One of the more seemingly overt binaries in American literary and cultural history is the division between the high Modernist writers who particularly dominated the 1920s (from Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot to F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, and many others as well) and the much more overtly political and social writers who could be said to dominate the 1930s (John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, my earlier blog subject Pietro Di Donato, and many others again). As with any binary, that one doesn’t do justice to many complexities, both within these individual writers and categories and within the historical contexts of the decades and their cultures. But it is fair to say at least that many of the 30s writers explicitly positioned themselves and their focal points in response to, and direct critique of, those high Modernists, making clear that this duality and debate is not simply one that has been imposed by scholars after the fact.
If I had to sum up my scholarly or analytical identity in one phrase, though, it might be as someone who likes to try to move past dualities, not by downplaying the real and significant elements they might help us to highlight, but by recognizing their limitations, on both of the levels I mentioned above: limitations as analyses of any individual text or focal point; and limitations as ways to imagine more communal and unified possibilities beyond even genuinely divided entities. And Exhibit A for an argument in response to this literary historical duality on both of those levels would have to be James Agee and Walker Evans’ complex masterpiece Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941); the journalist Agee and photographer Evans were dispatched in 1936 by Fortune magazine to research and document the lives of Southern sharecroppers, but the project grew well beyond the scope of a single article or even a series of them, and eventually resulted in this dense, complex, impossible to define and very singular and significant American text.
The density is in fact precisely my point, or at least one main point, about Agee’s work here: in the book he weds a modernistic stream of consciousness voice and style, one not at all unlike Faulkner’s, to a journalistic perspective and sense of observation and, at times ,a social and political subjectivity, both of which are amplified by Evans’ stark and striking photographs and both of which would feel not at all out of place in a 30s work like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). And in doing so, I would argue, perhaps counterintuitively given how challenging it can be to read his prose at times, that he creates a genuinely democratic text, one that brings his own voice and identity, Evans’, his subjects’, and ideally his audience’s into a complex but vital communal relationship; his audience in particular are forced to work to bring together these different voices and perspectives and styles and identities, forced if we are to read and make sense of the book to imagine that they are not simply disparate or dissimilar but instead share not only the space of the book but of the region, time period, and nation in which their complicated encounters play out.
“Who are you who will read these words and study these photographs,” Agee wonders in the book’s opening chapter, “and through what cause, by what chance, and for what purpose, and by what right do you qualify to, and what will you do about it;” the sentence continues for literally dozens more lines, those forthright and social and political questions wedded thoroughly to a Faulknerian maze of descriptions and emotions, settings and identities, author and audience. Praiseworthy work indeed, beyond any binaries. More this weekend, another special weekend post.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Google books version of Famous: http://books.google.com/books?id=qrmm6yNCZysC&printsec=frontcover&dq=let+us+now+praise+famous+men&source=bl&ots=MD6FRIbraG&sig=8TmDNuFNDpbz_YfVqHoo9ZHLyQg&hl=en&ei=_mCfTfL-MIfY0QHzurgD&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=13&ved=0CGIQ6AEwDA#v=onepage&q&f=false
2) An interesting 2005 Fortune article that revisits the places and families in question: http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/09/19/8272885/index.htm
3) OPEN: What do you think?
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