Illustration: Johnny Harris
James Agee on Twitter
Foreword by Walker Evans
LET US FIRST PICTURE the man before we consider his simulacrum. Agee was then 31, sober occasionally but purely by accident, and living under a rooftop yurt in Greenwich Village because, as he later wrote, “ceilings [had been] propagated by Andrew Carnegie as an apparatus to suppress upward mobility among the penniless while charging them for the privilege.” Know, too, that Agee was unfailingly courteous to his confused neighbors, with a graciousness he extended toward all save accidental racists, the police, and anyone who unfollowed him. Despite his acidic journal entries on the subject of Twitter, Agee considered his followers to be sacred, quite possibly immortal souls, on whose Klout scores their whole future might stand or fall.
The editors at Fortune, and Henry Luce himself, whose fortune paid Agee's salary, were not so lucky. As for the calumnies that James has leveled at me in these selected tweets, I can only smile, peer into the distance, and say that he started it.
Agee’s tweets achieved a curious brightness at night, his favorite time for tweeting or for dictating to Brad — an intern on loan from the New School, whom Agee treated with his characteristic distrust of reflexive bohemians, but eventually warmed to once Brad introduced the author to hashtags. This convention first made Agee flinch, but he soon learned to imbue it with a lyricism all his own. #SharpenAndCalibrate, #OrsonWellesThatEndsWelles, and #TwerksAndDays have become such commonplaces that no further comment is here required.
It may seem odd to readers of the tomic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men — and especially to the editors at Fortune — that a writer known for prose-poetry managed to wring such musical effects out of 12-character gimmicks. To Agee, of course, they were never mere gimmicks, but rather an opportunity for catechismic brevity, for evoking a limitless truth in 140 characters or less. Certainly no practitioner of the art of Twitter has matched him on this score. Unlike so many young men whose vocabulary exceeded their powers of moral apprehension, Agee maintained a rigid discipline in his hashtags. Many an e-correspondent would doze off at her laptop and wake to find a near-Byzantine mosaic of tweets based around such lapidary offerings as #CocteauParty, #LuceChange, #JungAtHeart, #FertilizerIHardlyKnowHer, or #HipsterFlaubert.
What Agee’s efforts on Twitter cost him, in personal and spiritual terms, we may never know. Certainly the numerous parody accounts hurt him in ways he would never acknowledge, even in private messages with his friends. His efforts in this medium were dogged, rarely re-tweeted, frequently inscrutable, and never monetizable.
As his closest LinkedIn connections will attest, Agee would not have had it any other way.
— Walker Evans
Selected Tweets of James Agee
Is this a direct message, an indirect message, or merely a somewhat oblique message? Still getting the hang of this thing.
Sent March 8 1936 via Twitter
All of this is curious, obscene, and terrifying. Please do not RT.
Sent March 19 1936 via Twitter
Society that stripps its weakest of health & spirit is not worthy of the name. #FuckLuce
Sent March 20 1936 via Twitter
Should not tweet after more than 12 whiskeys. Pardon my weakness — apologies, @HenryLuce, you filthy oligarch. #OKstilldrunk
Sent March 21 1936 via Twitter
Spent the morning listening to Beethoven’s 7th full volume ear pressed to floor. Dust, roaches now in ears. No complaints. #LudwigEarwig
Sent April 3 1936 via Twitter
Computer says 1,865 souls now following me. A bitter, ugly number, which still does not include @SigFreud #showmeluv
Sent April 14 1936 via Twitter
Christians of America — you have managed to make a dirty gentile of Jesus Christ. Joke’s on you — @MarkTwainOfficial has been me all along.
Sent April 24 1936 via Twitter
Leaving for Hale County. Walker forgot his shoes but does not seem to appreciate the irony. #FrailtyOFrailty
Sent June 1 1936 via Twitter
The house and all that was in it had now descended deep beneath the gradual spiral. Looks like we need to repair the foundation.
Sent June 7 1936 via Twitter
@WalkerEPhotog Set somewhat aside the dialects and the stained skins of feigned madness. But just *somewhat*. #SharpenAndCalibrate
Sent July 14 1936 via Twitter
@WalkerEPhotog All over Alabama the lamps are out. Please bring candles. #GentlyFoundering
Sent July 17 1936 via Twitter
I am speaking of the verbal part of this book as a whole, but also the adverbial part, the parenthetical part, and especially the portmanteau part.
Sent July 22 1936 via Twitter
You who read this, consider the illiteracy and untold soul-damage of the Woods family, and please #FF Tom (@TomWuzHere)
Sent July 25 1936 via Twitter
George has lost his birthright and that boyhood among cedars & clean creeks where no fever laid its touch. Seems like a pretty careless guy.
Sent July 27 1936 via Twitter
These tweets should not be words, but rather bits of cotton, lumps of earth, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Pls RT.
Sent July 21 1936 via Twitter
Re: my last, pls visit this Pinterest page: http://bit.ly/1lHTQ54 #DIY #odors
Sent July 21 1936 via Twitter
[::: account temporarily suspended by Fortune Magazine after Agee took this last Tweet somewhat too literally :::]
@GCudger Is the mule still alive? Please send word. Also, do apologize on my behalf to your daughter. #WalkerStartedIt
Sent Jan. 21 1941 via Twitter
Finally saw Journey Into Fear. 14k wds could not compass my thoughts on Welles here. #JosephCottenTenants
Sent Feb. 10 1943 via Twitter
Walker just came by. I asked him to sleep with my wife but he said he wasn't tired. #GreatPhotogLousyFriend
Sent Aug. 19 1944 via TweetDeck for Mac
@LaurenceOlivier Admired your model of Shakespeare’s Globe but where were the groundlings? #BuryingTheLede
Sent Oct. 23 1944 via Twitter
How to attend to suffering and misery? More important, how to attend three film screenings on a day my wife insists is our anniversary?
Never sent; saved as draft
This bottle gets emptier, and so do I. This Monroe lady is going places. #ProbablyNiagara
Sent Jan. 18 1953 from HootSuite for Drinkers
Disembodied in remembrance, or embodied in forgetfulness — hard to tell. Think I’ll call the novel Sorry Kid, Daddy’s Not Coming Back.
Sent April 11 1955 from DespairBot for Linux
Ted Scheinman is a writer based in North Carolina, where he is finishing a Ph.D. in 18th-century British literature.