Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Three Tenant Families

by James Agee and Walker Evans

Paperback, 416 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $18 | purchase

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Title
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Subtitle
Three Tenant Families
Author
James Agee and Walker Evans

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Book Summary

An illustrated portrayal of three Alabama sharecropper families in 1936 examines their everyday existence in poverty.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

On the Porch: 1
The house and all that was in it had now descended deep beneath the
gradual spiral it had sunk through; it lay formal under the order of
entire silence. In the square pine room at the back the bodies of the
man of thirty and of his wife and of their children lay on shallow
mattresses on their iron beds and on the rigid floor, and they were
sleeping, and the dog lay asleep in the hallway. Most human beings,
most animals and birds who live in the sheltering ring of human
influence, and a great portion of all the branched tribes of living in
earth and air and water upon a half of the world, were stunned with
sleep. That region of the earth on which we were at this time transient
was some hours fallen beneath the fascination of the stone, steady
shadow of the planet, and lay now listing toward the last depth; and
now by a blockade of the sun were clearly disclosed those discharges of
light which teach us what little we can learn of the stars and of the
true nature of
our surroundings. There was no longer any sound of the settling or
ticking of any part of the structure of the house; the bone pine hung
on its nails like an abandoned Christ. There was no longer any sound of
the sinking and settling, like gently foundering, fatal boats, of the
bodies and brains of this human family through the late stages of
fatigue unharnessed or the early phases of sleep; nor was there any
longer the sense of any of these sounds, nor was there, even, the sound
or the sense of breathing. Bone and bone, blood and blood, life and
life disjointed and abandoned they lay graven in so final depth, that
dreams attend them seemed not plausible. Fish halted on the middle and
serene of blind sea water sleeping lidless lensed; their breathing,
their sleeping subsistence, the effortless nursing of ignorant plants;
entirely silenced, sleepers, delicate planets, insects, cherished in
amber, mured in night, autumn of action, sorrow's short winter, water
hole
where gather the weak wild beasts; night; night: sleep; sleep.
In their prodigious realm, their field, bashfully at first, less
timorous, later, rashly, all calmly boldly now, like the tingling and
standing up of plants, leaves, planted crops out of the earth into the
yearly approach of the sun, the noises and natures of the dark had with
the ceremonial gestures of music and of erosion lifted forth the
thousand several forms of their entrancement, and had so resonantly
taken over the world that this domestic, this human silence obtained,
prevailed, only locally, shallowly, and with the childlike and frugal
dignity of a coal-oil lamp stood out on a wide night meadow and of a
star sustained, unraveling in one rivery sigh its irremediable
vitality, on the alien size of space.
Where beneath the ghosts of millennial rain the clay land lay down in
creek and the trees ran thick there disposed upon the sky the cloud and
black shadow of nature, hostile encampment whose fires were drenched,
drawn close, held sleeping, near, helots; and it was feasible
that within a few hours now, at the signaling of the primary changes of
the air, the wave which summer and darkness had already so heavily
overcrested that it leaned above us, snaring its snake-tongued
branches, birnam wood, casually would lounge in and suddenly and
forever
subdue us: at most, some obscure act of guerrilla warfare, some
prowler, detached from his regiment, picked off in a back country
orchard, some straggling camp whore taken, had; for the sky:
The sky was withdrawn from us with all her strength. Against some
scarcely conceivable imprisoning wall this woman held herself awayofrom
us and watched us: wide, high, light with her stars as milk above our
heavy dark; and like the bristling and glass breakage on the mouth of
stone spring water: broached on grand heaven their metal fires.
And now as by the slipping of a button, the snapping and failures on
air of a spider's cable, there broke loose from the room, shaken, a
long sigh closed in silence. On some ledge overleaning that gulf which
is more profound than the remembrance of imagination they had lain in
sleep and at length the sand, that by degrees had crumpled and rifted,
had broken from beneath them and they sank. There was now no further
extreme, and they were sunken not singularly but companionate among the
whole enchanted swarm of the living, into a region prior to the
youngest quaverings of creation.
