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Agee on the artist at war

Three-quarters of the way through his masterpiece Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee takes a pause in his account of a summer spent living among Depression-era, cotton-picking tenant farmers for an “Intermission,” subtitled “Conversation in the Lobby.” The overall thrust of this portion, phrased as a furious response to questions posed to writers by the Partisan Review in May, 1939, is to defend the radicalism of the artist’s vocation.

A good artist is a deadly enemy of society; and the most dangerous thing that can happen to an enemy, no matter how cynical, is to become a beneficiary. No society, no matter how good, could be mature enough to support a real artist without mortal danger to that artist.

The Partisan Review‘s final question concerned the “the next world war.” It asked, “What do you think the responsibilities of writers in general are when and if war comes?” Of all his answers, here Agee replies the most directly, the most earnestly, and the least aggressively toward the askers. He says he has thought much about the matter—“first glibly … later with more and more perplexity, distress, and immediate interest, fascination, and fear”—and several possibilities have come to him.

  1. Enlist in that part of the war which seemed most dangerous, least glamorous, least relevant to any choice I might have through “education,” “class,” “connections,” or personal craftiness. This either for personal-“religious” reasons or out of an “artist’s” curiosity, or more likely both.
  2. Join the stalinist party and do as I was told or Bore from Within it. [A page earlier he writes, “‘I find, in retrospect,’ that I have felt forms of allegiance or part-allegiance to catholicism and to the communist party. I felt less and less at ease with them and am done with them.”]
  3. Stay wherever I happened to be, mind my own business, refuse every order, and take the consequences.
  4. Stay wherever I happened to be, and write what I thought of the War, the Pacifists, etc., wherever I could get it printed.
  5. Escape from it by whatever means possible and by the same means continue to do my own work.

For those of us hoping to plant Agee in a particular position or camp, either for or against this war or war in the abstract, he is evasive. Even the pacifist crowd, so radical in its way, he considers also a “society” into which an artist cannot afford to blend. Answer 1 offers a very Christ-like self-sacrifice, venturing among the least to reveal the truth for all. But, unlike number 3, and possibly numbers 2 and 4, it seems a perfectly anti-political position to take. So also is number 5. Taken together, though, the options offer little assurance to the partisan.

A footnote appended later seems to be some encouragement for radical nonviolence:

I would now (fall of 1940) have to add to this belief in non-resistence to evil as the only possible means of conquering evil.

Only to equivocate in the very next sentence:

I am in serious uncertainty about this belief; still more so, of my ability to stand by it.

If you’re tempted to dismiss Agee as simply a political weakling, a dilettante making games out of serious business, the last sentences of this section are worth hearing out. They spell out a cosmic reversal, an insistence that The War everyone talks about is in fact a game, an absurdity when viewed from the truly serious business of making art and meaning for the human race.

Or, in other words, I consider myself to have been continuously at war for some years, and can imagine no form of armistice. In that war I feel “responsible.” I doubt any other form of war could make me more so.

This artist, he insists, cannot be the partisan that the Review wants to drum out concerning the coming war. He refuses to accept the war being declared by politicians and generals—and all manner of those who consider themselves informed—as the real war most worthy of his attention. Especially when no one else does, the artist can look past her or his society’s present means of mass suicide and murder, into the deathless questions that, by being ignored, so provoke the rest of us.

During World War II, Agee devoted himself to reviewing films for Time and The Nation. The draft board passed him over. He had a son who died soon after being born, and he married his third wife.