Alison's Reviews > Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
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's review
Dec 12, 2010

it was amazing
Read from December 12, 2010 to April 16, 2011

The most powerful, complex, beautiful, genre-busting, and overwhelming book I've read since Moby-Dick. A real behemoth of a tome, crossed with some moral journalism, crossed with some wordplay reminiscent of, of all the darnedest, inscrutable, provocative things, Tender Buttons (but with some very contemporary thinking about animals and objects). I had a hard time the first time I picked this up, several years ago; this time around, I resolved to think about it as modernist poetry, and slowed the hell down in my reading, to try to absorb it sentence by sentence. A must-read for writers who are interested in the ethics and aesthetics of representation (this is not a book about tenant farmers, but a book about--insofar as it can be said to be "about" any one thing, or even several--how to choose to represent, or not to represent, people who are tenant farmers, and one's own guilty conscience about doing so). To close, here is a more-scrutable-than-usual excerpt about that process:
"It may, however, be added: words like all else are limited by certain laws. To call their achievement crippled in relation to what they have tried to convey may be all very well: but to call them crippled in their completely healthful obedience to their own nature is again a mistake: the same mistake as the accusation of a cow for her unhorsiness. And if you here say: 'But the cow words are trying to be a horse,' the answer is: 'That attempt is one of the strongest laws of language, just as it is no law at all so far as cows are concerned.' In obeying this law words are not, then, at all necessarily accusable, any more than in disobeying it. The cleansing and rectification of language, the breakdown of the identification of word and object, is very important, and very possibly more important things will come of it than have ever come of the lingual desire of the cow for the horse: but it is nevertheless another matter whenever words start functioning in the command of the ancient cow-horse law. Human beings may be more and more aware of being awake, but they are still incapable of not dreaming; and a fish forswears water for air at his own peril."
Coda: academics may find this easier going than the lay reader will.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Grouchymax (new)

Grouchymax !!!

This is an incredible passage. I am aware of my dismissal of all your caveats; now I just want to read this book. Laymen, behold: we will read the best there is.

But first I must finish reading the so-called sci-fi series I've waded into. I'm in for a long swim. (Thanks, Octavia Butler. I cannot resist.)

Alison You won't have any trouble with it!
Also, there's a lot of wading you have to do, through stuff that might seem pretentious or patronizing or a lot of other things--Mansplaining--before you get to the meat of it, so don't be put off by that, either.

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