He Found it at the Movies: James Agee, Mother Love, Ivy League Admissions

By Benjamin Schwarz

September 2005 ATLANTIC


With this two-volume, 1,550-plus-page collection the Library of America has canonized James Agee—poet, journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and critic—whom his friend Dwight Macdonald pronounced “the most copiously talented writer of my generation.” It’s an eccentric choice for this assemblage of the most important American writers, because Agee’s obvious talent went largely unrealized, thanks to his prodigality (Macdonald aptly judged him “a shameless inopportunist”) and consequent death at age forty-five. Agee of course left behind some stunning if flawed monuments, among them A Death in the Family, an incomplete, posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that lyrically evoked his Knoxville, Tennessee, childhood, and the more frequently admired than read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a novelistic documentary portrait of three families of Alabama tenant farmers in the 1930s, which paired Walker Evans’s moving photography with Agee’s often spot-on reportage and just as often self-consciously poetic meanderings. But it’s the second volume, of his film writing, that encompasses Agee’s most sustained and serious passion. Since watching silent films as a teenager he recognized, as Macdonald observed, that movies were “the great, new twentieth-century art form,” and as the film reviewer for The Nation and Time from 1941 to 1948, he was more or less the first writer to make the movies respectable to American intellectuals. W. H. Auden, who didn’t much care for pictures, nevertheless declared Agee’s Nation column “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism.” Agee’s precise and lovely 1949 Life article reassessing “comedy’s greatest era” provoked one of the most favorable responses in the magazine’s history, awakened Americans’ esteem for their silent-movie heritage (his was probably the most influential appreciation of the silent era until Kevin Brownlow’s seminal 1968 book The Parade’s Gone By), and single-handedly revived Buster Keaton’s fame. Until Pauline Kael’s sassy, headlong reviews, it was Agee on Film, a two-volume collection published after his death (dog-eared paperback copies were a campus fixture for a generation), that taught Americans how to think about and—most important—look at movies. Agee had a surer and more subtle and sophisticated grasp of the technical and visual aspects of filmmaking than any other movie critic ever. His scripts (with John Huston he wrote The African Queen; his screenplay for The Night of the Hunter, the only movie Charles Laughton directed, is included here) were notorious for minutely specific photographic and technical instructions that all but obviated the director. From at least his years as a lonely and precocious cineaste at Exeter in the 1920s, when he was writing to Macdonald about the motion-picture camera’s “marvelous pliance” as it caught “the beauty of swaying, blending lights and shadows,” Agee was singularly alive to the relationship between technique and aesthetics in cinema. (Alas, the volumes’ editor, Michael Sragow, the film reviewer for the Baltimore Sun, hasn’t included any of the decades-long correspondence between those two brilliant critics, whose “liveliest common interest,” as Macdonald noted, wasn’t books or writing but the movies.) And in his reviews Agee unobtrusively conveyed to his readers—in assessing everything from set decoration to camera movements—a sensitivity to the formal and stylistic elements of what he recognized as a uniquely virile art form.

Appearing weekly, Agee’s reviews were no doubt a marvel, but envelop them in LOA’s solemn black dust jacket and print them on its for-the-ages acid-free stock and his blind spots and shortcomings become glaring. Although Agee was remarkably astute in his dissection of visual comedy, the slangy yet sophisticated fast-talking comedies—among the greatest triumphs and perhaps the quintessential achievement of American cinema—were obviously lost on him. As was, criminally, Orson Welles’s artistry. He aptly characterized Double Indemnity as “smart and crisp and cruel,” but he utterly missed it for the masterpiece it is, and all he could say of Fred MacMurray’s performance—one of the best in the history of American film—was that Billy Wilder’s casting of him was “perceptive.” Indeed, Agee was as abstract and vague in his analysis of acting as he was concrete in his technical assessments (in all his writing he struggled against a tendency toward the gaseous). Typically, in his famously daring two-part review of The Best Years of Our Lives (he exposed the movie’s egregious faults in the first week, and then explained why it was nevertheless a triumph in the second) he described a scene between Walter Baldwin and Harold Russell as “quietly perfect”—but how so? And he declared Teresa Wright’s performance “one of the wisest and most beautiful pieces of work I have seen in years,” because she used her “translucent face with delicate and exciting talent”—whatever that means. Even when on the nail in defining a theme (he rightly identified “the real love story” in Meet Me in St. Louis as “between a happy family and a way of living”) or a character (of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s jaunty yet deeply, shimmeringly romantic I Know Where I’m Going, he observed shrewdly, “Before she is capable of love, the heroine has come of age by learning how much better a woman she is than she had ever realized”), he was oblivious of performance (in the latter case Wendy Hiller’s striking ability to appear at once winsome and sexually intense)—and film is as much a performing art as a visual one. I looked forward to rereading many of the pieces herein, and in the case of Agee’s uncollected film pieces, to reading them for the first time. But a heavy dose of Agee shows the ephemeral and limited nature of all but the greatest criticism. Agee is only the third author whose critical works LOA has published; Poe’s reviews deserve inclusion, but for all their historical significance neither Agee’s nor Henry James’s do. (James’s are often just plain mushy.) On those very rare occasions when criticism itself can be considered a literary art, the reader must be propelled by style and mesmerized by a sensibility at work. So here’s hoping that LOA soon brings out the critical works of its intellectual father, Edmund Wilson, and of the greatest film writer this country has produced, the swaggering Kael, who, all will acknowledge, was often wrongheaded, but whom readers will happily follow anywhere.

