In his brief, hectic life James Agee (1909-55) wrote poetry, fiction, films and journalistic pieces, all with the same driving fury. As a staff writer for Fortune and Time he was famous for working all night, fueled by whiskey and a loud phonograph. He smoked and drank heavily, but his main addiction was to words.
Whatever the writing task, Agee remained a poet. He made daring leaps with language, twisting plain phrases into golden skeins of metaphor. His rivers do not flow, they "roar like blown smoke" or "slide becalmed along the crop-cleansed fields"; his race-track crowd shouts "uncannily like a wave displaying itself along a stony beach."
Those cadences appear in features Agee wrote for Fortune in the 1930s. Henry Luce's plush magazine, devoted to praising American business, was a natural seedbed for young Agee. During a five-year stint he filed 31 stories, working on a broad range of topics and honing his lofty, nervous prose. Fortune gave him income and recognition, yet Agee grew to loathe his role at the magazine.
A passionate liberal, he first sought to edify his readers by deploring Italy's descent into fascism, then by touting New Deal programs: "The way good work is done by a democratic government in the fourth decade of the twentieth century is the way TVA is doing it."
As this optimism waned he wrote sour appraisals of upper-crust life, surveying the crowds at Saratoga and on a Havana-bound cruise. Lifting a page from Thorstein Veblen, Agee made an ironic emblem of the commercial orchid, "whose normal career runs from hothouse to Milady's collar bone to the garbage can."
Senior editors finally rejected this bait when Agee submitted a long, impassioned story on Alabama sharecroppers. His piece eloquently described victims of rural poverty but blamed their plight on Fortune and its readers. Agee quit his job to spend three years writing a book on farm tenants, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" (1940) -- then ignored but now regarded as a Depression-era classic.
Having assailed journalism as greedy and cynical, Agee rejoined the Luce empire at Time as a book and film reviewer. He also wrote on news events -- the death of FDR, the birth of atomic weapons. (For political ventilation he wrote a film column in The Nation.) He left weekly journalism in 1948 to write screenplays ("The African Queen," "Night of the Hunter") and his Pulitzer Prize novel, "A Death in the Family" (1957).
Paul Ashdown's book strongly suggests that Agee did not waste his talent in journalism, but instead owed it a complex debt. Fortune taught him to marshal facts into his shimmering style. He learned to write on deadline, for available space, on assignments not of his own making. On the road, he gathered impressions of American life and landscape, and reporting broke his natural shyness with strangers, many less privileged than he.
Journalism matured Agee, gave him the confidence to try other genres -- where he exploited the skills attained on a corporate salary. No wonder that he called journalism subversive -- it was spying on private lives, drawing stories from shapeless events. When he accepted the power of those devices, Agee at last became an independent artist.
This trend of growth is evident in Paul Ashdown's volume, despite its slender bounds. From Agee's total work for Fortune and Time, estimated at "a quarter of a million unsigned words," Ashdown has selected 17 pieces and framed them with a clear, careful introduction. He also includes 10 illustrations, to hint at the sumptuous graphics of Fortune. This sampling suggests the need for a fuller edition one day, with complete texts and pictures.
Even so, we now have some of Agee's best early work, prescient as journalism -- he accurately forecasts an America crowded with motels, gasping for clean air and water -- but also enduring as literature. Listen, as he recalls a cross-country drive: "the spreaded swell and swim of the hard highway toward and beneath and behind and gone and the parted roadside swarming past. This great road, too; you know that well."