(We lay on the front porch:
July 1936
Late Sunday Morning
T hey came into the Coffee Shoppe while we were finishing breakfast,
and Harmon introduced the other, whose name I forget, but which had a
French sound. He was middle-sized and dark, beginning to grizzle, with
the knotty, walnut kind of body and a deeply cut, not unkindly monkey's
face. He wore dark trousers, a starched freshly laundered white
collarless shirt, and a soft yellow straw hat with a band of flowered
cloth. His shoes were old, freshly blacked, not polished; his
suspenders were nearly new, blue, with gold lines at the edge. He was
courteous, casual, and even friendly, without much showing the element
of strain: Harmon let him do the talking and watched us from behind the
reflecting lenses of his glasses. People in the street slowed as they
passed and lingered their eyes upon us. Walker said it would be all
right to make pictures, wouldn't it, and he said, Sure, of course, take
all the snaps you're a mind to; that is, if you can keep the niggers
from running off when they see a camera. When they saw the amount of
equipment stowed in the back of our car, they showed that they felt
they had been taken advantage of, but said nothing of it.
Harmon drove out with Walker, I with the other, up a loose wide
clay road to the northwest of town in the high glittering dusty Sunday
late morning heat of sunlight. The man I drove with made steady
conversation, in part out of nervous courtesy, in part as if to
forestall any questions I might ask him. I was glad enough of it;
nearly all his tenants were negroes and no use to me, and I needed a
rest from asking questions and decided merely to establish myself as
even more easy-going, casual, and friendly than he was. It turned out
that I had not been mistaken in the French sound of his name; ancestors
of his had escaped an insurrection of negroes in Haiti. He himself,
however, was entirely localized, a middling well-to-do landowner with a
little more of the look of the direct farmer about him than the
average. He was driving a several-years-old tan sedan, much the sort of
car a factory worker in a northern city drives, and was pointing out to
me how mean the cotton was on this man's land, who thought he could
skimp by on a low grade of fertilizer, and how good it was along this
pocket and high lift, that somehow caught whatever rain ran across this
part of the country, though that was no advantage to cotton in a wet
year or even an average; it was good in a drowt year like this one,
though; his own cotton, except for a stretch of it along the bottom, he
couldn't say yet it was going to do either very good or very bad; here
we are at it, though.
A quarter of a mile back in a flat field of short cotton a grove of
oaks spumed up and a house stood in their shade. Beyond, as we
approached, the land sank quietly away toward woods which ran tendrils
along it, and was speckled near and far with nearly identical two-room
shacks, perhaps a dozen, some in the part shade of chinaberry bushes,
others bare to the brightness, all with the color in the sunlight and
frail look of the tissue of hornets' nests. This nearest four-room
house we were approaching was the foreman's. We drew up in the oak
shade as the doors of this house filled. They were negroes. Walker and
Harmon drew up behind us. A big iron ring hung by a chain from the low
branch of an oak. A heavy strip of iron leaned at the base of the tree.
Negroes appeared at the doors of the two nearest tenant houses. From
the third house away, two of them were approaching. One was in clean
overalls; the other wore black pants, a white shirt, and a black vest
unbuttoned.
