Numéro Cinq is fighting a guerrilla war against a culture that is determined to forget the beauty, grace and precision of well-written words. In this essay, Anna Maria Johnson goes to the barricades with a lovely meditation on a tiny point—James Agee’s unconventional use of colons in his great book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. A small, small point, but the inspiration is prodigious for beauty of prose (and poetry) begins with attention to small details of correct (or eccentrically creative) technique.
James Agee’s Unconventional Colons in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
By Anna Maria Johnson
Ernest Hemingway, in a letter to Horace Liveright dated May 22, 1925, advised, “My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible . . . You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.” James Agee, unlike Ernest Hemingway, apparently had no compunction against experimenting with punctuation. Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men makes both conventional and experimental use of the colon, which appears a grand total of 1,530 times in 424 pages, for an average of ~3.608 colons per page.
Agee’s text is most heavily colon-saturated throughout the more experimental portions of the book (those passages most descriptive, lyrical, and expressive), while his more reportage-styled passages (those with direct quotations, facts and figures, literal information, and directly conveyed scenes) use few colons.
Agee’s Use of Colons
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the colon draws attention to itself most when it appears at the end of paragraphs, and when it is used rhetorical purposes rather than according to syntactical sense. Agee was surely aware of his significant reliance on the colon, even titling one section of the book, “Colon,” as if the whole section were a thoughtful pause or breath, like the Bible’s use of “Selah” in the Psalms. Agee consistently controls the colon use, using it to different effect in different passages of his book, according to the tone and sense he wishes to convey.
Why did Agee choose to employ the colon so prodigiously in this book, and toward what ends? Let’s explore some of the ways, both conventional and experimental, in which he used the colon, and examine why he may have chosen to do so.
Agee often uses the colon in conventionally acceptable ways. For example, shortly after the Preface, Agee uses the colon conventionally when he lists the “Persons and Places” of the book as if they are a cast of characters for a play (“FRED GARVRIN RICKETTS: a two-mule tenant farmer, aged fifty-four”). In the Table of Contents, colons separate section titles from their subtitles, as in “Part One: A Country Letter” (Agee 2). He also, in the expected way, places a colon before a list, as when he writes in his Preface of the project’s components, “The immediate instruments are two: the motionless camera, and the printed word” (Agee x). Of course, it is allowable to place a colon before a direct quotation, as Agee does on page 13, “By my memory, he [Beethoven] said: ‘He who understands my music can never know unhappiness again.’ I believe it.” These are inarguably appropriate and conventional instances of colon usage.
So far, so good.
Agee also uses colons to create a sense of buildup in his text. According to Anne Stillman’s Gramatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to Punctuation, Spelling, Style, Usage and Grammar, “the colon acts as a signal of anticipation, drawing the reader’s attention to what comes after it,” and “conveys the signal that the text preceding it has just raised an implicit question to which the remainder of the sentence is about to provide a response” (Stillman 97). Stillman advocates using a colon “when the first part of a sentence is an introduction, a lead-in, or a buildup to what follows.” This technique is one Agee employs as often as possible until it breaks the bounds of what most readers allow possible in prose, as in the following lyrical passage describing the sky:
. . . the sky:
The sky was 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” (Agee 19).
While Agee follows the spirit of grammatically correct colon usage, he takes an atypical approach, ending one paragraph with a colon, then elaborating and personifying the sky in the next paragraph: a paragraph that holds a single sentence containing two colons and a semi-colon. This technique creates a sense of poetry, appropriate for a sentence that personifies the sky as a “woman.” The poetic use of colons signal to the reader that we are not to take this sentence as if it were journalism, as other sections of the book are intended to be.
Stillman’s grammar guide cautions that one should not put a colon “after a sentence fragment—a phrase or dependent clause—that would dangle awkwardly on its own” (98). This is a rule Agee already breaks on page 6, preceding a colon with a series of clauses that don’t add up to a complete sentence or thought in themselves, “So does the whole course, in all its detail, of the effort of these persons to find, and to defend, what they sought: and the nature of their relationship with those with whom during the searching stages they came into contact . . .”
