Fact and Truth

the ethics of representation from James Agee to John D’Agata

by by Emma Whitford

illustration by by Olivia Fialkow

In the wake of the February publication of his book The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata has been arguing that truth and fact are not synonymous. Lifespan, itself an embellished account of conversations between D’Agata and Jim Fingal, his fact-checker at the Believer, details the task of sifting through (and in D’Agata’s case, defending) factual inaccuracies in a piece about a teenage boy who committed suicide in Las Vegas. Harper’s had rejected the piece in 2003. The Believer ran a version in 2010 under the title “What Happens There,” in which some factual errors had been amended, but not all. The suicide actually happened, but many details in D’Agata’s account are fictitious.

In his writing, D’Agata positions himself as an observer and interpreter of his subjects, rather than a traditional journalist. In a transcription from Lifespan excerpted in the February Harper’s, Fingal accuses D’Agata of combining disparate events into a single descriptive moment. D’Agata replies, “What most readers will care about, I think, is the meaning that’s suggested in the confluence of these events—no matter how far apart they occurred. The facts that are being employed aren’t meant to function baldly as ‘facts.’” He sees fundamental meaning in the feelings evoked by a particular description.

The backlash against D’Agata has been considerable. Peter Canby, head of the New Yorker’s fact checking department, told the Daily Beast in March, “I think facts are just much more interesting than the inside of a writer’s head. What I think is interesting is the interaction of someone’s imagination and prejudices with the world around them.” Canby’s criterion for nonfiction writing is that the author must exercise his creativity on a foundation of facts and quotes that he dutifully incorporates into a piece. The author contends with the facts, and is forced to make commentary.

As a critique of writerly ego, Canby’s commentary might just as easily have been directed at Fortune magazine journalist James Agee. In setting out to write an article for Fortune on his experiences living with sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama in 1936, Agee ended up producing the epic, genre-defying 400-page artistic rumination Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee’s overwhelming preoccupation with the difficulty of his project—“this is a book only by necessity,” he wrote,“More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality”—results in a piece in which he is more invested in parsing out the challenge he has set for himself than in framing the voices of his subjects. Ironically, Agee’s ruminations on the challenge of fair representation precede, and distract from, the descriptions of his subjects.

By publically acknowledging his investment in stretching the truth, D’Agata has set parameters for his writing. In Lifespan, he warns his readers that his personal musings play a crucial role in the retelling. In Famous Men, Agee sets up a more ambiguous project. The length of Agee’s account, the intermingling of musings, descriptive information, and encounters, adds up to a muddy message primarily about his artistic angst.

In both D’Agata’s and Agee’s writing, form and content reveal how the writer positions himself in relation to his subjects. For these writers, human subjects are incorporated into a grand scheme—whether it is to convey a truth independent of facts or to use human subjects to pick at the difficulty of representing reality. In journalism, fact reigns supreme. D’Agata and Agee do not produce journalistic work. Instead, they observe and reflect. Neither writer deems himself particularly beholden to the voices of his subjects.


D’Agata incorporated the Las Vegas piece into his 2010 book About a Mountain. He saw a connection between the difficulty of conveying suicide and the difficulty of comprehending the implications of the nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain. In this book, not only does he twist facts, but he also draws attention to the way human beings tend to twist them in the face of extreme circumstances. Both tactics contribute to his argument that facts are ultimately futile gestures towards truth. D’Agata justified the connection between coming to terms with suicide and nuclear waste for the Daily Beast on February 21: “Given these subjects it was not just okay but necessary to start taking liberties. I felt the subjects themselves were betraying some sort of unverifiability.” The subjects share an incomprehensibility that makes a fact-based account disappointing—it inevitably falls short.

Rather than simply report on the economic and social conditions faced by sharecroppers in Hale County, Agee became preoccupied with the impossibility of conveying reality on paper. With no consideration of word count, Agee grappled with human subjects and an environment that he deemed hopelessly complex. For example, he tackles the inscrutability of his subjects via George Gudger, one of the sharecroppers who invited the writer and photographer into his home: “George Gudger is a man, et cetera. But obviously, in the effort to tell of him…as truthfully as I can, I am limited.” Agee is confident that he can “get a certain form of the truth about him,” the man “in his actual flesh and life,” but asserts his belief that “it will only be relative truth.”


It is not always easy to recognize what is problematic in D’Agata’s or Agee’s writing.  D’Agata acknowledges his fictions in Lifespan, but not in his essays, which read like nonfiction accounts. For his part, Agee collected private information to flush out his vivid descriptions of sharecroppers. He presents this data in Famous Men, but deemphasizes the shady means by which he acquired it. His subjects are implicitly subordinated to a grander scheme.