Here at the foreman's home we had caused an interruption that filled me
with regret: relatives were here from a distance, middle-aged and sober
people in their sunday clothes, and three or four visiting children,
and I realized that they had been quietly enjoying themselves, the men
out at the far side of the house, the women getting dinner, as now, by
our arrival, they no longer could. The foreman was very courteous, the
other men were non-committal, the eyes of the women were quietly and
openly hostile; the landlord and the foreman were talking. The
foreman's male guests hovered quietly and respectfully in silence on
the outskirts of the talk until they were sure what they might properly
do, then withdrew to the far side of the house, watching carefully to
catch the landowner's eyes, should they be glanced after, so that they
might nod, smile, and touch their foreheads, as in fact they did,
before they disappeared. The two men from the third house came up; soon
three more came, a man of forty and a narrow-skulled pair of sapling
boys. They all approached softly and strangely until they stood within
the shade of the grove, then stayed their ground as if floated, their
eyes shifting upon us sidelong and to the ground and to the distance,
speaking together very little, in quieted voices: it was as if they had
been under some sort of magnetic obligation to approach just this
closely and to show themselves. The landlord began to ask of them
through the foreman, How's So-and-So doing, all laid by? Did he do that
extra sweeping I told you? — and the foreman would answer, Yes sir, yes
sir, he do what you say to do, he doin all right; and So-and-So shifted
on his feet and smiled uneasily while, uneasily, one of his companions
laughed and the others held their faces in the blank safety of
deafness. And you, you ben doin much coltn lately, you horny old
bastard? — and
the crinkled, old, almost gray-mustached negro who came up tucked his
head to one side looking cute, and showed what was left of his teeth,
and whined, tittering, Now Mist So-and-So, you know I'm settled down,
married-man, you wouldn't — and the brutal negro of forty split his
face in a villainous grin and said, He too ole, Mist So-and-So, he
don't got no sap lef in him; and everyone laughed, and the landowner
said, These yer two yere, colts yourn ain't they? — and the old man
said they were, and the landowner said, Musta found them in the woods,
strappin young niggers as that; and the old man said, No sir, he got
the both of them lawful married, Mist So-and-So; and the landowner said
that eldest on em looks to be ready for a piece himself, and the
negroes laughed, and the two boys twisted their beautiful bald
gourdlike skulls in a unison of shyness and their faces were illumined
with maidenly smiles of shame, delight and fear; and meanwhile the
landowner had loosened the top two buttons of his trousers, and he now
reached his hand in to the middle of the forearm, and, squatting with
bent knees apart, clawed, scratched and rearranged his genitals.

But now three others stood in the outskirts who had been sent for by a
running child; they were young men, only twenty to thirty, yet very old
and sedate; and their skin was of that sootiest black which no light
can make shine and with which the teeth are blue and the eyeballs gold.
They wore pressed trousers, washed shoes, brilliantly starched white
shirts, bright ties, and carried newly whited straw hats in their
hands, and at their hearts were pinned the purple and gilded ribbons of
a religious and burial society. They had been summoned to sing for
Walker and for me, to show us what nigger music is like (though we had
done all we felt we were able to spare them and ourselves this
summons), and they stood patiently in a stiff frieze in the oak shade,
their hats and their shirts shedding light, and were waiting to be
noticed and released, for they had been on their way to church when the
child caught them; and now that they were looked at and the order given
they stepped forward a few paces, not smiling, and stopped in rigid
line, and, after a constricted exchange of glances among themselves,
the eldest tapping the clean dirt with his shoe, they sang. It was as I
had expected, not in the mellow and euphonious Fisk Quartette style,
but in the style I have heard on records by Mitchell's Christian
Singers, jagged, tortured, stony, accented as if by hammers and cold-
chisels, full of a nearly paralyzing vitality and iteration of rhythm,
the harmonies constantly splitting the nerves; so that of western music
the nearest approach to its austerity is in the first two centuries of
polyphony. But here it was entirely instinctual; it tore itself like a
dance of sped plants out of three young men who stood sunk to their
throats in land, and whose eyes were neither shut nor looking at
anything; the screeching young tenor, the baritone, stridulant in the
height of his register, his throat tight as a fist, and the bass,
rolling the iron wheels of his machinery, his hand clenching and
loosening as he tightened and relaxed against the spraining of his
ellipses: and they were abruptly silent; totally wooden; while the
landowner smiled coldly. There was nothing to say. I looked them in the
eyes with full and open respect and said, that was fine. Have you got
time to sing us another? Their heads and their glances collected toward
a common center, and restored, and they sang us another, a slow one
this time; I had a feeling, through their silence before entering it,
that it was their favorite and their particular pride; the tenor lifted
out his voice alone in a long, plorative line that hung like fire on
heaven, or whistle's echo, sinking, sunken, along descents of a
modality I had not heard before, and sank along the arms and breast of
the bass as might a body sunken from a cross; and the baritone lifted a
long black line of comment; and they ran in a long and slow motion and
convolution of rolling as at the bottom of a stormy sea, voice meeting
voice as ships in dream, retreated, met once more, much woven,
digressions and returns of time, quite tuneless, the bass, over and
over, approaching, drooping, the same declivity, the baritone taking
over, a sort of metacenter, murmuring along monotones between major and
minor, nor in any determinable key, the tenor winding upward like a
horn, a wire, the flight of a bird, almost into full declamation, then
failing it, silencing; at length enlarging, the others lifting, now,
alone, lone, and largely, questioning, alone and not sustained, in the
middle of space, stopped; and now resumed, sunken upon the bosom of the
bass, the head declined; both muted, droned; the baritone makes his
comment, unresolved, that is a question, all on one note: and they are
quiet, and do not look at us, nor at anything.
