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Sideways Review: Out of Time

John Proctor
on
James Agee’s “America, Look at Your Shame!”
and Tennessee Williams’s
“Amor Perdida”
from
The Best American Essays 2004
.
~8th in a series

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When looking at the Contents of The Best American Essays 2004, the first thing I noticed was an essay by James Agee, who, by 2004, had been dead for almost a half-century. This volume of The Best American Essays is the only one I’ve yet read (I’m currently in the year 2000 in my work backwards chronologically) containing an essay not written in the year that preceded it. No, wait—it has two! The volume also includes an essay by Tennessee Williams, who in 2004 had been dead for more than twenty years. Series Editor Robert Atwan explains in the foreword:

To qualify for the volume, the essay must be a work of respectable literary quality…originally written in English (or translated by the author) for publication in an American periodical during the calendar year.

As this year’s volume demonstrates, contributors can also be long deceased. What matters is that their essays had never been previously published (James Agee and Tennessee Williams wrote the essays collected here in the early 1940s, but neither appeared in print until 2003).

In his introduction to this volume, Guest Editor Louis Menand says,

Writers are people for whom l’esprit de l’escalier is a recurrent experience: they are always thinking of the perfect riposte when the moment for saying it has already passed.

“America, Look at Your Shame!” is Agee’s riposte, both to a newspaper’s sensationalist coverage of the 1943 Detroit Race Riots and, more personally, to a group of racist Southern sailors and soldiers he overheard on an 86th Street bus. In the short essay, after summarily describing and questioning one photo from the magazine, he narrates the story of overhearing these soldiers on his way home from visiting a friend.

The men, who like Agee were drunk at the time, loudly and brazenly mocked “the niggers on the bus and the God damned niggers in the f – ing town and the f – ing niggers all over the God damned f – in’ Nawth.” Agee listened, contemplating possible responses, but did nothing. He then observed a small elderly black woman sitting down next to the largest sailor of the bunch to tell him

that he ought to be ashamed, talking that way. People never done him no harm. Ain’t your skin that make the difference, it’s how you feel inside. Ought to be ashamed…. Just might bout’s well be Hitluh, as a white man from the South. Wearing a sailor’s uniform. Fighting for your country. Ought to be ashamed.

Agee relates his own shame at not doing any of the things he thought about doing. Then, in the last sentence of the essay, written roughly a year after the incident but not published until more than seventy-five years later, he says simply, “So now I am telling it to you.”

Tennessee Williams, three pages into his essay “Amor Perdida,” writes:

When people are facing imminent destruction their lives are supposed to pass before them in lightning review. What I faced at the moment was something quite different from imminent destruction, and yet that same phenomenon occurred.

Much of this essay recounts the moment when, “in an open cantina facing the square in Acapulco Gro., Mexico,” Williams was notified that one of his plays would be produced.

Here is a man on the verge of life as one of the greatest playwrights of the Twentieth Century, contemplating the minute elements of the life he was about to leave behind, a life full of the innocence of being a young unpublished writer. By placing the reader in the cantina with him, Williams allows us to see this moment as a kind of death, a loss of something. Williams described his state, while writing this essay at some point in the five years afterward, as almost a middle passage, a purgatory of sorts:

The old life seemed to be over. The new one had not begun yet. This was a time between…. It was an interlude, a period of suspended animation.

Right before receiving the telegram, Williams had been reading newspapers and watching, in a moment of synecdoche, “a wretched old dog, slowly dying” at his feet. After giving the dog a bit of water, he writes that the events in the newspapers seemed “less immediate, less important than the mongrel’s death.”

Both pieces, in addition to being written in the 1940s and first published more than fifty years later, share a quality essential to a good essay: each author takes an experience unique to him, and with a mysterious sleight of hand, plucks that experience out of time and history, delving into both the experience and himself with such honesty and introspection that the writer’s translation of the experience becomes universal. Each essay, while enclosed in its specific time frame, becomes timeless, as relevant in the aftermath of 9/11, when they were both finally published, as in the throes of World War II, when they were written.

John Proctor is the Assistant Editor of Reviews Gone Sideways. He’s reading one volume of The Best American Essays a month for the next two years. Sadly, reading is the closest he’s ever come to time travel. The photo above is the cover of New Directions 10, the last journal to publish both Agee and Williams together, in 1945.

More of John’s Hunger Mountain BAE reviews. And if that’s not enough, check out his contributions to The Best American Reading Club.

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The Best American Essays 2004
Louis Menand, Editor
Robert Atwan, Series Editor
Houghton Mifflin
 
2004
 
 

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