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Myth and Metaphor in James Agee's "1928 Story"

Rémi Digonnet
p. 69-82


Le mythe et la métaphore se rejoignent quant aux caractéristiques constituantes de ces deux procédés littéraires. La figure de l’un pour l’autre (Dumarsais 1988) dans une approche substitutive de la métaphore résonne avec la substitution du mythe à la réalité historique. Ainsi le transfert comme le glissement chers à la métaphore (Aristote) apparaissent-ils en filigrane d’une réalité à la fois contournée et controuvée par le propos mythique (Barthes 1957). L’analogie forcée par la métaphore (Lakoff 1980) fait écho à la ressemblance provoquée de lieux géographiques variés ou la similitude de temporalités distinctes, caractéristiques du mythe. L’approche interactive de la métaphore soulignée par Black (1962) ou Richards (1936) entre le métaphorique et le littéral, si elle apparaît amoindrie dans le mythe ou la fable, tous deux conçus comme des interprétations homogènes, résiste pourtant à l’intérieur d’une mythologie qui fabrique une impertinence, une césure, une intersection entre imaginaire et réalité. A l’instar de la métaphore sans cesse renouvelée (Prandi 1992), le mythe est constamment réactualisé, déjoué pour mieux être rejoué. C’est à travers la littérature du Sud, et plus particulièrement à travers l’étude de la nouvelle « 1928 Story » de James Agee, que cet article vise à montrer ce qui se rejoue dans le mythe comme dans la métaphore. En quoi ce qui a priori résonne comme une répétition, une redite, se transforme en énergie créatrice de sens, réécriture et réinterprétation ?

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

James Agee

Texte intégral

  • 1 “Always, the short story in the oral tradition demands fewer words to relate the fullness of the st (...)

1As a form of literature, the short story embodies and develops myths. Northrop Frye suggests that “myth is and has always been an integral element of literature, the interest of poets in myth and mythology having been remarkable and constant since Homer’s time” (119). Not only should myths be pervasive in short stories, they should also represent the central part of any story since myths are at the very origin of literature. According to F. Guirand, the mythic form is the essential form of the mind; it is at the core of any kind of poetry and any kind of literature. The short story, more than the novel, seems to share the mythical intention based on F. Loriggio’s common definition of a myth: “Fully summarized, in its most conventional version myth has been: (1) a story (2) about gods or exemplary figures, ­narrating events of a time before or beyond history and ­periodically re-enacted” (234). Granted of course, that short stories do not generally appeal to gods or exemplary figures, the genre happens to be perfectly fitted for the existence of myths if we observe P. Wheelwright’s definition of it: “Myth may be defined as a story or a complex of story elements taken as expressing, and therefore as implicitly symbolizing, certain deep-lying aspects of human and transhuman existence” (332). Due to its innate concision,1 the short story matches the symbolic scope of myth. Defined as “merely” a story, which nonetheless tells “a tale that is not according to the facts,” myth can then be seen as a representation, a figuration of ­humanity and transhumanity as posited by G. Highet: “Myths deal with love; with war; with sin; with tyranny; with courage; with fate: and all in some way or other deal with the relation of man to those divine powers which are sometimes felt to be irrational, sometimes to be cruel, and sometimes, alas, to be just” (199). If the identities of myth are varied and often supply a moralistic signification, its function should not be left aside as suggested by Aristotle’s definition of mythos: “Both words (plot and narrative) ­translate Aristotle’s mythos, but Aristotle meant mainly by mythos what we are calling plot: narrative, in the above sense, is closer to his lexis. The plot then is like the trees and houses that we focus our eyes on through a train window: the narrative is more like the weeds and stones that rush by in the foreground” (Frye 120).

  • 2 The novel and the short story can be compared to the film and the photograph (Cortázar 5-17).