The landlord objected that that was too much howling and too much
religion on end and how about something with some life to it, they knew
what he meant, and then they could go.
They knew what he meant, but it was very hard for them to give it just
now. They stiffened in their bodies and hesitated, several seconds, and
looked at each other with eyes ruffled with worry; then the bass
nodded, as abruptly as a blow, and with blank faces they struck into a
fast, sassy, pelvic tune whose words were loaded almost beyond
translation with comic sexual metaphor; a refrain song that ran like a
rapid wheel, with couplets to be invented, progressing the story; they
sang it through four of the probably three dozen turns they knew, then
bit it off sharp and sharply, and for the first time, relaxed out of
line, as if they knew they had earned the right, with it, to leave.
Meanwhile, and during all this singing, I had been sick in the
knowledge that they felt they were here at our demand, mine and
Walker's, and that I could communicate nothing otherwise; and now, in a
perversion of self-torture, I played my part through. I gave their
leader fifty cents, trying at the same time, through my eyes, to
communicate much more, and said I was sorry we had held them up and
that I hoped they would not be late; and he thanked me for them in a
dead voice, not looking me in the eye, and they went away, putting
their white hats on their heads as they walked into the sunlight.

At the Forks
O n a road between the flying shadows of loose woods toward the middle
of an afternoon, far enough thrust forward between towns that we had
lost intuition of our balance between them, we came to a fork where the
sunlight opened a little more widely, but not on cultivated land, and
stopped a minute to decide.
Marion would lie some miles over beyond the road on our left; some
other county seat, Centerville most likely, out beyond the road on our
right; but on which road the woods might give way to any extension of
farm country there was no deducing: for we were somewhere toward the
middle of one of the wider of the gaps on the road map, and had seen
nothing but woods, and infrequent woods farms, for a good while now.
Just a little behind us on our left and close on the road was a house,
the first we had passed in several miles, and we decided to ask
directions of the people on the porch, whom, in the car mirror, I could
see still watching us. We backed slowly, stopping the car a little
short of the house, and I got slowly out and walked back toward them,
watching them quietly and carefully, and preparing my demeanors and my
words for the two hundredth time.
*
There were three on the porch, watching me, and they must not have
spoken twice in an hour while they watched beyond the rarely traveled
road the changes of daylight along the recessions of the woods, and
while, in the short field that sank behind their house, their two crops
died silently in the sun: a young man, a young woman, and an older man;
and the two younger, their chins drawn inward and their heads tall
against the grained wall of the house, watched me steadily and sternly
as if from beneath the brows of helmets, in the candor of young
warriors or of children.
They were of a kind not safely to be described in an account claiming
to be unimaginative or trustworthy, for they had too much and too
outlandish beauty not to be legendary. Since, however, they existed
quite irrelevant to myth, it will be necessary to tell a little of
them.
