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Authority and Authorship: James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a Work of Fictocriticism
Název práce v češtině: Autorita a autorství: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Jamese Ageeho jako dílo fiktokriticismu
Název v anglickém jazyce: Authority and Authorship: James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a Work of Fictocriticism
Klíčová slova: James Agee, fiktokriticismus, žánr, beletrie, autorství, žurnalistika, etnografie, Derrida, Vaihinger, Barthes, Foucault
Klíčová slova anglicky: James Agee, fictocriticism, genre, fiction, authorship, journalism, ethnography, Derrida, Vaihinger, Barthes, Foucault
Akademický rok vypsání: 2011/2012
Typ práce: diplomová práce
Jazyk práce: angličtina
Ústav: Ústav anglofonních literatur a kultur (21-UALK)
Vedoucí / školitel: Louis Armand, Ph.D.
Řešitel: skrytý - zadáno a potvrzeno stud. odd.
Datum přihlášení: 17.04.2012
Datum zadání: 18.04.2012
Schválení administrátorem: zatím neschvalováno
Datum potvrzení stud. oddělením: 30.04.2012
Datum a čas obhajoby: 10.09.2014 08:30
Datum odevzdání elektronické podoby:11.08.2014
Datum proběhlé obhajoby: 10.09.2014
Odevzdaná/finalizovaná: odevzdaná studentem a finalizovaná
Oponenti: Mgr. David Vichnar, Ph.D.
Zásady pro vypracování
In his foreword to the 1936 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the writer James Agee notes that the work reflects an effort “to recognize the stature of a portion of unimagined existence, and to contrive techniques proper to its recording, communication, analysis, and defense.”[1] What results is a scrapbook of sorts: a collection of writings—at turns poetic and lyrical, at others taking a cue from traditional journalism and ethnography—prefaced with a series of Walker Evans’ photographs, the sum of which amount to a sympathetic portrait of sharecroppers’ families in the 1930s American South. Ill-defined by genre, the book balances the tightrope between fiction and nonfiction; it is a work of reportage that reveals as much about its creators as its subjects. To read the book as a cohesive whole is to pin its disparate pieces together and to attribute or extract meaning out of its lyricism, or, instead, to disregard conventions of genre and narrative and allow the texts and images to blend into continuity with one another, as Agee notes, “with brief pauses only where they are self evident.”[2] Experienced with either technique, the work is a prime specimen of fictocriticism, the unique and elusive hybrid of forms and genres that straddles the boundary between factual and creative writing. As the term is slowly adopted in select academic circles—particularly in the fields of literary and cultural studies and in anthropology, with particular interest in the post-colonial countries of Australia and Canada—it may be applied retroactively to writings as disparate as the essays of Montaigne and the journals of Malinowski, from factual novels such as In Cold Blood or Agee’s A Death in the Family to Oscar Wilde’s “creative criticism” to the documentaries of Errol Morris, extending even beyond the page.[3] Yet despite the ambiguity of its boundaries, each definition of fictocriticism or substitution in term exhibits a prosody of divergent and, arguably, opposing forms: the first a feature of literary writing—fiction, abstraction, creativity—and the second of criticism—nonfiction, examination, critique. Indeed, like literature, criticism as a species resists definition and appears in a multitude of forms; amongst the analyses, critiques, commentaries, and investigations, a critical “I” (implicit or explicit) surfaces as the only commonality. Perhaps it goes without saying that the experience of reading a critical text is markedly different than that of encountering the content of the same text in a fictocritical form. Fictocriticism, however, simultaneously and often equally acknowledges the experience of the writer in the act of writing as well. Using Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a case study, the thesis will argue that as a form of writing—critical, academic, anthropologic, novelistic, poetic, and so on—fictocriticism engages and manipulates its literary quality in order to foreground the act of its experience.

