PJAS 13-10

Joseph Kuhn
Bataille in the South: James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Erskine Caldwell’s Depression Fiction
Polish Journal for American Studies, vol. 13 (Autumn 2019), pp. 295-307

Abstract: This article tries to show how James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and Erskine Caldwell in his fiction from the Depression years–especially the little-known novella, The Sacrilege of Alan Kent (1930)–used a discourse of the sacred to represent the strange otherness of the Depression South. They particularly drew on the “left hand sacred” (of taboo, repulsiveness and sacrifice) as distinct from the “right hand sacred” found in institutional religion. The article argues that a theoretical understanding of Agee and Caldwell’s use of the sacred may be provided by Georges Bataille. It seems particularly appropriate to invoke Bataille since he was concerned with the political elements of the sacred and sought to mobilize these elements during the 1930s when liberal democracy was thought by many leftist writers on both sides of the Atlantic to have failed. Bataille provides a productive analogue to the two southerners, who shared this perception of liberal democracy, because he tried to articulate a radical path in this decade that was not Marxist. Agee and Caldwell, although notionally Communist, were dissatisfied with Marxism because they saw it as another version of a utilitarian or restricted economy. They looked instead to the sacred as a discourse of transgression–a discourse that was rooted in what Bataille called a general economy or the deeper organization of collective life around ecology and the gift.

Keywords: the sacred, transgression, heterology, southern agriculture in literature, the Depression.

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