Stephen Orr navigates the delicate parallels between the life and creativity of James Agee and that of Barbara Hanrahan.
Somewhere, there’s a record, a mention, an image of everyone who’s ever lived in Adelaide. Sometimes hidden in an old shoe box, sometimes painted in oil. We all leave a stain: buried between prison walls, a Trenerry view of the southern vales. Sometimes, apart from the small, domestic reminders, it’s good to have an agreed version of what life was like at a certain time and place. Not so much a Do You Remember spread in the local wrap, or the gummy, North Terrace plaques of those who gave their names to terribly nice suburbs. More, the old man who walks to the shops in his tie and jacket. The buskers, the longdead refrigeration mechanics floating around Islington, the bear baiters and the children who, even now, stand trapped on Henley Beach in a fog of Daguerre’s mercury vapour. As the American writer, James Agee, said of his family in his poetic reminiscence of childhood, Knoxville: Summer, 1915: “By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.” We turn to writers to understand who we were, and are. Agee penned these words in 1935, and they were published three years later. Ten years after that, they were set to music by Samuel Barber. One of the most beautiful compositions cast in ink, reed and cat gut. Barber wanted to intensify Agee’s memories (set down in a 90-minute session as a stream-of-consciousness exercise). Both men wanted to “tell the sorrow” of being six years old, and sitting happily with your family, on grass, through a hot, endless summer. And what’s changed in the hundred years since? Nothing. Agee still sits with his mother (“who is good to me”) and father (“who is good to me”). He says, “May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away”. Agee sits on a porch in Salisbury Heights, or up a tree, in Tennyson. But the hundred years means nothing. Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1909. An American Adelaide, with its mediumrise buildings, scared of offending the sky. A Southern gentility, although not Savannah genteel. Agee’s father died in a car accident in 1916, and this left the child’s last gasp of innocence (the poem is a dream, beginning at dusk) lodged in his memory forever. As Dylan Thomas said, “After the first death, there is no other.” As this is, in a way, the refusal to mourn the death of childhood. Agee became a screenwriter (The African Queen, Night of the Hunter) and critic, but is best known today for his book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), an exploration of the lives of sharecropping families in the South during the Dustbowl. Tragically, he died aged 45 in a New York City cab on the way to the dentist. At the time, he was finishing his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family (1957), about (not surprisingly) how a young boy copes with the early death of his father. Later, the book would have his long poem, Knoxville: Summer, 1915, added as a sort of contextual introduction. And, years later, it all happened again. Rose Street, Thebarton, another shy, creative child brought up by a mother, grandmother and great-aunt, who were all good to her. She roamed these streets, exploring, soaking in the sounds, sights and smells that would later inform her own descriptions of place. In her first book, The Scent of Eucalyptus, Barbara Hanrahan, like Agee, let her words form music. The grandmother, with a “sour handkerchief up her sleeve”. The, of course, because these people, like Agee’s, were all of our mothers and fathers and grandmothers and aunts. We were, and maybe, still are, one family gathered on the grass on a quilt. Similarly, Hanrahan was fuelled by a death in the family. “One evening in winter, riding his bicycle to work for the night shift, my father got wet in the rain.” Twenty-six year-old Bob Hanrahan developed a cold, influenza, tuberculosis. Improved. Sat up reading the race results in his hospital bed, and the next day, died. As with Agee, Hanrahan kept searching for her father. In 1985 she explained that he “stalks through my mind, I feel I’m speaking to him…” Her mother had a nervous breakdown. “She sat in the sun in a canework chair; her feet on the red-brick path, her eyes raw from crying.” Hanrahan walked to school under Rose Street’s jacarandas, their lilac scuff settling in the gutters beside West End pull-tops. A tea-set painted with ox-eye daisies, as she grew, like Agee, “successfully disguised to myself as a child”. Knoxville, with its “blue dew” and “coiled hoses”. Adelaide, with its plane trees and coiled hoses. Agee’s people “sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street” as “people go by… talking of nothing in particular… of nothing at all.” Life’s sagging lattice always had a few odd angles. In Agee’s home, “One is an artist, he is living at home… One is a musician, she is living at home”. While Hanrahan’s great-aunt cannot read, write or count. “People stare at her in the street – she is real and reality is too strong for their slumbering, narcotized lives. She is a mongol.” Not said apologetically, but as a statement of fact. Can we reach a consensus? Can we talk of a shared memory worth keeping, preserving, setting to music? As a child I had my own kikuyu moment, sitting with the Hardy Boys on the Onkaparinga, avoiding our hot fibro house. Like the hose, “low in the length of lawns”, avoiding the “dry and exalted noise of the locusts” (we were told they were crickets, but who ever saw a cricket?). My people, like Agee’s, were on the porch, their “ancient faces” hanging from “morning glories”. In the end, we choose to remember the essence, not the substance. That’s why a million Instagrams and Facebook posts are doomed, but why simple phrases (“We’re happy little Vegemites, as bright as bright can be”) persist. A couple of drops on a windscreen, their likeness caught by Talbot’s sensitive paper. The age of respectable narcissism will continue wafting, like the stalest of farts, through our living rooms. PixiFoto will flourish, but in the end, time will get the last laugh. Maybe Agee’s “sorrow” didn’t have anything to do with quilts, or grass, or “a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs…” Maybe the sorrow was the child’s dawning realisation that these things were finite, and would soon be gone. Agee’s mother would remarry when he was 15 – a sure sign his father would never return. Soon he would be at Harvard, New York. For Hanrahan, too, the sun would drop into the ocean, the rug would be gathered, and her people would head in. Then, “My mother tells me she is to marry the man with the moustache and the RSL badge who is her friend.” Agee asks God to bless his family, who “quietly treat me as one familiar and well-beloved in that home…” Eternally grateful that they will not “ever tell me who I am”. Stephen Orr’s next novel is The Hands stephenorr.weebly.com