cid_1242408916_Yale_Center_for_British_Art003-1Louis I. Kahn, by Robert McCarter (Phaidon). Although Louis Kahn is now widely regarded as the most important architect of the second half of the twentieth century, his work—with its obvious indebtedness to Roman and monastic architecture, its emphasis on monumentality and compression rather than lightness, and its use of masonry and concrete rather than steel and glass—stood in vivid contrast to the then prevailing International Style modernism. Perhaps for this reason there hasn’t until now been a definitive study of Kahn’s complete works (Vincent Scully’s admiring and characteristically woolly 1962 assessment, which remains in many ways the most penetrating, was largely prophetic, because Scully wrote it before Kahn had designed his most important buildings). This nearly 500-page triumph of bookmaking—handsomely designed, clearly and perceptively written, comprehensive in scope, luxuriantly graced with photographs and illustrations (including newly redrawn plans and computer-generated images of Kahn’s unbuilt projects)—was originally scheduled for publication a few years ago, but has since gone through substantial textual and graphic revision. McCarter is astute on Kahn’s rootedness in Philadelphia (where he lived his entire life), on the revolutionary impact of his period of historical rediscovery at the American Academy in Rome, and (following Scully) on the influence his earliest training in the Beaux Arts style had on his subsequent designs. The author’s text and the photographers’ work especially illuminate those buildings of the intensely bookish Kahn that are devoted to study: the sumptuous and severe Yale Center for British Art, the massive and serene Phillips Exeter Academy library, and his greatest achievement, the at once stark and intimate Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

Tired of Weeping: Mother Love, Child Death, and Poverty in Guinea-Bissau, by Jónína Einarsdóttir (Wisconsin). Beginning in the 1960s, thanks largely to the work of the then trendy social historian Philippe Ariès, the academic community swallowed the emotionally relativist notion that the deep bonds of love and care between modern Western mothers and children are a “cultural construct.” Specifically, anthropologists and historians, relying far more on theory than on evidence, held that in cultures and historical periods with high child mortality, mothers, expecting the worst, were largely indifferent to their children and so did not grieve intensely when they died. But recently far more careful scholarship in such diverse fields as ethnography and medieval history has been methodically, and heartbreakingly, dismantling that idea. This sensitive and judicious work is among the latest and most cogent of such studies. Guinea-Bissau, on the West African coast, is one of the world’s poorest countries. There, where about a third of the children born alive die before they reach the age of five, Einarsdóttir, an Icelandic anthropologist, lived for nearly half a decade, closely observing mothers’ attachment to and care of their children, and their reactions to the obscenely common event of their children’s dying. She found that although “children continuously died in my surroundings,” mothers were acutely attached to their children (even those born greatly impaired and with very low chances of survival), and the death of a child met with essentially the same intensity of maternal torment that we would expect in the West. This compelling contribution to the anthropology of emotion carries a deeply unsettling implication: Ariès and company sensibly if incorrectly contended that maternal neglect was a means of psychological survival for mothers in societies in which children routinely died (in medieval England, for instance, well over 40 percent of children died before they were ten). But with the demolition of what Einarsdóttir calls the “neglect thesis,” it seems clear that many earlier societies were, and many of today’s impoverished societies are, saturated with—even defined by—an inconsolable anguish.

The Chosen, by Jerome Karabel (Houghton Mifflin). Karabel has delved into the archives of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to reveal their “hidden history” of admission and exclusion, from the Big Three’s systematic efforts to limit the number of their Jewish students, to their recent intense labors to garner blacks and Latinos, to the brouhahas over coeducation, early action, and preferences given to athletes and legacies. Although he tells his story intelligently and stylishly, it’s a largely familiar one: the amount of scholarly work devoted to the internal dynamics and demographics of elite universities generally, and their admissions policies specifically, is almost nauseating. Moreover, he places that story in the context of a larger one—the passing of the WASP ascendancy and the rise of a meritocratic “new class”—that’s been thoroughly scrutinized and brilliantly told by, among others, E. Digby Baltzell. But Karabel, a professor of sociology at Berkeley, is illuminating and quietly excoriating on the subject of class diversity at the elite schools—a value they don’t prize nearly as highly as they do racial and ethnic diversity. (He points out that merely three percent of students at highly selective colleges come from the poorest 25 percent of American families; “in contrast, blacks and Hispanics—who form a roughly similar proportion of the population—make up about 12 percent of the student body.”) Most refreshing and most important, throughout his book Karabel insists that readers heed what he calls “the dark side of meritocracy.” Today the elite universities, reflecting our highly stratified and highly mobile society, are governed by the ideal of equality of opportunity, in which power and the good life are increasingly reserved for the most talented and most able, regardless of race, gender, or sexual preference. But this, Karabel reminds us, is a profoundly undemocratic betrayal. Most of us, after all, are merely ordinary, and as the British economic historian R. H. Tawney wrote (alas, not quoted by Karabel), “Opportunities to rise are no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization” and of the “dignity and culture” needed by all “whether they rise or not.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s