2In this study of myth and metaphor in Southern short fiction, both the “trees” and the “weeds” will be examined. A focus on the short story by James Agee entitled “1928 Story” will bring out the intertwined relationships between myth and metaphor. Agee’s title is quite explicit about how his writing epitomises modern (“1928”) storytelling (“story”). As such, Agee’s text is an interesting illustration of the short story as a modern genre entrapped in the paradox of telling a lot in a few words. The short story, unlike the novel,2 yet like the lyric, has the undeniable capacity of cramming tales of epic dimensions into the format of “a little postage stamp” as suggested by William Faulkner. The presence of a poem in Agee’s short story not only foretells the variety of myths to be found in the text, both the evocation of old myths and the creation of new myths, but also bespeaks the various narrative processes of condensation. An economy of words is indeed the principle at the heart of the short story and the lyric poem, a concision and condensation that can be equally found in metaphor and myth, as opposed to comparison, and used to this end in modernist engagements with problems of scale.

  • 3 The posthumous publication of “1928 Story” belongs to this “great period of the Southern short stor (...)

3Agee’s short story, published posthumously in 1968,3 is about Irvine, a would-be writer reminiscing about his brief encounter with a young girl on the beach located near the cottage where he regularly goes on holiday. The image of the girl will remain embedded in his mind until he decides to write a poem dedicated to his beloved mermaid entitled “Sea Piece.” The mythical portrait of the girl which resembles another famous portrait, Barthes’s “Garbo’s face,” is one among the many other myths that can be found in the short story. The reconstruction of a mythical South in Irvine’s mind paradoxically mirrors the deconstruction of another myth, the writer’s myth, another reminiscence of Barthes’s mythology with “The writer on holiday”. The comparison of myth and metaphor in terms of theoretical perspectives and literary matter will focus first on the notion of ­displacement through transfer, analogy and the existence of a conflictual literary space, to ­envisage how such a displacement can either lead to a repetitive pattern or to a highly creative dimension.

Grounded in Displacement?

4The concept of placement seems well rooted in metaphor and myth since both processes rely on the placement of uncommon and unexpected elements in a text. The metaphorical placement is often viewed as the addition of an unexpected word, a foreign word (alliotros in Aristotle’s terms) in a coherent sentence leading to some incoherence. The mythical placement would rather correspond to bringing up elements of myth in a text and then change the overall meaning of it. Both processes define a figurative placement since the metaphor generates a change in meaning from the literal to the figurative, and the myth implicitly “­symbolises aspects of human and transhuman existence” (Wheelwright 332). Yet the ­placement is perceived differently in metaphor and myth. If the ­metaphorical ­placement is often visible as it illustrates a visible conflict, the mythical one is less obvious as it shares properties with the allegory, i.e. an initial ­incoherence which is made coherent through the pervasive use of the ­figurative process. The result of such a placement of unexpected elements then triggers a new placement of the text. The understanding of a ­metaphorical text or a ­mythical one develops a new positioning of it giving way to new ­interpretations. The placement gives birth to replacement, a concept well anchored in metaphor through the substitutive perspective, a notion which properly matches myth when the latter brings old stories back to the fore. More than replacement though, myth and metaphor have common ground with the idea of displacement. Both processes ­epitomise displacement in terms of truth value. A metaphor, like all figurative language, stages a displacement between what is said and what is true:

But yet if we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative ­application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead judgment; and so are perfect cheats. (Locke 2, 3, 10, 34)

5In its colloquial use, myth means “a tale that is not according to the facts and the adjective ‘mythical’ (is) a synonym for false” (Wheelwright 333). Falsity is then well anchored in myth and metaphor since both processes are distant from what stands for reality and truth. At the end of the short story, the mythical poem “Sea Piece” and the underlying metaphor in “She is like the sea herself” (18) are only falsity, deception and poor substitutes to replace the absence of the girl who disappeared in the house: “but the girl was nowhere in sight, and there were no lights on upstairs” (18). Both processes engender a different, distorted, and displaced vision of reality.

