet very quietly, I realise that I am probably going to be in love with you…there is no other blankness like you…’

Agee describing a form of love we can’t define, seven decades later. But this was his genius; his ambivalence, his refusal to be precise, despite being the most precise writer. Becoming vague when he wanted us, the readers, to form our own understanding.

The Burroughs were simple, trusting people. But when they were out at work Agee went through their rooms, making notes. Charles later explained, ‘Back then you trusted everyone. You didn’t even lock your doors… they [Agee and Evans] went through and [did] whatever they wanted to…’ Agee later regretted his voyeurism. ‘In knowledge of these hidden places that I have opened I move silently and quickly… [then] I am seated on the front porch with a pencil and an open notebook…it is not going to be easy to look into their eyes.’ Mary later said, ‘We didn’t know that till we read the book…I didn’t think that was nice, really I didn’t.’

Agee later apologised (although not personally): ‘My beloved, whose poor lives I have already so betrayed, should you see these things, so astounded, so destroyed, I dread to dare that I should ever look into your dear eyes again…let us hope then better of our children…’

Here is Agee, the unresolved child, destined to see the world as an imperfect place. Ever since, as a six-year-old, he’d been told of his father’s death in a car accident (later described in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel a Death in the Family). Here, irresolution. Agee spent his life trying to solve this problem. As all writers do, perhaps. Trying to fill holes with words, finding them unsatisfactory, but continuing, regardless. In his Knoxville: Summer 1915, Agee wrote of a lost past. ‘May God bless my people – oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away.’ Agee seems to be describing the Burroughs as much as his family. ‘The family exists for work, it exists to keep itself alive, the family is called a force…’

Lying in bed in 1988, days before she died, Allie Mae remembered the summer of 1936. Looking at a handwritten sign she kept close in memory of Floyd and Lucille (‘The two that’s gone I loved so much’) she said, ‘Life’s been worth living, it really has.’ She remembered that Agee ‘had been concerned about what we had to do.’ Working so hard, the children so young. She always defended him. How he thought of them every Christmas with gifts and cards. This mysterious bond between writers and their subjects. Perhaps Agee learned to love the Burroughs; found it hard to leave, to write about them in a way that might reconcile pride and pity. Agee once said, ‘In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again.’ Did he see this, somehow, in Lucille’s eyes, Mary’s strong arms, hear it in Allie Mae’s voice? Is this why writers write? To describe again, and again, how it all begins?

This question of why occurs to any decent writer at fairly regular intervals. At the beginning, everything you write is gold; at the end, shit. Basic self-analysis suggests low self-esteem caused by an ungrateful non-audience (or -readership) overdosing on a diet of Narcos and Godless when they should be reading … you. But soon there are signs that you might have misread the whole posterity thing: fewer readers (not that there were many in the first place), reviews, invitations to talk – as though you’d turned to writing pornography (probably the hardest thing of all). Never daring to mention you write literary fiction, you know, head-up-his-arse fiction, spent-too-long-at-university fiction. Apologising because you thought you could have a crack at what Joyce, Dickens, Patrick White did. Meanwhile, your confidence erodes, your willpower vanishes and you realise you haven’t written a word for months, years. Orwell, again: ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness.’

Maybe half the writers I’ve known have given up, got proper jobs, or worse (try googling ‘writers’ and ‘suicide’). And the ledger: benefits – six novels with smallish readerships; cost – irregular work, unpaid bills, the time you should have spent with your kids. And that’s without critics, and a long-suffering partner. Of course, there’s always the chance someone will notice your work once you fall off the perch. But probably not. None of which is an actual argument against writing; just as much as you can dissuade people from sex, or seafood. But sometimes it’s good to remind others, and yourself, that this is a club with a pretty strange membership. Maybe the last word about writing should go to James Agee: ‘You never live an inch without involvement and hurting people and fucking yourself everlastingly.’

Stephen Orr has an abiding interest in the dynamics of families and small communities, as well as the plight of isolated individuals. He has been nominated for several major Australian literary awards, and works part-time as a teacher in Adelaide.

Featured image of the Burroughs family by Walker Evans, 1941