The title of Leslie Jamison’s “Make It Scream, Make It Burn” refers to 19th-century photographer Jacob Riis becoming so focused on creating an image that he nearly lit his subjects on fire. Which neatly summarizes Jamison’s own attitude toward the people she writes about.
Jamison’s essays are united by her insistence that we mustn’t read her as the last word on anything. Should the people she interviews trust her? Should she trust them? Will her attempts to describe subjects be their undoing? These central questions make Jamison’s 14 provocative essays scream and burn.
The most revealing essay may be the only one in which Jamison never employs first-person. The title story examines James Agee and photographer Walker Evans’ legendary study of Southern sharecroppers during the Great Depression, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Harvard-educated Agee appreciated the pitfalls of carpetbagging his way into the lives of the rural poor, and Harvard-educated Jamison feels him. She could be describing herself when she writes of Agee, “He is aware of how naive he sounds as soon as he sounds that way. This pre-emptive self-excoriation would eventually become one of his hallmarks.”
Jamison writes of Agee’s emotional attachments to his subjects, which may make readers reflect on Jamison’s descriptions of her own attachments, especially when she compares Agee to Riis: “Agee never burned down any houses, but his prose betrays a constant preoccupation with the possibility of doing harm — more specifically, with the possibility that his reportage might betray his subjects, the ones whose pain he spins into lyric.”
So it’s not surprising that Jamison cites a famous quotation from another essayist, Janet Malcolm, who wrote, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
Jamison is neither stupid nor full of herself. What she is is compassionate, curious and humble. In an essay that works as a companion to the one about Agee, Jamison confesses her admiration for photographer Annie Appel, who became deeply involved in the lives of families she documented in Juárez, Mexico. But Jamison also admits to qualms about that involvement and acknowledges that Appel was wounded by the story Jamison wrote about her.
Throughout the book, which includes a piece about a museum of broken relationships and one that reckons with learning to be a stepmother, Jamison writes admiringly of people who question their own beliefs. She includes herself in this, even admitting to uncertainty about the meaning of something she has permanently inked on her own flesh: “People can read my tattoo as empathy or arrogance. ‘Nothing human is alien to me.’ You could see this as radical empathy, or else as a failure to recognize the limits of my sight.”
Rather than pretending to have the “honesty” of a mythical, objective observer, Jamison acknowledges that she has skin in the game, and her wise, urgent writing is stronger for it. “Let’s admit what I’m doing here,” she seems to be saying to readers, “and then maybe we can all figure this out together.”
Jamison’s self-criticism welcomes us into her book. I can see how it could be irritating, in the way that the half of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” that was about whether Dave Eggers should even be writing the book was irritating. But, in Jamison’s hands, the second-guessing never feels dithery or masturbatory. When she questions her judgment or expresses skepticism about a source, it’s not because she’s unsure if she should be telling these stories. It’s because she’s hellbent on getting them right.
Make It Scream, Make It Burn By: Leslie Jamison. Publisher: Little, Brown, 272 pages, $28. Event: In conversation with Peter Bognanni, 7 p.m. Oct. 18, Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.