One of my favorite pieces of writing about summer is in “A Death in the Family,” James Agee’s largely autobiographical 1957 novel about what happens when a family loses its father and husband. The subject of the book is ironic because Agee (pronounced AY-jee) died in 1955, two years before “A Death in the Family” was published.
Like so many stories that are supposed to be about mortality, “A Death in the Family” is really a contemplation of life. That’s true from the first chapter, titled “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” which includes, of all things, this magical passage about men of the neighborhood watering their lawns on summer evenings:
“The hoses were attached at spigots that stood out of the brick foundations of the houses. The nozzles were variously set but usually there was a long sweet stream of spray, the nozzle wet in the hand, the water trickling the right forearm and the peeled-back cuff, and the water whishing out a long loose and low-curved cone, and so gentle a sound. First an insane noise of violence in the nozzle, then the still irregular sound of adjustment, then the smoothing into steadiness and a pitch as accurately tuned to the size and style of stream as any violin. So many qualities of sound out of one hose; so many choral differences out of those several hoses that were in earshot.”
When dry summer days force me to water our garden, I think a lot about Agee’s little hymn to the homely art of watering the yard. This is the kind of passage I’d include in a class about writing because it aptly illustrates what good prose should do — namely, seek out what’s transcendent in the seemingly ordinary.
For one of my summer reading projects this season, I’ve been dipping into some of the other things that Agee wrote. Agee did some of his best work during the Depression, when many writers had an especially hard time supporting themselves. He was lucky to get a well-paying job at Fortune, the business magazine founded by Henry Luce. The politically liberal Agee seemed an odd fit with the more conservative Luce, but Agee wasn’t the only liberal writer to benefit from Luce’s patronage.
The late John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the most well-known liberal economists of the 20th century, credited Luce’s shrewd editorial eye with teaching Galbraith the basics of writing a good sentence.
Like a number of talented writers, Agee was a handful. He drank too much, and his personal life was a mess. He eventually parted company with Luce, who had given Agee a national platform for some memorable journalism, including essays on cockfighting and the Tennessee Valley Authority. At Time, one of Luce’s other publications, Agee became a pioneering film reviewer.
The thought of the politically divergent Agee and Luce working together, if only for a few years, seems odd in these partisan times.
Why don’t we have more of that sort of thing?