Copyright 2006 Ben S. Pollock
Surpassing expectations by accepting limits
Wednesday 4 January 2006. Last issue, The New Yorker praised James Agee. Actually, it was New Yorker movie critic David Denby. (If I don’t always agree with Denby, he’s about the only current writer who every once in a while drops in a sentence or a paragraph that could have been Robert Benchley’s.) The argument going into the remembrance was that Agee’s contemporary critics and those who considered him after he died saw him as a wasted or squandered or underused talent. Until Denby of course slayed those straw men. (If there were no straw men, who would we write essays about?)
His point was that Agee’s limits made him great. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men after all was an assignment from Fortune. The magazine would have had no idea he would have come back with overlong, experimental, borderline journalistic yet haunting prose that would barely fit in book format, much less a periodical. (It was reassuring to learn I was far from the only one who found it basically unreadable.) Denby praised Agee’s film reviews (which may be the hook for that movie critic). What capital-W Writer writes bits like reviews?
So, Agee may have had only that nonfiction book, and a couple of novels or shorter fiction, and those little magazine pieces in him. He did not live life well (alcoholic in a word). He also had to earn a living, and that cut short available time. Or did it? Denby argues Agee gave all he had and did not in truth squander his talent and skill, nor did life cut short his productivity.
Continuing Denby’s logic, beyond The New Yorker piece, is what fascinates. We who create, do what we do. Could Fitzgerald have produced more, or should he have, if he wasn’t such a sloppy drunk, if he wasn’t married to Zelda (yet she was his inspiration, in lofty but often practical ways, a nice way of saying matrimonial plagiarism). Dorothy Parker wanted to write novels, failed at them, but she was a first-rate short-poem and short-prose artist. How dare anyone say she should have done more, but people do. On the other side of the coin of the realm, Edna Ferber in some quarters is all-but-damned for her productivity and consistency. Say Ferber today and the response is, “Giant, right? Showboat? They were novels first?”
“You’re wasting your talents cooking Here when you could be a chef There.” It’s a ploy bludgeoned by loved ones more than strangers, outside of critics, that is. Guilt-assigning, Me-too-ism, Stay-down-here-with-us, whatever.
Denby’s right. Writers and other artists play out the best they can with the hands they’re dealt. Any comment otherwise really is mere second-guessing. You weren’t there. –30–