The young man's eyes had the opal lightings of dark oil and, though he
was watching me in a way that relaxed me to cold weakness of
ignobility, they fed too strongly inward to draw to a focus: whereas
those of the young woman had each the splendor of a monstrance, and
were brass. Her body also was brass or bitter gold, strong to stridency
beneath the unbleached clayed cotton dress, and her arms and bare legs
were sharp with metal down. The blenched hair drew her face tight to
her skull as a tied mask; her features were baltic. The young man's
face was deeply shaded with soft short beard, and luminous with death.
He had the scornfully ornate nostrils and lips of an aegean exquisite.
The fine wood body was ill strung, and sick even as he sat there to
look at, and the bone hands roped with vein; they rose, then sank, and
lay palms upward in his groins. There was in their eyes so quiet and
ultimate a quality of hatred, and contempt, and anger, toward every
creature in existence beyond themselves, and toward the damages they
sustained, as shone scarcely short of a state of beatitude; nor did
this at any time modify itself.
These two sat as if formally, or as if sculptured, one in wood and one
in metal, or as if enthroned, about three feet apart in straight chairs
tilted to the wall, and constantly watched me, all the while
communicating thoroughly with each other by no outward sign of word or
glance or turning, but by emanation.
The other man might have been fifty by appearance, yet, through a
particular kind of delicateness upon his hands, and hair, and skin —
they were almost infantine — I was sure he was still young, hardly out
of his twenties, though again the face was seamed and short as a fetus.
This man, small-built and heavy jointed, and wandering in his motions
like a little child, had the thorny beard of a cartoon bolshevik, but
suggested rather a hopelessly deranged and weeping prophet, a D. H.
Lawrence whom male nurses have just managed to subdue into a
straitjacket. A broken felt hat struck through with grass hair was
banged on flat above his furious and leaky eyes, and from beneath its
rascally brim as if from ambush he pored at me walleyed while,
clenching himself back against the wall, he sank along it trembling and
slowly to a squat, and watched up at me.

None of them relieved me for an instant of their eyes; at the
intersection of those three tones of force I was transfixed as between
spearheads as I talked. As I asked my questions, and told my purposes,
and what I was looking for, it seemed to me they relaxed a little
toward me, and at length a good deal more, almost as if into trust and
liking; yet even at its best this remained so suspended, so
conditional, that in any save the most hopeful and rationalized sense
it was non-existent. The qualities of their eyes did not in the least
alter, nor anything visible or audible about them, and their speaking
was as if I was almost certainly a spy sent to betray them through
trust, whom they would show they had neither trust nor fear of.
They were clients of Rehabilitation. They had been given a young sick
steer to do their plowing with; the land was woods-clearing, but had
been used as long as the house (whose wood was ragged and light as
pith); no seed or fertilizer had been given them until the end of May.
Nothing they had planted was up better than a few inches, and that was
now withering faster than it grew. They now owed the Government on the
seed and fertilizer, the land, the tools, the house, and probably
before long on the steer as well, who was now so weak he could hardly
stand. They had from the start given notice of the weakness and youth
of the steer, of the nearly total sterility of the soil, and of the
later and later withholding of the seed and fertilizer; and this had
had a
great deal to do with why the seed was given them so late, and they had
been let know it in so many words.