6The embodied displacement in myth and metaphor generated by the gap between what is said and what is meant represents the result of a translation, a transfer. In its primary definition, metaphor was perceived as a translation, a transference of a name from the thing which it properly denotes to some other thing: “Metaphor is the application of an alien name by transference either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or by analogy, that is, proportion” (Aristotle, 1457b). Myth shares the transference property of the metaphor, on a broader scale though. It allows a transference of a story from the reference it properly denotes to some other reference. Myth tells an imaginative story which resonates and echoes in more realistic terms:

And while myths themselves are seldom historical, they seem to provide a kind of containing form of tradition, one result of which is the obliterating of boundaries separating legend, historical reminiscence, and actual history that we find in Homer and the Old Testament. (Frye 130)

7In both processes, a transfer occurs when a word or a story is used to express something else than its proper reference. The traditional transfer coined by Aristotle can be similarly rephrased by the more recent cognitive definition of mapping elaborated by Lakoff:

The metaphor involves understanding one domain of experience [...] in terms of a very different domain of experience [...]. More technically, the metaphor can be understood as a mapping (in the mathematical sense) from a source domain [...] to a target domain [...]. The mapping is tightly structured. (206-07)

8The mapping theory which synthesises the transfer of one word to another, one semantic trait to another, in the projection of one conceptual domain to another is useful to describe both metaphor and myth. A myth represents the projection, the transfer of one initial story to another one. The abstract imaginative story is described in terms of a concrete realistic story. The episode relating Irvine’s obsession of the image of the young girl he met on the beach is a good illustration of the mythical transfer from a real figure to an imaginative picture: “he watched himself carefully in the mirror. But his mind was so absorbed in her image, as she came out of the water, that he hardly saw himself” (14).

9Yet, the recourse to mapping to envisage the transfer in myth and metaphor seems to lack the creative dimension which can often be found in both metaphorical and mythical processes. The mapping frame which appears quite useful for pre-existing or pre-established conceptual metaphors or conceptual myths should be enlarged with the blending frame elaborated by Fauconnier allowing a creative dimension through composition: “If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, this cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter into the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined” (Lévi-Strauss 121). Instead of viewing metaphor and myth in terms of transferable properties from one source domain to a target domain, the blending principle gives way to a possible intersection and interaction, a potential porosity between initial spaces. Transfer would no longer be the essential feature in myth and metaphor but interaction, as a key process, would allow the merging of two different domains, two different temporalities.

10From displacement to absence of displacement, another view on myth and metaphor underlines the existence of an analogy. Indeed, both processes tend to force a resemblance between two domains, two stories. The power of myth like the power of metaphor lies in the attempt to connect two distant elements. If Aristotle was the first to mention the analogical dimension in metaphor, many have stressed such an analogy: “A figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The essential common ground between two entities to generate a metaphor can also be found in myth where the mythical story tends to identify a fictional tale to real events. Myth attempts to erase the limits between reality and imagination, between nature and human form: “The two great conceptual principles which myth uses in assimilating nature to human form are analogy and identity. Analogy establishes the parallels between human life and natural phenomena, and identity conceives of a ‘sun-god’ or a ‘tree-god’” (Frye 131). In order to unify different geographic locations or different temporalities, myth nullifies the distinction between fiction and facts and as such partakes of the creation of an analogon. Time is the first analogon developed by a myth and the most obvious. To know the date of birth of a myth is impossible (ritual origin) and paradoxically any myth has the power to match any period of time. It is not restrained in time and has the capacity to merge different temporalities. Myth allows understanding one present fact in relation to a past event, as such, myth is a good vehicle for identifying or unifying one past to one present:

Now myth, the appeal of which lies precisely in its archaism, promises above all to heal the wounds of time. For the one essential function of myth […] is that in merging past and present it releases us from the flux of temporality, arresting change in the timeless, the permanent, the ever-recurrent conceived as “sacred repetition.” (Rahv 255)

  • 4 “In James Agee’s ‘1928 Story,’ a relatively unknown story that combines some of the best narrative (...)