I argue that the reason Agee frequently ignores syntactical rules is to add even more emphasis, to build question upon question, and to illustrate his point that “the present volume is merely portent and fragment, experiment, dissonant prologue” (Agee xi) to the more comprehensive work he wished to create. For example, consider the opening of a section titled “Colon”:
But there must be an end to this: a sharp end and a clean silence: a steep and most serious withdrawal: a new and more succinct beginning:
Herein I must screen off all mysteries of our comminglings—and must here set in such regard as I can the sorry and brutal infuriate yet beautiful structures of the living which is upon each of you daily: and this in the cleanest terms I can learn to specify: must mediate, must attempt to record, your warm weird human lives each in relation to its world
Nor may this be lightly undertaken: not lightly, not easily by any means: nor by any hope ‘successfully’:
The section begins correctly with a complete statement that is followed by a colon and a phrase that refines and enhances that initial statement. But that refining phrase is succeeded by another colon and a further refining phrase, which in turn is succeeded by third colon and a further refining phrase, and so on, for two pages. In all, the eleven pages of “Colon” contain an astounding 113 colons, each indicating another phrase of further nuance that will refine the thought begun in the previous clause. Each new clause implies further questions whose answers yield yet more implicit questions, driving the reader to continue the thought into ever more carefully detailed territory, “in order that, when we descend among its windings and blockades, into examinations of slender particulars, this its wholeness and simultaneous living map may not be neglected, however lost the breadth of the country may be in the winding walk of each sentence” (Agee 98).
As if this were not enough, Agee pushes the colon even further beyond what is commonly accepted in modern usage, employing it for rhetorical purposes—that is, to indicate where pauses would be if the text were read aloud—without regard for syntax or sense. In this practice, Agee is not so much avant-garde as archaic. The earliest punctuation was used to aid in prepared speeches, indicating the places in which the speaker should pause. A comma represented a one-beat pause; a semi-colon, a two-beat pause; a colon, twice that of a semi-colon; while a period indicated a pause double that of a colon. In 1839, the author The Difficulties of English Grammar and Punctuation Removed: For Beginners and Unsuccessful Learners, remarked, “We have been lately favored, by Bagster, with a fac-simile of the original translation of the New Testament by Tyndale, published in 1526, which abounds with colons. This is the work which has paved the way for all future writers on the history of punctuation” (Davidson 200). Agee appears to follow the old usage pattern when quoting scriptural passages, such as the Lord’s prayer on page 387:
Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name: thy kingdom come: they will be done on earth as it is in heaven: give us this day our daily bread: and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation: but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom: and the power: and the glory: forever and ever: amen.
Here the colons occur at the places in which a congregation, reciting together, would typically pause. Agee, to his credit, grants the reader a plausible explanation for marking rhetorical pauses right in his Preface:
The text was written with reading aloud in mind. That cannot be recommended; but it is suggested that the reader attend with his ear to what he takes off the page: for variations of tone, pace, shape, and dynamics are here particularly unavailable to the eye alone, and with their loss, a good deal of meaning escapes” (Agee xi).
Note that Agee slyly inserts a colon in the above quoted passage, as if subtly signaling to the reader that colons will be one such device to indicate said variations in tone, pace, et cetera. Agee employs colons as poetic device in a way that is similar to Emily Dickinson’s use of dashes.
But Agee also employs colons, most unusually, at paragraph ends, for which I can find neither precedent nor explanation in grammar guides, modern or ancient. At this point, I can only theorize: Agee is a poet. He sees commonplace architecture and clothing as if they were poetry, and therefore describes the details of such things with poetic license, or even—may I say?—poetic licentiousness.
. . . wood long fondled in a tender sea:
Upon these structures, light:
It stands just sufficiently short of vertical that every leaf of shingle, at its edges, and every edge of horizontal plank (blocked, at each center, with squared verticals) is a most black and cutting ink: and every surface struck by light is thus: such an intensity and splendor of silver in the silver light, it seems to burn, and burns and blinds into the eyes almost as snow; yet in none of that burnishment or blazing whereby detail is lost: each texture in the wood, like those of bone, is distinct in the eye as a razor: each nail-head is distinct: each seam and split; and each slight warping; each random knot and knothole: and in each board, as lovely a music as a contour map and unique as a thumbprint, its grain, which was its living strength, and these wild creeks cut stiff across by saws; and moving nearer, the close-laid arcs and shadows even of those tearing wheels: and this, more poor and plain than bone, more naked and noble than sternest Doric, more rich and more variant than watered silk, is the fabric and the stature of a house.
Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, demonstrates in his most direct passages of writing that he understands conventional colon use, but he also, in his most lyrical and experimental passages, pushes the colon, as an elegant poetic and rhetorical device, about as far as it can go before the meaning of sentences begin to break down. I think Agee proves that, in the words of Hemingway, he can “do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools,” and beyond that, he gives himself “license to bring in his own improvements.” And now, let us praise the famous colon.
Agee, James and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1941.
Davidson, J. Best. The Difficulties of English Grammar and Punctuation Removed: for Beginners and Unsuccessful Learners. London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., Stationers’ Hall Court, 1839.
Stillman, Anne. Gramatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to Punctuation, Spelling, Style, Usage and Grammar. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1997.