Let Us Beware Privileged Men
I was surprised to read in your publication that the author James Rufus Agee had a "privileged class background" and made his living as a writer primarily through his "connections" ["Praising James Agee" April 18, 2001]. Neither of the two James Agee biographies that I have read (Genevieve Moreau, The Restless Journey of James Agee. New York: William Morrow, 1977, or Laurence Bergreen, James Agee: A Life. New York: Penguin, 1984) support this breathtaking assertion. Incidentally, neither does John Hersey's introduction to the 1988 edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, contrary to the reviewer's contention. Maybe the fact that Agee went to Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard threw Ms. Pramaggiore off the track. I have a friend who was the son of a Maine lobsterman and didn't have a pot to pee in during his growing-up years. He also went to Exeter Academy and completed his education at Princeton. My friend is extremely smart and very personable; much like Agee. The details of how James Agee was able to attend these two august institutions are too quirky and involved to outline in this letter. I would recommend either of the aforementioned biographies to anyone interested in this subject as well as other interesting facts of his rather dismal childhood and extraordinary life.
What seems to bother your reviewer is that the folks who run the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance forgot to inform us unsuspecting theater-goers of Agee's "socially privileged status" and "connections" before we watched their innovative and very moving performance of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Perhaps there should be a cautionary note somewhere in the playbill. How about, "beware of privileged, well-connected folks feigning compassion and/or empathy for poor, downtrodden folks?" Thank goodness this "oversight" turns out to be a supremely moot point. James Agee was about as well connected as most of us are. That is, by dint of his creative intellect; through his commitment to hard work; through his willingness to ask established writers (e.g., Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ezra Pound and Dwight Macdonald) for feedback and advice; through the timely kindness of mentors and strangers; and through a smattering of blind luck.
Speaking only for myself, I appreciate it when theater reviewers are content to focus their attention on the performance-at-hand and resist the temptation to commit factually flawed and misguided sociology.
--LYNN PAUL ELWELL, DURHAM