James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

 The land that was under us lay down all around us and its continuance was enormous as if we were chips or matches floated, holding their own by their very minuteness, at a great distance out upon the surface of a tenderly laboring sea. The sky was even larger.

Getting lost amid the sentences of this book goes down as one of the best reading experiences of my life. It’s a flawed book, for sure, but flawed in the best way. Agee changed journalism and nonfiction forever by trying–through minutiae, through lyrical prose, through ethical inquiry–to capture the experience of sharecroppers in the ’30s from just about every possible angle. The book is filled with voluminous detail and jaw-dropping writing. He embedded himself as deeply as he could while acknowledging that he was changing what he saw just by being there. And that’s not to say anything of Walker Evan’s iconic photos.

But back to the sentences, for there are two here, one longish, one short, the two playing off each other. Here Agee gives us the feeling of the land first with that beautiful, sweeping image of two people as matches floating on a “tenderly laboring sea.” Many teachers of writing will tell you to cut your adverbs, and they’re right, but, come on, “tenderly laboring sea” is pretty freaking great. And it’s that second sentence that cinches it, in a mere five words it gives us the sky. That second sentence seems almost like it shouldn’t make grammatical sense (larger than what?), but it does, and it makes the sky even bigger than the land, which we’ve just seen is an enormous sea.

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