11The merging of past and present through myth is made obvious in the short story when the playing of old records brings the pre-war period and the post-war period together: “Even the nineteen thirties had been increasingly distasteful, one year worse than the next before it; then the war, which in one curious sense hardly counted as a part of living […] and now, the middle, the last half, of the nineteen forties” (2). The second analogon generated by a myth is space since very often a myth is anchored in a specific geography: “It is our job to intertwine understandings of myth, memory, and landscape with presentations of the complex pasts we discover through sound interdisciplinary archaeological, documentary, and ethno-and oral historical research” (Horning 39). The mythical process facilitates the assimilation of different geographical areas, either real or unreal. The forced geographic analogy initiated by the myth tends to minimise the idea of displacement. The cardinal points highlight the fact that the American myth is well rooted in geography. As Irvine’s father proudly re-states “East is East and West is West” (7) about the difference of music between Mozart and Armstrong, the mythical image of the South is pervasive in the short story. The mythical South comes to the surface during Irvine’s reverie4 when sitting outside the porch of his house and listening to jazz music, he fancies himself in a Southern landscape. The analogy between a purely imaginative space and a city in the South, New Orleans, demonstrates the power of the mythical South populated by “musicians,” “Negroes,” “hundreds of men, along the tracks, and the paths invisible along the great field, on their way to work,” where “whites and Negroes, however fond of the same music, would be so thoroughly at ease together as this” (10). The last analogon a myth can give birth to stands for ontology. A mythical saying has the power to indicate and stress resemblances between various ontologies. Its function is much like a metaphor which coins a resemblance behind an apparent discrepancy of terms, of meanings, of references. Myth has the property to coin resemblances despite impossible temporal, geographical and ­ontological properties. On the beach, Irvine’s vision of the young girl getting out of the sea is turned into a mythical process when he writes the following stanza of his poem dedicated to his beloved mermaid: “Like a wild creature of the sea, colored like the sea at dawn, so you first appeared to me” (19). The assimilation through comparison (“like”) of the girl with the mermaid is nothing more than a forced ontological analogy. Through the study of various analogons, the myth has shown its power to unify or to merge, to develop resemblances and analogies between initially distant elements.

  • 5 Metaphor can be primarily seen as forcing together two different ontologies in “When the quiet sea (...)

12Resemblance may be reached through various processes such as myth or metaphor, yet the advent of analogy often previously suffers from conflictual5 tensions. If both processes have long been perceived in terms of analogy, more recently, the acknowledgment of a conflictual space has permitted a better understanding of such devices. Instead of viewing metaphor as a transfer or an analogy, the interactive perspective ­considered it as an intersection between two words, two parts of speech. The ­intersection initiated by Richards and followed up by Black illustrated the open conflict between a metaphorical expression (“vehicle,” “focus”) among a literal context (“tenor,” “frame”):

A metaphorical statement has two distinct subjects, to be identified as the primary subject and the secondary one. In Metaphor, I spoke instead of the “principal” and “subsidiary” subjects. The duality of reference is marked by the contrast between the metaphorical statement’s focus (the word or words used non-literally) and the surrounding literal frame. (Black 27)

13This same intersection between the figurative and the literal can be applied to the myth where fiction and reality coexist. Myth can be situated half-way between imagination and reality, between fiction and facts: “The reader lives the myth as a story at once true and unreal” (Barthes 20). Intersection appears as the first step to conflict. Myth and metaphor can then be described as conflictual spaces. Prandi insists on the ­conflictual aspect of metaphor: “The existence of a substantial analogy is not the ­necessary condition for a metaphor to be recognized—for a metaphor to exist, only a transfer and typically a conflict is required” (Prandi 18, my ­translation). Contrary to metaphor where heterogeneity is often visible at first sight (ontological conflict), myth seems to describe a ­homogeneous story without visible conflict. Yet this apparent ­homogeneity is ­counterbalanced by a more global heterogeneity as myth represents a hiatus as a whole, an ­impertinence, a conflict between fiction and facts. As such, myth ­embodies external conflict as the allegory does. Conversely, metaphor embodies both internal and external conflicts: “The linguistic and cognitive conflicts only affect the surface of coherent concepts without ­affecting their inner coherence. Ontological conflicts, on the contrary, challenge the essential properties of beings, which are the basis of the coherence of concepts” (Prandi 14, my translation).

