I’m teaching excerpts from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as the opening text in my freshmen comp class this time around. I’ve had a love/hate relationship going with that book for a long time, and one of the points I wanted to raise in class was that not everyone agrees about the relative merits of this sort of approach to documentary. I put up a series of clips edited from To Render A Life (interviews from a variety of people describing how they reacted to the book) in the online class shell. Reactions from reasonably smart people —including Jonathan Yardley of the NY Times, who announced that the book was “horribly overwritten” and that he “just didn’t get what Agee was up to.” As my mentor R. Paul Yoder used to say, “sometimes confusion is the appropriate response.” But one of my favorite moments is Robert Coles preaching the gospel of Agee:
How can we really understand other people, we ask one another. Can the rich ever understand the poor? How does one cut through the impasse of a possession, of something that’s printed, and reach across to you in some way that makes us part of one another’s lives. How does one render a life so that you don’t just take it as a book?
Tomorrow, we’ll be focusing on Agee’s text. I started out with reactions to the text, both the reverent ones, and the ones that view it as horrendously narcissistic. I also dealt with the complex structure of the text, composed more like a series of songs or an opera than a book clearly about three tenant families. We’ll look at it as a book tomorrow. Then Thursday, I want to introduce the larger issue raised by Agee (and Coles)— how can we make it real. This issue is nicely taken up in an MLA formatted research paper (the skill I’m supposed to teach) by Natalie Friedman, “How to Make Your Students Cry: Lessons in Atrocity, Pedagogy, and Heightened Emotion.”
I’ll be surprised if they get the nuances of Friedman’s argument, but maybe it will help them understand a little better the difficulties that Agee and Coles are talking about. It’s hard to move people without just pushing them onto the tracks of the train of pointless sentimentality. It’s hard to get past the easy way out of feeling something—the descent into mythic fictions of heroes and villains instead of real people in real lives.
The actuality of tangible artifacts, described obsessively by Agee, are often the only link to existence. I was reminded of that in the outcome of a story reported just as the semester began about a bicyclist hit and killed by a bus near Lake Calhoun. He was not carrying any identification, only an iPod. They traced its serial number to find his name. Objects reveal much more than we expect them to. Traces of Adam Finley are on the web, in his words and the memories of others. But the sum of the parts can never equal a human being.
On a totally unrelated note: comments are fixed now—no one should get the rude “your text is unacceptable” message anymore. Thanks to Wm. B. Becker for pointing that out via email—his useful comment on photographer Adrian J. Ebell has now been posted.