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October 04, 1969 - Image 15

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The Michigan Daily, 1969-10-04

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Sunday, October 5, 1969


Page Five

Sunday, October 5, 1 9 6 9 THE MICHIGAN DAILY Poge Five

JAMES AGEE WAS A perfectionist. He was always
trouble with his publishers for deadline extensic
Whether his verse resounded of John Donne's met
or his prose of the King James cadences, or his f
criticism of his own preconceptions, Agee made sev
demands on his own work. Yet in his personal as v
as his artistic life he was unable to sustain any regu
patterns. His life he spent in tobacco, liquor, and wom
His two great works, Death in the Family and Let
Now Praise Famous Men came only when he abando:
the most deliberate of his intellectual and artistic int
tions. He opposed the second World War in human ter
as well as because so much patriotism and so many )
movies falsified the truth. It might be said that A
tried all his life to achieve formal and normative ;
fection in his art and ideas, and that this effort m;
him an existential, anguished man. But for all Agee's
tempt at recovery of form and norm, he succeeded c
when he also or finally surrendered to pent up impu
However hard he tried to realize perfection, howe
much evidence as to his consciousness of artistic fc
and ideological norm, however revealing the succe
of Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Fam
Men, there is something Whitmanesque about Agee t
defies analysis. If Agee belongs in any intellectual tra
tions the best presentation or explanation would b
collage, and the analytical portion of this collage wc
be only one of its aspects. Agee's Fortune editors s
him to report on Alabama tenant farmers in 19361
Agee realied how one-sided, misleading and errone
any analytical discussion would be. The Hebrew peop
concept of God could never be understood in any pu
intellectual definition of or treatise, but only by a coll
of history, song, law, myth, geneology, and legend.
TO UNDERSTAND AGEE is to accept the follov
discussion of intellectual or formal criteria as only p
-incomplete parts of a collage. Other parts of the coll
may and ought to be found in other sources, in the
action of people to his work, in the legends now grov
about his life, in one's own feeling for childhood,
America, for art, and last, for academic name-dropp

Jams Agee


Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a collage and Agee
insists his prose is to be considered only along with the
collection of Walker Evans photographs and many other
aspects of life: the post cards: the folk songs, the road
maps, the Dovzhenko film, and work by Faulkner, Twain,
Wolfe, and Caldwell. And Beethoven.
One of the striking pretentions of Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men is its non-existence. Agee tells us it is not
a book, it is not meant to be a work of art. This recalls
Whitman's view of writing poetry as if he had never
heard of books. At times Agee writes as if he means it,
long lists of nouns, an epic-like cataloguing of the arti-
facts of rural existence. As a narrator he seems to want
to disappear entirely and let life speak for itself. His
long descriptions are not his, Agee's, but as though the
tenant farmer's clothing and shelter and utensils are
singing of their own accord. The narrator's presence
is one of reverence for life and its rhythms apart from
his stylistic mutilations. Agee disappointed his Fortune
editors by not covering the lives of poor people into the
molds of socio-economic relevance. It is fitting that Agee
includes his lashing at Partisan Review for their editors
valued another coercion, one of real life into the canons
of aestheticism or, worse in this intance, into normative
intellectual issues.
In a sense it is tedious to read the long compilings in
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is like watching a
Warhol film like Sleep, where someone sleeps for eight
hours, or Empire Sate, where the world's tallest building
sits before the camera for eight hours. Accepting these
visions, the objects will take on epic proportions. The
anonymous sleeper becomes important, his every little
move a moment of enormity. The world's tallest building,
as Gregory Batcock said, becomes the world's biggest
nothing. So too looms the stuff about the lives of Amer-
ica's poor. Real life, Agee repeats, is too vital for the
artist to make "arty." Warhol similarly said he wanted
to be a duplicating machine.

Agee and Warhol share more than the distaste
for artistic interference-both indulge in anti-art. Agee
includes Evans' photographs, post cards, lists of nouns,
and verses from other literature in the same way in
which Warhol's latest book contains material which
must be used in such a way as to destroy the book as such.
MIDWAY THROUGH Famous Men is a section en-
titled "Intermission." This is a scathing attack on a ques-
tionnaire circulated among writers by Partisan Review.
Agee's- indignation arises from how he sees a people's
dignity far above the self-assumed vanguards which claim
to harbor and define them.
Agee's people are literature, they are valuable in
their everyday lives. They are not to be romanticized,
coerced into norms of nostalgia, the kind of nostalgia
that led American capitalists to build Greenfield Village
and to restore Williamsburg, Virginia. Agee takes great
pain to show us the sordid and the tedious. Mark Twain
had earlier blamed the Civil War directly on Walter
Scott's sentimentality and romance. Agee confronts an
America bent on sanitation and cellophane with his
own lashing of vital crudity. He confronts a literary
vanguard with scorn. And he confronts a nation bent on
social engineering with defiance and perspective.
To a certain extent it seems like Agee is preoccupied
with instinctual indulgence. And he is - in the sense of
his plentitude of earthly metaphors, attention to sexual
behavior, and absorption with animal reflexes. But at
the same time Agee's abandonment seems overpowering
he comes ringht out to disavow naturalism. Between men
whose characters inhabit worlds of biological force, Agee
stands with the ones who are not paralyzed but vital-
In Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath the people amount
to pathetic animals under the plight of social injustice.
Steinbeck gave his attention entirely to the world which
makes humanity a tear-jerker. Sherwood Anderson, on