Agee offers deeply personal information about the Gudger family. “In the table drawer, in this order: A delicate insect odor of pine, closed sweat cloth, and mildew. One swooning-long festal baby’s dress of the most frail muslin, embroidered with three bands of small white cotton-thread flowers.” A fact-checker would have had a hard time tackling this passage.

For Agee, the contents of the Gudger’s drawer contribute to an accurate portrayal of life. He does not deny that he has acted without permission. In fact, he admits, “No one is at home…. It is a long while before their return. I shall move as they would trust me not to, and as I could not, were they here.” However, this admission is an afterthought in the context of many lengthy passages that are dedicated to detailed descriptions of private spaces and possessions. Agee does not criticize his own actions. It’s almost as if his statement of purpose has absolved him of any guilt.


My father, David Whitford, is also a journalist for Fortune magazine. In 2005 he spent two weeks in Greensboro, Alabama, interviewing the surviving relatives of sharecroppers who hosted Agee and Evans. “The Greatest Story We Never Told,” my dad’s follow-up piece, accomplishes a specific task: it enforces Fortune’s connection to an American literary masterpiece. It implements standard reporting methods in order to showcase the voices of some of the individuals who were affected by the publication of Agee’s highly stylized account. Whitford achieved what Agee was assigned to do, but sacrificed for his grander scheme.

My dad’s descriptions bear traces of utility that Agee would have scoffed at. In describing a descendant of one of Agee’s subject families:

“I swore I would never do what I’m doing right now,” says Charles Burroughs. Tall and broad with a bald pate and those familiar gray eyes. Blue shirt, khaki pants, aviator glasses. Thick, flat fingers, grit under the nails. He has come reluctantly to meet me after work at a Waffle House in Tuscaloosa.
This is undeniably a carefully crafted scene. Burroughs’s quote sets high stakes, since he admits to accepting the interview against his own better judgment. The description of his appearance, situated in a Waffle House, provides the reader with an easy-to-visualize conversation between journalist and subject.

Agee’s tendency to bury descriptive information under a more grandiose statement of purpose discourages a readership primarily interested in sharecropping conditions. Whereas my dad cuts to the chase: his readers need only understand Burroughs in relation to Agee’s visit. Grit under the nails is a utilitarian choice because it gives the character substance for the reader’s benefit. Once Burroughs is established physically, my dad can jump into the other piece of Burroughs’s history that solidifies his relevance in the context of this article: “[Burroughs is] still angry after all these years at how a writer and a photographer on assignment for this magazine moved into his house when he was just a boy, 4 years old (he remembers the day), and stayed for week.” Whitford, the dutiful journalist, is proud to show the reader that he has done his job.

Famous Men reflects Agee’s preoccupation with an artistic, noble task. Agee was a recent Harvard graduate looking to exercise his intellect on the predominantly uneducated citizens of Hale County. His account maintains a luxurious frustration that my dad, who writes within a genre that prioritizes clarity, does not contend with. For example, Agee writes, “Here, a house or person has only the most limited meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you do and as I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist.” Agee is preoccupied with abstract concepts, and the intentionally complex and unstructured style that he adopts subverts the possibility of a piece that is accessible, or even has a traceable argument.


I visited Greensboro in 2007 and again in 2010, on my dad’s initiative. While there, I volunteered for a nonprofit that built homes for poor families in Hale County. During both visits, I offered my services as an unskilled laborer on construction projects. I spent most days running errands—picking up tools, delivering building materials.

I didn’t read my dad’s article in preparation for either visit, much less Famous Men. However, every person I met in Greensboro had met my dad in 2005, and spoke highly of him. The fact that I was able to travel from my home in New England to an isolated rural county in Alabama, specifically because my dad had been there before me as a journalist, enamored me of his job. What inspired my visit had more to do with the experience my dad had there than with the words he produced. This speaks to his position as a journalist primarily interested in collecting voices. His quest for truth was fact-based, his trip was short, and the conventions of interviewing aided him in making a positive impression.

While I didn’t go to Greensboro on a writing assignment, it was through writing that I eventually came to terms with an experience that was both foreign and unsettling. Initially, I came to these terms in private. I evaded the problem of audience by writing specifically for myself. Until the publication of this piece, no one from my circle of family and friends, much less from Hale County, had read my reflections. Now that they are public, I notice some of the same tendencies in myself that are traceable through D’Agata and Agee. I don’t use quotes, and my subjects exist primarily as characters in my own coming-of-age narrative.