14There is conflict in both metaphor and myth. The conflict in metaphor is often ontological; the conflict in myth is rather contextual. However both processes produce distortion: “Myth hides nothing and flaunts nothing: it distorts; myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion” (Barthes 21). The short story, often relying on myth or metaphor to allow multiple readings, represents a conflictual space in itself. From the beginning to the end, a conflict must be solved. Myth and metaphor, as conflictual processes in essence, often partake of the conflictual story in the short story. Irvine’s generational conflict with his parents echoes a more internal conflict: the struggle of the process of writing poetry. From transfer as displacement to analogy as absence of displacement, conflict is deeply-rooted in myth and metaphor. Paradoxically, the real displacement in both processes is to be found in the conflictual analogy: “For us to recognize a statement as an analogy, we must recognize that it is in some way putting pressure on our category structure” (Turner, Categories and Analogies 3). The conflictual analogy of writing poetry is to be found in Irvine’s struggle to write—an attempt to give a vision of the world, yet often conflictual—which oscillates between disillusion through repetition and self-satisfaction through creation.

From Repetition to Creation

15A synchronic vision of myth should not prevent the diachronic vision of the same story since the reason of being of a myth is its reactivation through constant re-appropriation. Repetition is twice-rooted in myth. First, a myth is properly a repetition since it represents a copy of reality. Myth has the power to reproduce reality, to repaint facts. Not only has a myth the faculty of mimesis, but it also has the power of decoration:

Occasionally “myth” can still be found, in its naïve or popular sense, as a synonym for “illusion,” “legend,” or false propaganda, or in an earlier literary sense of decorative or illustrative material. More often it occurs as a surrogate term for the fact that the characters and the actions of literary works have qualities that make them representative of types or classes or ideas. (Douglas 68)

  • 6 A different perspective though would suggest that instead of being locked into circuits of repetiti (...)
  • 7 A statement underlined by Forkner and Samway about the writers of the South: “There were those who (...)

16Similarly, metaphor was long assigned an ornamental power added to a power of imitation: “As to their use, (Aristotle) believed that it was entirely ornamental. Metaphors in other words, are not necessary, they are just nice” (Ortony 3). Also, myth is doomed to undergo repetition through time. Myth tends to be repeated through time without much evolution: “Myth is reassuring in its stability, whereas history is that powerhouse of change” (Rahv 255). The repetitive process of myth, like ­conventional-metaphors, used-metaphors and catachresis, may nullify the first conflictual perception of it. Myth remains but a copy of the past imprisoned in its meaningless bleaching.6 Irvine’s listening to West Side Blues figures a mythic repetitive process emphasised by the repetition of “perfectly” and the use of the ­repetitive prefix “re-” in “He heard the delicate, passionate music through, now, in a strange state of mind: perfectly, fiber by fiber, in cold and helpless regret; perfectly, at the same time, recalling, ­re-experiencing, the best that he had ever heard in it” (6). Likewise, if the strict repetition of his prediction “It was going to be a wonderful summer” (6 and 11) partakes of myth, the mythical world seems already trapped in the sterile repetition like his parents’ re-singing of old tunes (7). Repetition is often the first step to imprisonment.7 The over use of a metaphor or a myth pertains to its isolation among creative processes. The figurative device is no longer a speech process but is imprisoned in language. Myth loses its mythical function like the metaphor which loses its metaphoricity. Myth is trapped by its own pervasive use as Irvine is “almost imprisoned, in the prospect of a whole summer in this place” (12). Repetition can also mean inclusion when a myth is included in another myth. Then, the myth becomes the story in a story, the tale in a tale: the embedded structure of writing, when an author tells the story of a pseudo-writer (“If I could write about this” [3]), when a short story stages a poem, when a short story entitled “story” tells about the ­satisfaction of a writer to achieve a “carefully written story” (5), highlights the repetition of stories as myths through an inclusive pattern. If the coexistence of the same metaphors can lead to allegory, the ­coexistence of myths will lead to mythology. Such an accumulation of myths will paradoxically free the worn-out myth because of the creative potential connexions between various myths.