the other hand, places his characters under the repres-
sions of small town canons but it is a sense of biological
power which gives those poor souls a warmth that glows.
Agee has this warmth, this sense of power in the poorest
human. As a narrator he can but stand in awe at liv-
ing poems.
IT IS THE HALLMARK of naturalism to concentrate
on the conditions which engulf man. The German exper-
lence of the twenties and thirties is one of total paralysis
and surrender before first the fluidity and indulgences of
jugendstil art and then in national allegiance. Russia in
the same period tried to encourage the forms of conform-
ity but met with sterility and artists critical of canonical
norms. In America pure aetheticism never worked --
the artists bent on experience met with disillusion or had
to escape this country. From W. D., Howell's call for
statisticians to Veblen's and Dewey's social engineering,
America was bent on coercing its citizenry into various
norms. Both Fortune and Partisan Review expected Agee
to be serving their notions of the Great Cause. If Agee
was reporting on the patterns of life the tenant farm-
ers were leading, it was sometimes in the non-narrative-
interference style of Warhol the watcher, but never
in the style of any of the canonical norms.
Writing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in New Jer-
sey, Agee wrote to his mentor, Father Flye, that ".
What little I can say is this: I am essentially an anarc-
hist, with the belief that the operation of human need
and acquisitiveness, in concentration on purely material
necessities and half necessities, and the structures of law
through which these operations are canalized, restrained,
and governed: that all this is tragic, mistaken, and ec-
centric from the root up, and cannot come to good; and
that the effort to manipulate for good within such a
framework, no matter how sincerely, can only result in
compromise; and can finally or even in detail add only
to a sum total of evil, misfortune, and misapplication of
human energy towards goodness."
For two months Agee continued to struggle with his
ambitions and then again wrote Father Flye, "to write
it in terms of moral problems alone is more than I can
possibly do. My main hope is to state the central subject
and my ignorance from the start."
preconceived patterns, to repent of the crutches which
remove us from consciousness. When he approaches a
black couple outside a country church, he is hyperseni-
tive about the intrusion of his own presence, himself a
white stranger, upon the reactions he so wants to avoid.
He wants to avoid dealing in formal patterns with these
frightened Negroes in the same way he wants to abolish
the formal distance of his writing with the reader.
Agee came from the Bible Belt. Even in artistic terms
to repent of the canonical norms we rely upon is to re-
new, to make us conscious and indebted to something as
beautiful as it is expressive as it is ugly as it is life. His
references to sexuality are in tribute, in recognition of
the life force which makes for the existence which we so
easily forget or worse, stifle in our own busy ways and
preconceptions. His genital-talk is every bit as proper as
the Hebrew prophets' loin-talk.
ALL HIS LIFE AGEE sought perfection of artistic
form and righteousness of ideological norm. Much of his
poetry was exercise in classicism. His heritage of the
King James rhythms and cadences appear in the lyric-
ism of his posthumous Death in the Family. His film
criticism often pecks at any fraud or dishonesty found
even on the periphery of movies he otherwise enjoyed.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is an attack on any kind
of perfectionism that would sacrifice the human element
which is Agee's own sphere. To the Northern Establish-
ment Agee said repent - for renewal is the sensation
whether his attention is on Alabama tenant farmers or
his own childhood lx Knoxville memories.


