Intentions are in one way more satisfying than works. They can grow and change without limit, and, lacking the certainty of a completed thing, will never entirely disappoint. James Agee had a fortunate career on the face of it, as a New York freelance for almost two decades and then as a screenwriter. One of the large talents of American writing in the 1940s, Agee was a Southerner, from Knoxville, Tennessee, who came North, stayed and prospered. The story that these details suggest, of exile and nostalgia, is more pertinent than the data of Agee's education, employment, marriages. He enjoyed wide recognition and often enough he finished his projects. Yet the things he wished he could do - 'a dozen Chekhov-Shakespeare novels', as one of his editors, Robert Phelps, summarised a characteristic resolution; a life of Jesus; a novel about the atom bomb - were to become an almost public constituent of his writing life. His criticism is marked by the same mixture of yearning and disappointed hopes. Agee's special province as a movie reviewer was the perception of purpose - the honourable failure is a frequent subject with him, more congenial than the rare masterwork or the latest specimen of amusing or abject trash. Whatever genre he tried, he seemed to be working at a role that had no name: critic, prophet, consoler, moral historian.
LRB 7 September 2006 | PDF Download