Sentences — June 16, 2008, 12:06 pm

On the Fringe of His Line

ageebroad

“You can see the grown man’s 5 o’clock shadow,” Will Blythe wrote this past weekend in The New York Times Book Review, “darkening the smooth cheeks of such baby prose.” The prose thus tarred is that of James Agee.

Note the excellence and clarity of Blythe’s metaphor. He has found a terse and vivid way to say that Agee’s attempts to artfully present the perceptions of a child, of childishness, were marred by artifice, were too-transparently those of an adult author attempting to “do” childishness. The passage Blythe presents to corroborate his critical take appears in both of the wildly different editions of Agee’s novel A Death in the Family. Rufus, the one son in Agee’s titular family, is listening to his mother Mary sing the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” As she does, the narration of the novel presents Rufus’s thoughts about the lyrics. This technique—in which third person narration is infused with the perceptions of one of the story’s characters—is sometimes called free indirect style:

A cherryut was a sort of a beautiful wagon because home was too far to walk, a long long way, but of course it was like a cherry, too, only he could not understand how a beautiful wagon and a cherry could be like each other, but they were.

The child hears “chariot” and, ignorant of the word, hears it as “cherry-ut,” building it from existing materials. Agee is attempting to present the drama of comprehension and knowledge-building as an explicit activity, one which, were we properly seated in a cerebrum, we could witness.

Blythe, though, is a fidgety spectator of this sort of theater. He’s seen it before. “[T]he early chapters,” he writes, “embody the development of Rufus’s childhood consciousness, at times in painful imitation of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Blythe does not quote from Portrait, but if he had, he might have used this to show the technical similarity:

He crept about from point to point on the fringe of his line, making little runs now and then. But his hands were bluish with cold. He kept his hands in the side pockets of his belted grey suit. That was a belt round his pocket. And belt was also to give a fellow a belt. One day a fellow said to Cantwell:

—I’d give you such a belt in a second.

Yes, Joyce’s attention to the child’s attention to language (“And a belt was also to give a fellow a belt”) is meant to intimate the processes of becoming a “language animal” (Terry Eagleton’s shorthand for humans), a process that gains importance, in the case of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus or Agee’s Rufus Follett, when we would understand that each is destined to make language–the makings of language–his life. Blythe finds that Agee’s attempt (“the grown man’s 5 o’clock shadow [etc]”) threatens to say less about Rufus the listener and more about Agee the reader and writer.

This is good criticism—good in its clarity, its founding of a judgment in a presentable detail—if not adequate in its judgment. “Even by Agee’s era,” Blythe suggests, “singsong prose as an embodiment of a child’s innocence must have been an exhausted trope.” Tricky, the ticketing of tropes as “exhausted.” Once one begins to issue such broad summonses, anything can be judged tiresome: Do we really need another father-and-son story? Another death-of-a-loved-one tale? Do we need to use alliteration to mark a moment’s lyricism; do we benefit from photographs interspersed in a novel; should we forego quotation marks to distinguish dialogue in favor of modernist doodles like em-dashes?

Nothing, in a novel, is needed, whether technical or material. Rather, a novel can admit of anything, breaking with convention or recycling it. Naturally, the success of such admissions depends on the talent of the writer. Blythe, I suspect, would agree, and would say only that the weaker parts of Agee’s enterprise depended too heavily and too transparently on the endeavor of another author. This is fair enough, as a point of view. Whereas the exhausted trope argument is, itself, a trope exhausted–novels would be nowhere without them.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2015

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“She didn’t speak the language, beyond “¿cuánto?” and “demasiado,” but that didn’t stop her. She wanted things. She wanted life, new experiences, a change in the routine.”
Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
[Browsings]
Burn After Reading·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.
“The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years.”
© JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis
Article
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Article
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Hours per day that a death-row inmate in China wears hand and ankle restraints:

24

A multidisciplinary team detected cardiac arrhythmia in the works of Beethoven.

There was a run on cases of 5.56mm M855 green-tip rifle bullets, after the White House moved to ban their manufacture and sale because they can pierce police armor.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today