Category: Agee, James

the making of the experimental essay(?)

John D’Agata ed.
Greywolf Press, 2016

“Brooklyn Is” by James Agee. D’Agata warns in the intro that “it is ten thousand words long, opening with a series of claustrophobic assertions that give us very little by way of a context. But then, very slowly, those assertions give way to observations, and those observations to scenes” (429).

The first assertion is that the masses of Brooklyn have a look “of drugged softness or narcotic relaxation” (433). More narcotic than the look of people on Manhattan. The island can be seen from Brooklyn, so they may appreciate what they have escaped by keeping it close at hand (with a dark analogy to the traumatized soldier who, on hearing thunder, is compelled to return to “what he has left in France”). Thesis statement: “All escapes are relative, and bestow their own peculiar forms of bondage.”

Agee has an excessive rhetoric and diction. He points out that urban life is host to many “horizontalities” and provincialism, but follows up with a jawbreaker sentence:

And again, this small-city quality is confused in the deep underground atomic drone of the intertextured procedures upon blind time of more hundreds on hundreds of thousands  of compacted individual human existences than the human imagination can comprehend or bear to comprehend. (434)

Yes, tons of people live in a close space in the city. The sentence overwhelms the prior insight, that a small-town dynamic exists in your city life (you go out and see the same doorman in your apartment, the same folks working the pizza joint around the corner, the same woman behind the desk at the local library branch etc).

“Deep underground atomic drone,” “intertextured procedures upon blind time,” “compacted individual human existences…” The third phrase could be easily condensed; the other two are verbose in a way that pushes from a philosophical gloominess into a near Lovecraftian scale of horror. This is why we love Agee.

Excess is the word. And I don’t just mean excess to describe his following sentences, all strung together by the conjunction or, often solid blocks on the page. There is also an excess of his language beyond his topic. Such an excess would be expected from the literature of Agee’s time, but if literature goes after an aesthetic “truth,” nonfiction of a journalist tradition has to get the facts — wouldn’t the techniques and rhetoric of literary prose get in the way?

Of course this is a false dilemma.  We know newspapers are often full of shit. And while we expect novels to be imaginative, they can also stuff themselves with facts, making them a welcome component of their imaginative projects. When Agee gives us a multi-paragraphed parenthesis,

(Observing the subway stations, in any part of Brooklyn, not in an hour of rush but in the leisured evening, you see this; how, wherever there is a choice of staircases, one toward Manhattan, one away, without thought or exception they descend the staircase toward the island. An imaginative designer would have foreseen this and would have omitted the alternatives entirely. [435]

I feel teased. So far Agee has given us this scientistic top-down yet opinionated view, and now moves into over-intellectual travelogue. No, having the Manhattan-bound and Brooklyn-bound lines in the same station is convenient. Just because the “fact” exists that Agee’s seen more folks using the island-bound stairs does not necessarily contain a normalizing “imaginative” value of island-bound stairs only. So this tease opens up the fact/value problem, which I think any reflective or experimental essay would touch on.

D’Agata tells us that Agee wrote to a friend (but he doesn’t cite it and I can’t find it elsewhere) that he has “a total suspicion of both ‘creative’ and ‘reportorial’ attitudes and methods, which therefore will require the development of more or less an entirely new form of writing.” Perhaps his beef was that the “creative” and the “reportorial” emphasize one or the other — too easy a solution for this dialectical relationship.

That new form may be a more eclectically structured essay, like the ones written by Susan Howe. They don’t have the rigor of theory or philosophy, but to use theory jargon, in their disorder they illuminate the materiality of lived experience.

The new form is like Agee’s description of Brooklyn: “though it has a ‘center,’ and hands, and eyes, and feet, it is chiefly no whole or recognizable animal but an exorbitant pulsing mass of scarcely discernible cellular jellies and tissues; a place where people merely ‘live'” (434).

And so he gives us information, but not in a way that adds up to a body. The info tumbles by in massive sentences, paratactically, with words like “gracilities,” referring to the animals in the Brooklyn zoo. It’s not an archaic word, just formal beyond belief (and the exact opposite of Agee’s style). It’s beautifully written information, but if people read nonfiction for the information, is the style superfluous at least for some? Maybe this question needs a reader-response theory, and I may have to close the books by dead smart people and head out to where people merely live.