Maggie came up with this great little contest about finding a “sense of place” in Southern reading. If I had my qualms, I would have found something that spoke of the mountains of North Carolina, but I couldn’t find anything as perfect as this passage from James Agee and Walker Evan‘s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
The house and all that was in it had now descended deep beneath the gradual spiral it had sunk through; it lay formal under the order of entire silence. In the square pine room at the back the bodies of the man of thirty and of his wife and of their children lay on shallow mattresses on their iron beds and on the rigid floor, and they were sleeping, and the dog lay asleep in the hallway. Most human beings, most animals and birds who live in the sheltering ring of human influence, and a great portion of all the branched tribes of living in earth and air and water upon a half of the world, were stunned with sleep. That region of the earth on which we were at this time transient was some hours fallen beneath the fascination of the stone, steady shadow of the planet, and lay now listing toward the last depth; and now by a blockade of the sun were clearly disclosed those discharges of light which teach us what little we can learn of the stars and of the true nature of our surroundings. there was no longer any sound of the settling or ticking of any part of the structure of the house; the bone pine hung on its nail like an abandoned Christ. There was no longer any sound of the sinking and settling, like gently foundering, fatal boats, of the bodies and brains of this human family through the late stages of fatigue unharnessed or the early phases of sleep; nor was there any longer the sense of any of these sounds, nor was there, even, the sound or the sense of breathing. Bone and bone, blood and blood, life and life disjointed and abandoned they lay graven in so final depth, that dreams attend them seemed not plausible. Fish halted on the middle and serene of blind sea water sleeping lidless lensed; their breathing, their sleeping subsistence, the effortless nursing of ignorant plants, entirely silenced, sleepers, delicate planets, insects, cherished in amber, mured in night, autumn of action, sorrow’s short winter, water hole where gather the weak wild beats; night; night: sleep; sleep.
In their prodigious realm, their field, bashfully at first, less timorous, later, rashly, all calmly boldly now, like the tingling and standing up of plants, leaves, planted crops out of the earth into the yearly approach of the sun, the noise and natures of the dark had with the ceremonial gestures of music and of erosion lifted forth the thousand several forms of their entrancement, and had so resonantly taken over the world that this domestic, this human silence obtained, prevailed, only locally, shallowly, and with the childlike and frugal dignity of the coal-oil lamp stood out on a wide night meadow and of a star sustained, unraveling in one river sigh its irremediable vitality, on the alien size of space.
Where beneath the ghosts of millennial rain the clay land lay down in creek and the trees ran thick there disposed upon the sky the cloud and black shadow of nature, hostile encampment whose fires were drenched, drawn close, held sleeping, near, helots; and it was feasible that within a few hours now, at the signaling of the primary changes of the air, the wave which summer and darkness had already so heavily overcrested that it leaned above us, snaring its snake-tongued branches, birnam wood, casually would lounge in and suddenly and forever subdue us: at most, some obscure act of guerrilla warfare, some prowler, detached from his regiment, picked off in the back country orchard, some straggling camp whore taken, had; for the sky:
The sky withdrawn from us with all her strength. Against some scarcely conceivable imprisoning wall this woman held herself away from us and watched us: wide, high, light with her stars as milk above our heavy dark; and like the bristling and glass breakage on the mouth of stone spring water: broached on grand heaven their metal fires.
And now as by the slipping of a button, the snapping and failures on air of a spider’s cable, there broke loose from the room, shaken, a long sigh closed in silence. On some ledge overleaning that gulf which is more profound than the remembrance of imagination they had lain in sleep and at length the sand, that by degrees had crumpled and rifted, had broken from beneath them and they sank. There was no now further extreme, and they were sunken not singularly but companionate among the whole enchanted swarm of the living, into a region prior to the youngest quaverings of creation.
(We lay on the front porch:
That was a long passage, I know, but isn’t the language amazing? I couldn’t stop myself. His description of a soundless night, a soundless night in the home of a Southern family that has TOILED all day – so perfect.
Agee here is writing from his spirit, writing the true stuff. It’s gorgeous. And that last line – a porch, a location for the speaker – so much is so few words.
by Tom Olliver
I encourage any and all of you to take this challenge. I’d love to hear from some of you who know places that might be new to me – which would be anywhere out of the U.S. except for Britain and Canada.