truths of the



The Traitors, by John Briley,
G. P., Putnam's Sons, $6.95.
JOHN BRILEY'S The Traitors,
a novel of Vietnam, is a long
work (441 pp.), very much in
the American vein. It is com-
pounded of action and philoso-
phizing, the latter aspect some-
what overdone but nonetheless
integrated into the whole story.
The novel at once raises an in-
teresting question: can we have
great art about a political event
so devastating as our involve-
ment in Vietnam? Inevitably,
one thinks of Norman Mailer's
1967 novel, Why Are We in Vi-
etnam?, an account of an Alas-
kan hunting expedition, which
symbolically and tangentially ex-
plains the war and Mailer's
comic-cum-profound reaction to
it. The Traitors is much more
conventional. For one thing, it
it a realistic novel, set on the
ground and in the skies of war-
torn Vietnam; its characters, re-
miniscent of Mailer's The Nak-
ed and the Dead, are a platoon
of American soldiers, plus a hel-
icopter pilot, captured by the
Communists. Their actions and
reactions constitute the plot. But
Briley, in his first novel, is more
teacher than artist; he can't re-
sist using his characters as
mouthpieces. They talk too
Today's writers . .
PHIL BALLA is an ex-stu-
dent at the University now
somewhere en route to Vietnam,
where he will work as a trans-
lator. He, and BOOKS, feel that
the current growth of an Agee
cult here and around the coun-
try justifies a review of this old,
old book. And, incidentally: If
you haven't read it yet, do.
very little introduction, but in
case you didn't know, he's a
professor of English here well
known for his wit, wisdom and
offbeat courses.

much (however, we must re-
member they are prisoners, lead-
ing the sedentary life of the
captured; they have plenty of
time for talking and, indeed,
their captors encourage it).
They are also involved in ac--
tions, which, although somewhat
sensational, are nonetheless ex-
hilarating and dramatic.
John Briley (who has both an
MA and BA from Michigan as
well as a Ph.D. from the Univer-
sity of Birmingham, which he
earned at that University's
Shakespeare Institute; and who
also taught at the University of
Michigan in the summer of 19-
66) is a professional screen wri-
ter whose credits have earned
him great respect. Children of
the Damned was shown here
some years ago; his epic Crom-
well has not yet been released.
To veteran movie-goers, The
Traitors will read, philosophy
added, like a film script (some-
what like reading a Shaw play).
With proper cuts, it will prob-
ably serve. The Sand Pebbles is
perhaps relevant here.
The plot line, as in that novel,
is a series of daring events: an
American chopper mission; then
a counter action, a long-range
plan maneuvered by the North
Vietnamese to capture a pilot;
next, the life of the prisoners,
their indoctrination by a rene-
gade, persuasive fellow coun-
tryman to be followed by the in-
credible plan involving a jour-
ney to the very heart of Saigon,
and a hair-raising expedition to
rescue a famous northerner held
by the southerners. The actual
ending is what you would ex-
pect-the final violence of all-
out war, the ultimate confron-
tations and the ultimate deaths.
The methods are those of all
novelists, attempting to present
the senselessness of war, its en-
raged, empty and insatiable de-
mands. For ultimately here are
the truths which we all know,
which artists translate into
emotions and which politicians
and militarists inevitably distort
and/or deny-the truths of the
human heart.

so there are Jews and blacks,
together with a variety of
As a result, The Traitors, like
The Naked and the Dead, seems
contrived, like a movie or a
ural attempting panoramic cov-
erage. The seeming fakery is
built into our society. It is no
fault oftour artists that, as-
suming the society to be a real
mix - of Jews, Catholics, Pro-
testants and Atheists - they
should in the process of honest
portrayal seem to be sentimen-
tal or unduly conniving; the
fault is in the dishonesty and
pretentions of the society they
present. And, stripped of this
newsreel quality, Briley's char-
acters, black and white, Jew and
Gentile, are presented with in-
sight and persuasiveness. Their
talk and behavior-heightened,
it is true, by the unusual situa-
tions of war - are interesting
analyses of many of the terrify-
ing problems of this conflict.
THE TRAITORS sets a high
standard for fiction about Viet-
nam. It may be superceded but,
like Cozzen's Guard of Honor, it
has earned its place in the his-
tory of war fiction. Mr. Briley
is a writer of imagination and
intelligence; his first novel has
established both his talent and
his subject matter as formidable
and definitely worth our atten-
tion as well as our admiration.
BOOKS is a regular feature
in the Sunday Daily, which at-
tempts to publish essays on,
amout or around popular, re-
cent or obscure books.
Anyone wishing to write, re-
cord or transcribe any of the
above sorts of things should
drop by the offices of The
Daily and ask for John Gray,
literary editor, who can give
any advice, encouragement or
books needed.

1. .

MR. BRILEY is a skillful man-
ipulator of plot. He can also
create character. His group of
American prisoners of war is,
as I've said above, reminiscent
of Mailer's platoon in The Na-
ked and the Dead. It is no lit-
erary shortcoming to be imita-
tive, especially if one chooses
his model well. both The Na-
ked and the Dead and The
Traitors are 'first novels; both
tend to be somewhat overlong;
both are tainted with the brush

of the communications media,
inevitable in these times when
journalism - newspaper, TV,
movies - acts as the nerve
center of the world. These nov-
els are thus different from such
fictional predecessors as War
and Peace, for example. But
they are also novels about Am-
ericans and, as such, they at-
tempt to capture the range of
the American racial and reli-
gious mix (as well as the enor-
mous range of ideas and ideals),

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