The older man came up suddenly behind me, jamming my elbow with his
concave chest and saying fiercely Awnk, awnk, while he glared at me
with enraged and terrified eyes. Caught so abruptly off balance, my
reflexes went silly and I turned toward him questioning 'politely' with
my face, as if he wanted to say something, and could, which I had not
quite heard. He did want urgently to say something, but all that came
out was this blasting of Awnk, awnk, and a thick roil of saliva that
hung like semen in his beard. I nodded, smiling at him, and he grinned
gratefully with an expression of extreme wickedness and tugged hard at
my sleeve, nodding violently in time to his voice and rooting out over
and over this loud vociferation of a frog. The woman spoke to him
sharply though not unkindly (the young man's eyes remained serene), as
if he were a dog masturbating on a caller, and he withdrew against a
post of the porch and sank along it to the floor with his knees up
sharp and wide apart and the fingers of his left hand jammed as deep as
they would go down his gnashing mouth, while he stayed his bright eyes
on me. She got up abruptly without speaking and went indoors and came
back out with a piece of stony cornbread and gave it to him, and took
her place again in her chair. He took the bread in both hands and
struck his face into it like the blow of a hatchet, grappling with his
jaws and slowly cradling his head like a piece of heavy machinery,
while grinding, passionate noises ran in his throat, and we continued
to talk, the young woman doing most of the talking, corroborative and
protective of the young man, yet always respectful toward him.
The young man had the asthma so badly the fits of it nearly killed him.
He could never tell when he was going to be any good for work, and he
was no good for it even at the best, it was his wife did the work; and
him — the third — they did not even nod nor shift their eyes toward
him; he was just a mouth. These things were said in the voice not of
complaint but of statement, quietly stiff with hatred for the world and
for living: nor was there any touch of pride, shame, resentment, or any
discord among them.
Some niggers a couple of miles down a back road let them have some corn
and some peas. Without those niggers there was no saying what they'd be
doing by now. Only the niggers hadn't had a bit too much for themselves
in the first place and were running very short now; it had been what
was left over from the year before, and not much new corn, nor much
peas, was coming through the drought. It was —
The older man came honking up at my elbow, holding out a rolled farm
magazine. In my effort to give him whatever form of attention could
most gratify him I was stupid again; the idea there was something he
wanted me to read; and looked at him half-questioning this, and not yet
taking what he offered me. The woman, in a voice that somehow, though
contemptuous (it implied, You are more stupid than he is), yielded me
for the first time her friendship and that of her husband, so that
happiness burst open inside me like a flooding of sweet water, said, he
wants to give it to you. I took it and thanked him very much, looking
and smiling into his earnest eyes, and he stayed at my side like a
child, watching me affectionately while I talked to them.
They had told me there was farm country down the road on the right a
piece: the whole hoarded silence and quiet of a lonesome and archaic
American valley it was to become, full of heavy sunflowers and mediocre
cotton, where the women wore sunbonnets without shyness before us and
all whom we spoke to were gracious and melancholy, and where we did not
find what we sought. Now after a little while I thanked them here on
the porch and told them good-bye. I had not the heart at all to say,
Better luck to you, but then if I remember rightly I did say it, and,
saying it or not, and unable to communicate to them at all what my
feelings were, I walked back the little distance to the car with my
shoulders and the back of my neck more scalded-feeling than if the sun
were on them. As we started, I looked back and held up my hand. The
older man was on the dirt on his hands and knees coughing like a
gorilla and looking at the dirt between his hands. Neither of the other
two raised a hand. The young man lowered his head slowly and seriously,
and raised it. The young woman smiled, sternly beneath her virulent
eyes, for the first time. As we swung into the right fork of the road,
I looked back again. The young man, looking across once more into the
woods, had reached his hand beneath the bib of his overalls and was
clawing at his lower belly. The woman, her eyes watching us past her
shoulder, was walking to the door. Just as I glanced back, and whether
through seeing that I saw her I cannot be sure, she turned her head to
the front, and disappeared into the house.

Near a Church
I t was a good enough church from the moment the curve opened and we
saw it that I slowed a little and we kept our eyes on it. But as we
came even with it the light so held it that it shocked us with its
goodness straight through the body, so that at the same instant we said
Jesus. I put on the brakes and backed the car slowly, watching the
light on the building, until we were at the same apex, and we sat still
for a couple of minutes at least before getting out, studying in arrest
what had hit us so hard as we slowed past its perpendicular.