17The consideration of myth as a mirror of reality is twofold. Either it can be seen as a faithful reproduction of reality and consequently as a plain repetition of reality, or it can be viewed as a distortion of reality because it is understood as an illusion. The second definition entails a creative ­dimension which mirrors Eudora Welty’s perception of the short story:

Stories are new things, stories make words new; that is one of their illusions and part of their beauty. And of course the great stories of the world are the ones that seem new to their readers on and on, always new because they keep their power of revealing something. (159)

18As an illusion of reality, myth and metaphor develop a creative meaning due to a specific insight on reality. The existence of myth, or metaphor, generates a specific and subjective vision of reality. Though it does not mean that all illusions are deprived of truth: “Truth is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphisms, […]; truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour” (Nietzsche 46-47). Myth can consequently be highly creative and express some truth: “Contrary to the ‘tale’ that only children take seriously, myth and legend are supposedly transmitting some truth” (Pottier 16, my translation). Though imaginary, illusionary, or creative, myth, like metaphor, can tell some truth about the world. Irvine’s mental construction of a mythical South remains an illusion, yet a familiar one: “He had never been to a place like the one he imagined, yet it was more familiar to him than any place he had ever known” (9). Creation does not only lie in the distortion of reality but also in the new meaning conveyed by myth or metaphor. Metaphor is known to bring new meaning especially the so-called “creative” metaphors or ­literary metaphors: “Sharp differences between the organizing frames of the inputs offer the possibility of rich clashes. Far from blocking the construction of the network, such clashes offer challenges to the imagination. The ­resulting blends can turn out to be highly creative” (Turner, Compression and Representation 19). Myth is equally creative when it confers a new meaning to a text or when it gives a new insight, like music which can create a whole new world in Irvine’s mind: “The music had developed in him a distinct image of a place he had never known” (7). From a local creation to a global one, from the new meaning to the literary creation, myths are highly productive as they represent stories: “Literature is a reconstructed mythology, with its structural principles derived from those of myth. Then we can see that literature is in a complex setting what a mythology is in a simpler one: a total body of verbal creation” (Frye 137). Similarly, but on a different scale, metaphors take part in the literary creation in widening and transgressing the existing possibilities of a limited lexicon. By transgressing the reality of facts, myths give birth to new imaginary stories and texts.

