Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Stacks serendipity. Bolt’d up, as I am liable to, to hie myself into the stacks in search of James Agee (it’s a desire implacable that I suffer, an itch unscratch’d, cannot “settle” before gathering a small heap of somebody’s words, oddly, unknowing how it’s trigger’d, how it’s suddenly Agee, and not Willa Cather). So: stacks confront’d, I pull down a copy of the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (and think now it must’ve had something to do with Merton, that I should light out for Agee’s particular territory, bad boy religiosos both, one Catholic, one Episcopalian, only one of whom’ll straighten “up.”)

[Answer the ’phone, knowing it’s my son, with a deprecatingly perfervid “Hynyah!”—an all-purpose karate chop of a greeting—mostly because I’m addled by my one post-work (regimen) beer and no grits, and a tiny voice surround’d by deep sea creatures with light’d weed-resemblant appendages, creatures who bark and mutter, says “Khalid?”]

[—Not in Kansas anymore, Toto, you reprobate, you recidivist, you hash!]

[A second caller—identifiably not the first, though expect’d—calls with a message that Edgar Knows Publishing would like me to prendre un pot with them. At my confusion, I am deliver’d the question: “Have you had a recent brainwash or something?” Ah, offspring! Sprung off th’imical boat!]

Alors. Stacks. Pulling down the Father Flye epistle-exchange, out sails a cardlet, white, and flops a series of sags in the air all the way to the pediment. Chancy word-endeavor laying it all on the line. Here’s what it read:
And the rhyming hills complained. In the noontime stillness,
Thawing our frozen beans at the raw face of a fire,
We heard the frost-bound tree-boles booming like cannon,
A wooden thunder, snapping the chains of frost.

Those were the last years of the Agrarian City
City of swapped labor
Circle of warmth and work
Frontier’s end and last wood-chopping bee
The last collectivity stamping its feet in the cold.

                          Thomas McGrath
                          Letter to an Imaginary Friend
And turning to the mark’d page, how fleet Agee is, with perception and lasso to bring it sturdily down. A paragraph out of an April 20, 1927 letter (Exeter, New Hampshire):
I’ve read very little until the past two weeks. In that time I’ve read Manhattan Transfer, by John Dos Passos. It’s an unalleviatedly filthy book; when it’s bellyful of sexual fifth it descends to coal-dust and orange-peels. But it’s very cleverly done. I hate mere cleverness, so I’m glad to think there’s more than that to it—he’s really a marvelous writer, and the novel is built in an entirely new way. Also, I think for some reason that he writes filth sincerely disbelieving in the existence of anything else—that he’s not a cheap hack-writer, writing Pay Dirt. And the book is full of lovely descriptions—passages of poetry as fine as any I know for color and beauty alone. Then I’ve read The Plutocrats by Tarkington. It’s rather thin and tepid, but a delightful antidote for the more rabid and intolerant parts of Sinclair Lewis’ books. The idea is to glorify Babbitt, to set him up as a barbaric giant Carthaginian—and at the same time to make rather small and foolish the people who belittle him. I thought Lewis had done it sufficiently in Babbitt; but this is much fairer. But by no means as great a book, since its very publication depends on the writing of Babbitt. I’ve today begun to read An American Tragedy, which seems rather fine, in spite of stormy criticism. Dreiser’s English is bum, yet it has a peculiar beauty and excellence. You feel you’re reading a rather inadequate translation of a very great foreign novel—Russian, probably. He’s horribly obvious, and has no humor. But this dullness is a relief from the heady brilliance of Dos Passos or Lewis—and he has a tenderness, a love for his character, that rarely slobbers and is usually strong and fine.
Incredible sleights of hand there. Vague thinking if anybody reads Dos Passos now, I mean—for formal reasons. Tarkington’s Penrod things quaintly satisfy’d my youth, Lewis serves (still?) to nurture the social consciences of adolescents, and Dreiser, whom I read as a long-hair’d lad and complain’d mightily to my blonde companion of that tragic tic of “And yet—”? “Dreiser’s English is bum.”

Happy, too, with the formula—A is by no means as great a book, since its very publication depends on the writing of C. Maybe a little more of that kind of thing’d cut the burgeoning of derivatives (write-through, homage, thievery, gasp) to a trickle.

Walker Evans’s “Washroom and Dining Area of Burroughs’s Home” (1936)
Another sighting of the Spicerean desire for words to become things, real lemons rampant! Agee (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men):
If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game.

Morning. A quash’d moment of mannerist ecstasy. Is mannerism only anticipatory to the next period style? That is, today’s mannerism, garish and irredentist, ’ll be tomorrow’s heap of reap-all precursory? Blink, blink, blink. Make it uncanny, make it undeniable, make it of tincture of hysteria. Someone else (the future) ’ll “smooth” the edges . . .