It lost nothing at all in stasis, but even more powerfully strove in
through the eyes its paralyzing classicism: stood from scoured clay, a
light lift above us, no trees near, and few weeds; every grain, each
nailhead, distinct; the subtle almost strangling strong asymmetries of
that which has been hand wrought toward symmetry (as if it were an
earnest description, better than the intended object): so intensely
sprung against so scarcely eccentric a balance that my hands of
themselves spread out their bones, trying to regiment on air between
their strengths its tensions and their mutual structures as they stood
subject to the only scarcely eccentric, almost annihilating stress, of
the serene, wild, rigorous light: empty, shut, bolted, of all that was
now withdrawn from it upon the fields the utter statement, God's mask
and wooden skull and home stood empty in the meditation of the sun: and
this light upon it was strengthening still further its imposal and
embrace, and in about a quarter of an hour would have trained itself
ready, and there would be a triple convergence in the keen historic
spasm of the shutter.
I helped get the camera ready and we stood away and I watched what
would be trapped, possessed, fertilized, in the leisures and shyness
which are a phase of all love for any object: searching out and
registering in myself all its lines, planes, stresses of relationship,
along diagonals withdrawn and approached, and vertical to the slightly
off-centered door, and broadside, and at several distances, and near,
examining merely the ways of the wood, and the nails, the three new
boards of differing lengths that were let in above the left of the
door, the staring small white porcelain knob, the solesmoothed
stairlifts, the wrung stance of thick steeple, the hewn wood stoblike
spike at sky, the old hasp and new padlock, the randomshuttered
windowglass whose panes were like the surfaces of springs, the fat gold
fly who sang and botched against a bright pane within, and within, the
rigid benches, box organ, bright stops, hung charts, wrecked hymnals,
the platform, pine lectern doilied, pressed-glass pitcher, suspended
lamp, four funeral chairs, the little stove with long swan throat
aluminum in the hard sober shade, a button in sun, a flur of lint, a
torn card of Jesus among children:
While we were wondering whether to force a window, a young negro couple
came past up the road. Without appearing to look either longer or less
long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for,
and without altering their pace, they made thorough observation of us,
of the car, and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling
as if casually; they spoke and nodded, gravely, as they passed, and
glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. They made
us, in spite of our knowledge of our own meanings, ashamed and insecure
in our wish to break into and possess their church, and after a minute
or two I decided to go after them and speak to them, and ask them if
they knew where we might find a minister or some other person who might
let us in, if it would be all right. They were fifty yards or so up the
road, walking leisurely, and following them, I watched aspects of them
which are less easily seen (as surrounding objects are masked by
looking into a light) when one's own eyes and face and the eyes and
face of another are mutually visible and appraising. They were young,
soberly buoyant of body, and strong, the man not quite thin, the girl
not quite plump, and I remembered their
mild and sober faces, hers softly wide and sensitive to love and to
pleasure, and his resourceful and intelligent without intellect and
without guile, and their extreme dignity, which was as effortless,
unvalued, and undefended in them as the assumption of superiority which
suffuses a rich and social adolescent boy; and I was taking pleasure
also in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, which
was incapable of being less than a muted dancing, and in the beauty in
the sunlight of their clothes, which were strange upon them in the
middle of the week. He was in dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-
laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow,
soft straw hat with a broad band of dark flowered cloth and a daisy in
the band; she glossy-legged without stockings, in freshly whited pumps,
a flowered pink cotton dress, and a great sun of straw set far back on
her head. Their swung hands touched gently with their walking, stride
by stride, but did not engage. I was walking more rapidly than they but
quietly; before I had gone ten steps they turned their heads (toward
each other) and looked at me briefly and impersonally, like horses in a
field, and faced front again; and this, I am almost certain, not
through having heard sound of me, but through a subtler sense. By the
time I raised my hand, they had looked away, and did not see me, though
nothing in their looking had been quick with abruptness or
surreptition. I walked somewhat faster now, but I was overtaking them a
little
slowly for my patience; the light would be right by now or very soon; I
had no doubt Walker would do what he wanted whether we had 'per-
mission' or not, but I wanted to be on hand, and broke into a trot. At
the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel, the young woman's
whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which
immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she
nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy,
chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a
running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this
same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face
wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a
few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a
stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the
spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and
put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward
and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and
watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I
came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they,
closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No;
no; oh, Jesus, no, no, no! ) and looking into their eyes; at the man,
who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined
with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her
breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if
it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow
relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive
from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and
dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and
of my horror and pity and self-hatred; and so, smiling, and so
distressed that I wanted only that they should be restored, and should
know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence: 'I'm
very sorry! I'm very sorry if I scared you! I didn't mean to scare you
at all. I wouldn't have done any such thing for anything.'
