Ahhhhh, James Agee, you are insightful. Just a reminder that what we aim to do as historians (or journalists, in Agee’s case) has weight, a sometimes scary weight. This is the first section of James Agee and Walker Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which started as an assignment from Fortune Magazine to investigate the lives of sharecroppers during the Depression and turned into a very long text on the meaning of research, as well as some reflections on the lives of tenant farmers.
“I spoke of this piece of work we were doing as ‘curious.’ I had better amplify this.
“It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for th epurpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of ‘honest journalism’ (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money and for a reputation for crusading and for unbias which, when skillfully enough qualified, is exchangeable at any bank for money (and in politics, for votes, job patronage, abelincolnism, etc.*; and that these people could be capable of meditating this prospect without the slightest doubt of their qualifications to do an ‘honest’ piece of work, and with a conscience better than clear, and in the virtual certitue of almost unanimous public approval. It seems curious, further, that the assignment of this work should have fallen to persons having so extremely different a form of respect for the subject, and responsibility toward it, that from the first and inevitably they counted their employers, and that Government likewise to which one of them was bonded, among their most dangerous enemies, acted as spies, guardians, and cheats,** and trusted no judgment, however authoritative it claimed to be, save their own, which in many aspects of the task before them was untrained and uninformed. It seems further cuious that realizing the extreme corruptness and difficulty of the circumstances, and the unlikelihood of achieving in any untainted form what they wished to achieve, they accepted the work in th efirst place. And it seems curious still further that, with all their suspicion of and contempt for every person and thing to do with the situation, save only for the tenants and for themselves, and their own intentions, and with all their realization of the seriousness and mystery of the subject, and of the human responsibility they undertook, they so little questioned or doubted their own qualifications for this work.
“All of this, I repeat, seems to me curious, obscene, terrifying, and unfathomably mysterious.”
** Une chose permise ne peut pas etre pure.
L’illegal me va.
Do you ever feel any of these things about your work?
Picture by David Terry, from here. [sorry for the lack of proper accents in the footnote. I’m not sure how to put them in on blogger]