When I decided to write about my two-week stay in Greensboro, I chose the framework of driving cars. Here is a memory from my time in Greensboro in 2010, an afternoon recorded a year later: Dirty white, the van had three full passengers rows and double doors in the back. The interior was filthy and splattered with white paint. I had never sat so high in a driver’s seat before. My right leg was fully extended to reach the gas pedal. Alone in such a big vehicle, I had the nervous sensation of being watched from behind.  All the way to Marion I felt like I was driving a caravan of silent, forward gazing passengers. Unlike Agee, my writing has an explicit focus—this is a piece about me. Agee’s focus is less clear; he doesn’t address his own central role. Instead, he implies this focus by disregarding the parameters of his Fortune assignment and mixing projects—credo statement, political message, aesthetic message—in a way that feels comfortable for him.

Agee also describes driving in Hale County, and in doing so restructures a nerve-wracking situation—driving an unfamiliar car over uneven terrain after dark—into one that is inexplicably under his control. He recalls an undeniably precarious moment: “You can’t afford to use brakes in this sort of material, and whatever steering you do, it must be as light-handed as possible.” Still, “your senses are translated, they pervade the car; so that you are all four wheels as sensitively as if each were a fingertip; and these feel out a safe way.” This leap of faith mirrors Agee’s approach to his subjects in Hale County. Agee follows his senses down many different descriptive paths—never imposing the rigidity of a traditional investigative style.
From the beginning of my dad’s piece, it is clear that in visiting Hale County, he is following Agee’s path. When he drives into Greensboro, it is with Agee front-and-center in his consciousness. “But Fortune has never been back, and so now I am driving south on Alabama Highway 69 from Tuscaloosa.” He is undeniably a journalist, a humble guest, standing at the crossroads of cautious outsider and informed reporter. He has done his research.


My dad’s piece concludes with an account of his conversation with the great grandson of one of Agee’s sharecroppers. His name is Phil Burrows, and he sits on his front porch with his wife and two sons, both seniors at Hale County High. The placement of this scene is strategic—it showcases the voice of a Famous Men descendant who is articulate when it comes to assessing his family’s legacy: “How would you feel if somebody cast your folks, your parents, or your grandparents in that [negative] light?”

The conclusion I composed for my Hale County reflections is introspective, rather than political. I describe delivering lunch in the twelve-seat van to County Jail inmates gutting a house. Swift walked me back to the van and opened the door, stepping aside while I pushed the key into the ignition. Then he slammed the door and motioned for me to roll down the window. He reached his hand in and pulled lightly at the loose hair at the nape of my neck. Then he said, “I appreciate you.” In retrospect, I’m writing about the moments that made me proud. The initial privacy of my writing is essential because my documentation of positive experiences might not translate to an audience. A reader might interpret the vignette as an attempt to paint myself as a selfless volunteer. In reality, this writing should only serve as a reminder to myself that I am capable of rising to challenges. Maybe, in drawing attention to these shortcomings, I’m absolving myself.

When Agee addresses journalism in Famous Men, it almost sounds like he is admonishing a criminal. He insists, “Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism.” To accept the parameters of journalistic writing is to accept trite facts and quotes as satisfactory. According to Agee, these questions disregard a majority of the information and insight to be gleaned from engagement with one’s subject. An account that purports to focus on facts undervalues its subject. D’Agata would agree. For him, adherence to fact stands in the way of a narrative that evokes the truth—a truth that lies in the emotional response to a subject.


However, Agee’s ideal is impossible. When he drafted Famous Men, contemporary theory posited that a photograph was the truest, most objective method of capturing life. Agee explains in the opening passage of the book, “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth.” If the goal is to convey life, writing falls far short. Agee’s decision to offer these specific alternatives—photographs, cloth, cotton, clay—is itself a stylistic, selective decision.

Yet Agee defends his impossible task. Over and over throughout the book he expresses his desire to present Hale County sharecroppers as human beings with inherent worth. He gets so wrapped up in describing the complexity of this project, and adopting a complex form to reflect it, that his subjects become secondary. In the opening pages of Famous Men he admits, “I might say… that I am only human.” Agee doesn’t think he’s going to find an ideal form of representation, but this realization doesn’t make him any less invested in the project.

D’Agata addresses the same problem as Agee. But instead of dwelling on a paradox, he intentionally destabilizes his journalistic reliability. In Lifespan, Fingal asks D’Agata to verify that a rumor had circulated about a kink in the Hoover Dam. D’Agata claims to have heard the rumor on a tour bus, and Fingal asks for the name of the bus company so that he can make an inquiry. D’Agata responds, “No, I don’t remember... Sorry, readers are going to have to feel factually unfulfilled here.”

EMMA WHITFORD B’12 is absolving herself, but is not absolved.