They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than
for me. The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face
and embrace and kiss their feet. That impulse took hold of me so
powerfully, from my whole body, not by thought, that I caught myself
from doing it exactly and as scarcely as you snatch yourself from
jumping from a sheer height: here, with the realization that it would
have frightened them still worse (to say nothing of me) and would have
been still less explicable; so that I stood and looked into their eyes
and loved them, and wished to God I was dead. After a little the man
got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without
conviction that that was all right and that I hadn't scared her. She
shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; she did not yet trust her voice.
Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly
without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I
was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a
white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking, and
because I could not walk away abruptly, and relieve them of me, without
still worse a crime against nature than the one I had committed, and
the second I was committing by staying, and holding them. And so, and
in this horrid grinning of faked casualness, I gave them a better
reason why I had followed them than to frighten them, asked what I had
followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for
negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and
was seized once more and beyond resistance with the wish to clarify and
set right, so that again, with my eyes and smile wretched and out of
key with all I was able to say, I said I was awfully sorry if I had
bothered
them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces,
their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward,
and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and
turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back.
A ll over Alabama, the lamps are out. Every leaf drenches the touch;
the spider's net is heavy. The roads lie there, with nothing to use
them. The fields lie there, with nothing at work in them, neither man
nor beast. The plow handles are wet, and the rails and the frogplates
and the weeds between the ties: and not even the hurryings and hoarse
sorrows of a distant train, on other roads, is heard. The little towns,
the county seats, house by house white-painted and elaborately sawn
among their heavy and dark-lighted leaves, in the spaced protections of
their mineral light they stand so prim, so voided, so undefended upon
starlight, that it is inconceivable to despise or to scorn a white man,
an owner of land; even in Birmingham, mile on mile, save for the sudden
frightful streaming, almost instantly diminished and silent, of a
closed black car, and save stone lonesome sinister heelbeats, that show
never a face and enter, soon, a frame door flush with the pavement, and
ascend the immediate lightless staircase, mile on mile, stone, stone,
smooth charted streams of stone, the streets under their lifted lamps
lie void before eternity. New Orleans is stirring, rattling, and
sliding faintly in its fragrance and in the enormous richness of its
lust; taxis are still parked along Dauphine Street and the breastlike,
floral air is itchy with the stilettos and embroiderings above black
blood drumthroes of an eloquent cracked indiscoverable cornet, which
exists only in the imagination and somewhere in the past, in the broken
heart of Louis Armstrong; yet even in that small portion which is the
infested genitals of that city, never free, neither of desire nor of
waking pain, there are the qualities of the tender desolations of
profoundest night. Beneath, the gulf lies dreaming, and beneath,
dreaming, that woman, that id, the lower American continent, lies
spread before heaven in her wealth. The parks of her cities are iron,
loam, silent, the sweet fountains shut, and the pure façades,
embroiled, limelike in street light are sharp, are still:

Copyright © 1939, 1940 by James Agee
Copyright © 1941 by James Agee and Walker Evans
Copyright renewed © 1969 by Mia Fritsch Agee and Walker Evans
Copyright © 1960 by Walker Evans
Copyright renewed © 1988 by John T. Hill, executor
of the estate of Walker Evans

Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company