2009 is the centenary of both Malcolm Lowry and James Agee.
James Dickey coupled them:
[M]y personal heroes of the [totally responsive... intensified] sensibility are John Keats, James Agee, and Malcolm Lowry.
Dickey quotes Lionel Trilling calling Agee's long paean to American sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, "the greatest moral document of the time."
More than that, says Dickey, "it's an example of the ability of the human sensibility to go very deeply into life.... [Agee had a] quality of complete participation, of commitment of the self to whatever it was he contemplated."
Lowry too had "this extremely deep immersion in things."
Dickey goes on to suggest that both writers hit the bottle and died young in large part because of their intense sensitivity, their uncontrollable ability to enter entirely into - in particular - the sources of human anguish.
In Alabama, writes Adam Kirsch of Agee, "he was undergoing something very like a spiritual ordeal, in which he was granted a vision of the infinite value of each individual human being, even or especially the poorest." Lowry's narrator, in his great novel Under the Volcano, asks his wife: "How, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o'clock in the morning?"
Because they managed to get what they saw down on paper before they died, Agee and Lowry can be thought of as two of our more powerful poet gods, in the sense that Richard Rorty, with his religion of art, intended.
Rorty argued for "a religion of literature, in which works of the secular imagination replace Scripture as the principal source of inspiration and hope for each new generation." He suggested that
'spiritual development' is usually used only in reference to the attempt to get in touch with the divine. But it is occasionally used in the broader sense, one in which it covers any attempt to transform oneself into a better sort of person by changing one's sense of what matters most. In the broader sense of the term, I would urge that the novels of Proust and James help us achieve spiritual growth.
The great writer, as "the maker of new words, the shaper of new languages," is "the vanguard of the species." Lowry and Agee immerse us deeply -- in the burden, moment by moment, of being human. At their most powerfully creative, they overtake and change us forever.