Truman Capote’s claim to have originated the journalistic novel could have been disputed by James Agee had he been alive. (“Truth Born of a Lie”, blog 5/23/13) In 1936 Agee, on assignment for Fortune magazine, was sent to Alabama to write about the life of cotton sharecroppers during the Depression. He and photographer Walker Evans all but disappeared before they resurfaced several weeks later, bringing with them a tale so dark, the publication declined to print it. Moved by what he’d seen Agee went on to write, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a factual account of his experience and one in which he appears as a character. Regrettably, only 600 copies of the book were sold before the press stopped rolling.
Despite its initial failure, Agee’s book is considered a great American classic, part documentary, part poetic narrative and “novelistic” (Wikipedia) — a combination that entitles his work to be seen as the forerunner to Capote’s journalistic novel. That Agee had this penchant for telling the truth and telling a story is the gift which won him the Pulitzer Prize, posthumously, in 1958. A Death in the Family is an autobiographical novel based on events surrounding the loss of Agee’s father who died in a car crash when the writer was a boy.
Originally Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was to be the first of a trilogy depicting the lives of people who should never have remained invisible. Unfortunately, the two remaining books were never written. Agee became an alcoholic and died at the age of 45. Nonetheless, like Capote, Agee leaves behind a literary masterpiece based upon fact. And like Capote, he seems to have left his heart in his work. Sometimes the singer becomes the song.
A man may wake, coughing in the darkness; a child may cry, and be quieted; on the porch a dog may burst up bellowing from a nightmare and set ten miles of country echoing with his kind… (Quote from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as it appears in “Hard Truths,” by David Whitford, Fortune, June 10, 2013, pg. 20.)
(Picture by Walker Evans courtesy of Wikipedia.com)