Easter Reading

Review: 'The Morning Watch' by James Agee

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Reach hither thy hand, the risen Christ tells Doubting Thomas, and thrust it into my side. For an artist—for any believing Christian—a central fact about Easter, the element with the sharpest edge, is that Jesus has returned in the body. Something earthy is present across the gospel narratives, from the story of actual birth in the straw of a stable to the cruel sufferings of the crucifixion. But even so, bodily resurrection—the sheer physicality of it—cuts like a knife through any pale and filmy notion that the Christ event is about mere spirituality.

Perhaps that's why we seem to lack much fiction that puts Easter at its center. Bookshelves are stuffed, like spoiled children's stockings, with more Christmas books than anyone can read. But then, birth is always easier than death for fiction to treat: more sentimental, more connected to the arc of a traditional novel that wants to pair off its young people in marriage and drop the curtain before its main characters die. Poets have often examined the Passion, while sculptors and painters have returned to the subject again and again.

Fiction, though … What do we have? The Russians have taken up the theme, from Chekhov's 1886 short story "Easter Eve" to Tolstoy's final novel, the 1899 Resurrection. And, I suppose, there's always Nikos Kazantzakis's 1955 The Last Temptation of Christ (a more orthodox book than the clunky 1988 film and the protests against it supposed the story to be). In English, for Holy Week, one might read John Steinbeck's last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). Or, even better, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929), much of which is deliberately set in the Easter season.

There are other works we could list, of course. But one under-appreciated book worth digging up for the Easter Triduum is James Agee's 1951 novella, The Morning Watch. If Agee is remembered at all these days, it's for the text he wrote to accompany Walker Evans's Depression-era photographs in the 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. As it happens, the book flopped when it first appeared, selling only 300 copies. Only years later was Agee and Evans's work recognized as a marking a transformation in non-fiction and the techniques of reporting.

In his time, Agee was best known for his film criticism and the book-review section of Time magazine he edited with Whittaker Chambers. He wrote a little poetry, worked on the screenplays for The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955), and won the Pulitzer Prize for A Death in the Family (1957), an unfinished autobiographical novel published two years after his death at age 45.

It's hard to know what to make of James Agee, looking back from this distance. There was often something convolutedly self-conscious about his prose. Thus, for example, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men he occasionally surfaces as a character in his own reporting—but always as diffident and agonized, worried about his role as a spy in the lives of his poor sharecropper subjects. The attempt to find a prose sufficient for self-consciousness probably contributed to his inability to finish A Death in the Family. (Agee was six years old when his own father died in a car accident.)

But in that effort to develop a self-consciousness prose, Agee found a way to make The Morning Watch a success. Set at a high-church Episcopalian boarding school in Tennessee (Agee had attended St. Andrew's School in Sewanee), the novella recounts the large thoughts and small experiences of a 12-year-old boy named Richard, in the early morning hours of Good Friday.

In the first part of the book, Richard has been assigned to the 4:00 a.m. shift of the all-night vigil at the school's chapel, and he decides to wait up in his dormitory, refusing to join the apostles who could not stay awake after the Last Supper and Christ's prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. The next thing he remembers is being shaken awake by one of the Episcopal monks to get ready for his turn at the vigil.

In the second part of the story, Richard prays in the chapel. Except perhaps for Joyce's 1916 Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, there may never have been a better and more precise account of the mental life of an intelligent and sensitive boy—at "the peak," as Agee would later describe the character, of a boy's early adolescent "hypersensitive introversion, isolation, and a certain priggishness." Richard's thoughts slip away from the Passion. He forces them back, they slip away again, and once more he forces them back.

In a brilliantly observed passage, Richard tries to understand what it means to speak of the burden of sin. Failing to feel the burden as strongly as he thinks he should, he squeezes "his eyes so tightly shut that they ached" and strikes "himself heavily on his breastbone"—with some success, beginning to feel what he thinks is the appropriate emotion. And yet, a boy's self-consciousness intervenes, and his thoughts slide immediately into noticing "that his action was conspicuous and that it must seem to others as affected, as much put on for outward show, as he himself, observing others, had come to feel that various mannerisms in prayer must be."

In the third and final part, the boys from that hour of the vigil leave the chapel, and in the brightening dawn sneak off for a swim in the nearby creek. They kill a snake, Richard pockets the discarded skin of a locust, and finally they return to the school. The bodies of the naked boys, the violence of the snake's death, and the feel of the water lead to something like an epiphany—as much epiphany, at least, as a 12-year-old-boy is allowed.

He realizes, for example, that his imagining of himself as Jesus must fail; he cannot substitute himself for Christ, driving the serpent from Eden. The death of the snake is ordinary human violence: not a redemptive act but representative of the kind of thing for which human beings need redemption. The physical world is not an intrusion on the Christ story, but the proper placement of that story.

As how could it not be? For an artist, for any believing Christian, the sharpest edge of the Easter story is the claim that Jesus returns in the flesh. In a resurrected body.