With the support of various theoretical texts, the thesis will examine the roles of readerly and authorial experience honored by fictocritical writing. Agee’s preface to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and, of particular interest, his remarkable “preamble” themselves provide an invaluable introduction to the questions its unconventional form raises. Faced with the task of translating his fieldwork into a truthful account of human lives, the author confesses to considerable unease. The author notes in his that he solicited the book’s unique form in order to meet the demands of its subject. “If complications arise,” Agee writes, “that is because [the authors] are trying to deal with it not as journalists, sociologists, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists, but seriously.”[4] In a novel, notes Agee in the preamble, “a house or person has his meaning, his existence, entirely through the writer,” yet the persons portrayed in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men have “much huger” meaning. Still, the author notes with some dismay, “I can tell you only what I saw, only so accurately as in my terms I know how.”[5] Here Agee raises a concern echoed among the writers of ethnological texts. It is in examining the shortcomings of the author and the biases and limitations of his experience that I will address the use of fictocriticism in the field of anthropology; anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Clifford Geertz, and Michael Taussig provide theoretical support for the use of fictocriticism in ethnography, though certainly questions of representation, perspective, and the writer’s authority pervade the study of literary theory. Among other texts, the thesis will examine (to name only a few): the work of Walter Benjamin, particularly “The Storyteller”; the work of Roland Barthes, particularly “The Death of the Author,” as well as Michel Foucault’s response “What Is An Author?”; Theodor Adorno’s “The Essay as Form”; and the work of John Berger, particularly as it pertains to the photographs of Walker Evans. Taussig, Ann Deslandes, and Helen Favell have written secondary literature about fictocriticism by its name, and Geertz’s Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author is rich with insight into literature as well as ethnography.
In 1960, Evans attached his preface to the volume, a character study of Agee himself; Evans witnesses a deeply empathetic man “induced” by what he witnessed in Alabama into the writing of a text that reflected “one resolute, private rebellion.”[6] Of the book’s dramatis personae, Agee indeed plays the principle role (despite the author’s relegating himself far down on the list of his “People and Places”), though this, suggests Evans, reflects less an author’s egotism than a brutal commitment to his subject matter. While the book is on the one hand a collage of playful, good-humored writings, the work is certainly not an inconsequential game. On that list of “People and Places,” Agee labels himself “a spy, traveling as a journalist”; in either profession, we may presume Agee’s chief objective to be the sleuthing and collecting of truth. A reader ought not to regard the text as the flight of a writer’s fancy with the inspiration of fact but, rather, as the only form befitting the actuality of the 1936 expedition, of its mood and tone, of its ramifications, and of the writer’s inextricable experience of all of these. In a way, it is an exterior to match an interior. Agee notes that his book utilizes two instruments—the photograph and the written word—and a “governing instrument […] individual, anti-authoritative human consciousness”; indeed, he writes later, it is “with the whole of human consciousness” that one witnesses and discerns.[7] It is my aim that the thesis illuminates not only the justifications of the fictocritical form, but also the circumstances under which its use is imperative. In the case of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it is the inexorable presence of Agee’s great conscience and tender consciousness that cannot be stripped from his reportage.
[1] Agee, James and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1939 (London: Penguin Books, 2006) xviii.
[2] Ibid. xix.
[3] Helen Favell, “Writing-Between: Australian and Canadian Fictocriticism” (Diss. Murdoch University,
2004) 4.
[4] Agee xix.
[5] Ibid. 9.
[6] Ibid. xv.
[7] Ibid. xv, 9.
Seznam odborné literatury
Adorno, T.W., Bob Hullot-kentor, and Frederic Will. “The Essay as Form.” New German Critique 32.32 (2008): 151-171. Print.
Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. London: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.
Barthes, Roland. “Deliberation.” The Rustle of Language. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1986. 359-73. Print.
---. “The Death of the Author.” Image Music Text. Ed. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press, 1977. 142-48. Print.
---. “The Third Meaning.” Image Music Text. Ed. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana Press, 1977. 52-68. Print.
Berger, John. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. Web. 3 Apr. 2012.
---. Ways of Seeing. 1973. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin, 1977. Print.
Deslandes, Ann. “Fictocriticism as Social Movement.” The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 2.5 (2008): 243-248. Print.
Favell, Helen. “Writing-Between: Australian and Canadian Fictocriticism.” Diss. Murdoch University, 2004. Print.
Foucault, Michel. “The Thought of the Outside.” The Essential Foucault. Ed. Paul Rabinow & Nikolas Rose. New York: The New Press, 2003. 423-41. Print.
---. “What Is an Author?” The Essential Foucault. Ed. Paul Rabinow & Nikolas Rose. New York: The New Press, 2003. 377-91. Print.
Geertz, Clifford. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988. Print.
Gibbs, Anna. “Fictocriticism, Affect, Mimesis: Engendering Differences.” TEXT 5.1 (2005): n. pag. Print.
Taussig, Michael. “Techniques of the Body: What We Falsely Call Life.” What Color Is the Sacred? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. 184-193. Print.
---. “The Corn Wolf: Writing Apotropaic Texts.” Critical Inquiry 37.1 (2010): 26-33. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Richard Ellmann. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1969. Print.
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