19Irvine’s plain poem of the beloved mermaid at the end of the short story is a good illustration of literary creation through myth. The ­protagonist uses the mermaid myth to fuel his literary creation even if his production is far from being a work of art. Myth meets art when it gives ­reinterpretation of reality. The distorted vision of reality conferred by art is also deeply ­embodied in myth: “As a type of story, myth is a form of verbal art, and belongs to the world of art. Like art, and unlike science, it deals, not with the world man contemplates, but with the world that man creates” (Frye 130). From creation to re-creation myth undergoes an ongoing process of ­production. The myths produced once are expected to reappear again and again in ­literature: “The myths live on, with the ­deathless youth which breathes from the statues of Apollo and his sister Artemis” (Highet 183). Yet, the same myth will have a different meaning each time it is called for, depending on the specific context. Myth is then continually reactivated through context, perpetually re-enacted according to the circumstances. Like a metaphor, which often follows a process of de-metaphorisation through time, myth can sometimes lose its mythical dimension and miss the figurative expression of certain deep-lying aspects of human and transhuman existence: “As I said, there is no fixity in mythical concepts: they can come into being, alter, disintegrate, disappear completely. And it is precisely because they are historical that history can very easily suppress them” (Barthes 12). De-mythification would then follow the same process through time as de-metaphorisation: “Much of the history of every language is a history of demetaphorizing of expressions which began as metaphors gradually losing their metaphorical character” (Halliday 348). Conversely, a dormant myth can sometimes regain its mythical property like a metaphor undergoing re-metaphorisation: “The reanimation of a dead metaphor is a positive operation of de-lexicalizing that amounts to a new production of metaphor and therefore of metaphorical meaning” (Ricœur 370). A specific context can then re-fuel the active part of the myth through a recycling process. After a long period of inaction, the mythical dimension can come to the surface thanks to new interactions and make the myth alive again. Recreation of myth is visible in the constant rewritings and reinterpretation of myth: “A myth may be told and retold: it may be modified or elaborated, or different patterns may be discovered in it; and its life is always the poetic life of a story, not the homiletic life of some illustrated truism” (Frye 131).

  • 8 “In the South, as in certain other regions of the United States where people have inhabited the lan (...)

20The recourse to the classical mermaid myth is clearly recycled in Irvine’s poem as a personification of his encounter, but also as a representation of his untalented writing: “he knew that he was quite unqualified to write” (3). Recreation can also be understood in terms of playing with myth as Irvine at the very beginning of the short story plays with myth by “playing the old records” (1). A myth can be perceived as a recreation, a play on language, a storytelling8 game. Indeed, since myth represents an illusion, a disguise of reality, the myth-teller has the opportunity to play with conventionalised schemes and imaginary images:

Hence, like the folk tale, it is an abstract story-pattern. The characters can do what they like, which means what the story-teller likes: there is no need to be plausible or logical in motivation. The things that happen in myth are things that happen only in stories; they are in a self-contained literary world. (Frye 129)

21The pervasive use of the free indirect style in the short story is a good illustration of the re-creative narrative process: “Don’t be a fool, he insisted again. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. She is just another girl: she may be a very nice one, she may stink, you’ll find out” (16). The ­recreation part of the myth is situated in the interstice formed by the ­boundaries of facts on one side and fiction on the other side. In between those two boundaries, the myth can be perceived as a recreation area, inclined to take advantage of the blurred limit between the real world and the fiction world:

On the one hand, it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen. There is no logic, no continuity […]. With myth, everything becomes possible. But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions. (Lévi-Strauss 119)

22Recreation is also vivid through the highly creative network of the various myths in a mythology where relationships and connexions can be drawn to expand the recreation area of the myth: “The best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth: and this reconstructed myth will in fact be a mythology” (Barthes 27). Ancient mythologies or more recent mythologies (Barthes) have brought individual myths together for an interrelated mythical recreation: “The process of modernization of myth is bound to engender a tension between the model from Antiquity and its modern reincarnation. As a process it is of necessity simultaneously subversive and creative” (Furst 151). The recourse to the Antique myth of the mermaid by Irvine to describe his vision of love on the beach is but a surrogate for a summer short-lived romance. The initial myth is reinterpreted through a banal situation of a summer crush. Even more, the mermaid myth appears as a metaphor for the deconstruction of another myth, the writer’s myth. The recourse to an over-used myth to write bad poetry shows the deconstruction of a myth by another one. The writer’s myth symbolised by Irvine is badly damaged as Irvine, in his attempt to write a poem, ends up with the following conclusion: “nuts” (19). Of all his poems, he acknowledges at the end of the short story that “he had seldom written a worse poem” (19) than “Sea Piece.” The Antique mermaid myth has only served the deconstruction of the writer’s myth, a mythical re-creation in the whole sense of the word.


