Wednesday, June 23, 2010

James Agee

Here is a clip from the Jan. 9, 2006 issue of The New Yorker. It's about two fictional works by James Agee, better known from his film criticism and his book about Southern sharecroppers, Let Us Know Praise Famous Men.

I post it here because I found it an interesting interpretation of the works.

Again, I forgot to note the author of the article. I apologize for that.

In "The Morning Watch," an autobiographical novella of 1951, a 12-year-old boarding-school boy, asleep in the early morning of Good Friday, dreams that he is Jesus about to be betrayed by his disciples. He awakes, and hears not Peter and Judas but sleepy boys cursing all around him. He goes to chapel and there, on his knees, relieves the previous months of religious crisis, during which he tormented himself over masturbation, only to realized that, at that moment, his back and thighs hurting as he kneels, he is committing the sin of imitating the suffering of Jesus. He leaves chapel with his friends and, as they go skinny-dipping at dawn, steals a look at their genitals; then, at the side of the pond, he kills a snake that may be poisonous and feeds it to the school's hogs. The mood swings back and forth between guilty devotion to Jesus and excited apprehension of the physical world. As the school enters Easter weekend, and Chirst's resurrection approaches, the boy eases into his sexual future.

In Agee's autobiographical novel "A Death in the Family," which he was working on when he died and which was published in 1957, he goes back further into his youth, to when he was six, in Knoxville (Tennessee -- my note), and his young father was killed in a freak automobile accident. The tense alternation of reverence and self-assertion. is similar to the rhythm of "The Morning Watch." The family, which has heard the news of the death, gathers and talks into the night with the strange exhilaration and that accompanies catastrophe. A debate forms between the religious, who see the death as having a mysterious purpose that God will not divulge, and the skeptics, who think that it happened by chance and is without meaning. The boy, Rufus (Agee's childhood name), is finally told of the accident, and, to our surprise, feels very little except for a sense of his own importance.; "My daddy got killed," he tells strangers and schoolmates on the street. Later, shown the corpse in a funeral parlor, he "looked toward his father's face and, seeing the blue-dented chin thrust upward, and the way the flesh was sunken behind the bones of the jaw, first recognized in its specific weight the word, dead." For long stretches, as Agee evokes first the comforts of childhood and then its loneliness and bewilderment, the novels reaches a pitch of tenderness that comes within hailing distance of what Joyce achieved in the early pages of "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

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