  • 9 The mythical figure of the girl is soon demystified with irony: “Each time she turned a page, it wa (...)

23If the short story represents a text dedicated to the production or the reproduction of myths, with for example the recreation of the mythical South“With each critical repetition, in fact, he only added further detail to the reality of the place” (10)it can also be perceived as an attempt to demystify. The translation of an Antique myth into a banal context filled with irony9 rather pertains to deconstruct the initial myth. Likewise, the deconstruction of the writer’s myth“though he had long ago pretty thoroughly given up the idea that he was a writer. Or had he? If I haven’t, he thought, it’s high time I did” (4)is demystification per se just as Irvine’s effort to demystify the image of the girl on the beach: “He began to resent the girl, to try at least to reduce her to what she really was” (15). As such, the short story appears as an ongoing myth trapped between mythification and attempts of demystification.


Agee, James. “1928 Story.” Stories of the Modern South. Eds. Ben Forkner and Patrick Samway. 1977. New York: Penguin Books, 1995. 1-19. Print.

Aristotle. Poetics. Translation by S. H. Butcher. London: Macmillan, 1950. Print.

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1 “Always, the short story in the oral tradition demands fewer words to relate the fullness of the story than does, for example, the epic or the novel form” (Forkner and Samway xix).

2 The novel and the short story can be compared to the film and the photograph (Cortázar 5-17).

3 The posthumous publication of “1928 Story” belongs to this “great period of the Southern short story (…) in the 1940s and ‘50s. It was as if a conscious effort had been made in the South to choose one genre and to excel in it” (Forkner & Samway xi).

4 “In James Agee’s ‘1928 Story,’ a relatively unknown story that combines some of the best narrative writing of A Death in the Family with the aesthetic sensibility of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an adolescent’s love of jazz and his vision of a Southern city are ways of describing his imaginative life” (Forkner and Samway xx).

5 Metaphor can be primarily seen as forcing together two different ontologies in “When the quiet sea gave you birth” (18) when no sea has the ability to give birth. Myth remains conflictual when the unreal mermaid is made real through the poem.

6 A different perspective though would suggest that instead of being locked into circuits of repetition, a myth partakes of a variety through varied iterations in the ever-­changing present moment.

7 A statement underlined by Forkner and Samway about the writers of the South: “There were those who locked themselves in the elegant myth of an idealized ante-bellum aristocracy and who refused to live in the present, and there were those who zealously, often blindly, sought to remake the South after the model of the industrial North” (Forkner & Samway xv).

8 “In the South, as in certain other regions of the United States where people have inhabited the land for long periods, the art of storytelling, whether it be the accounts of fathers and grandfathers who have gone off to war, or the passing on of local folk tales, has helped to shape the expectations of the short story. The short story originates in the told tale; the written story’s concentration of plot, the literary skills needed to stimulate interest and to hold it without waste, all these are conversational skills as well” (Forkner and Samway xix).

9 The mythical figure of the girl is soon demystified with irony: “Each time she turned a page, it was like watching someone take another mouthful of food, with perfect elegance. Then, with the same elegance, she put her fingertip into one nostril, and worked, patiently, without interrupting her reading, until she had extracted the annoyance” (18).

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Rémi Digonnet, « Myth and Metaphor in James Agee's "1928 Story" », Journal of the Short Story in English, 67 | 2016, 69-82.

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Rémi Digonnet, « Myth and Metaphor in James Agee's "1928 Story" », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 67 | Autumn 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 17 octobre 2019. URL :


Rémi Digonnet

Rémi Digonnet is Assistant Professor at the University of Saint-Etienne, Jean Monnet, where he teaches linguistics. His research fields range from metaphor and its various analogues to the perception of the senses from a linguistic perspective. He has recently published Métaphore et olfaction : une approche cognitive (Paris, Honoré Champion, 2016), which deals with the use of metaphor in the expression of olfaction.

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