James Rufus Agee (AY-jee) was less successful as a creator of fiction than he was as a recorder of experiences. The event that marked a turning point in his early life was the death of his father, Hugh James Agee, in an automobile crash when Rufus, as his family called him, was six. The victim’s widow, Laura Tyler Agee, a self-righteous woman who came from a refined Knoxville family, undoubtedly repeated the details of the tragedy so often that her son and daughter, Emma, knew the story by heart. The young Agee enshrined the gruesome details in his memory, and they eventually became the basis for his celebrated novel, A Death in the Family.
Three years after her husband’s death, Laura Agee, a devout Episcopalian, spent part of her summer on the grounds of St. Andrew’s School in Sewanee, Tennessee, and in 1919 she took up permanent residence there. James Agee attended the school and came to know Father James Harold Flye and his wife. Flye, who spent the summer of 1925 bicycling through Europe with Agee, remained his friend throughout the author’s life. Much of the voluminous Flye-Agee correspondence has been published.
After five years at St. Andrew’s, Agee and his mother returned to Knoxville. James attended Knoxville High School for a year before entering Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, where he edited the Phillips Exeter Monthly and blossomed as a writer. After graduation in 1928, he entered Harvard University.
When Agee finished Harvard, the Great Depression was at its worst. Jobs were scarce, but publisher Henry Luce, faithful to his alma mater, employed as many promising young Harvard graduates as possible in his publishing empire. Agee–tall, lanky, with unruly dark hair and dancing blue eyes–joined Fortune as a reporter. He was married to Olivia Saunders in 1933. Yale University Press published his first book, Permit Me Voyage, a collection of poems, as part of its Younger Poet Series. In 1935 Agee took a leave of absence from Fortune to pursue his writing.
Agee and his wife then moved to Anna Maria, Florida. A month after Agee returned to Fortune in 1936, he was asked to do a story with Walker Evans about tenant farmers in the South. The two gathered information and took photographs in Alabama. Although Fortune did not publish the Agee-Evans material, these sketches and photographs provided the basis for Agee’s next book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a collaboration with Evans.
The book, later recognized as perceptive and well written, was virtually unnoticed at the time of its publication because of the United States’ preoccupation with World War II. The book failed to bring Agee the initial recognition he deserved. Immediately before the publication of his next book, Agee, now divorced and remarried to Alma Mailman, worked for Time as a staff writer.
In 1942 Agee, starstruck since childhood, began to write a film column for The Nation. Producing a daunting number of film reviews for both Time and The Nation between 1942 and 1948, he became thoroughly immersed in the medium, mastering quickly the techniques of film writing. Among Agee’s film credits are the screenplays The African Queen, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, Noa Noa, and The Night of the Hunter. Screenwriting helped to solve some of Agee’s financial problems. He continued to write autobiographical fiction. In 1951 The Morning Watch, his sensitive novella about a twelve-year-old boy’s religious experience in the chapel of a boy’s school much like St. Andrew’s, was published.
Agee began to have heart problems, and on May 16, 1955, riding in a taxicab to his doctor’s office in Manhattan, he suffered a fatal heart attack. At the time of his death, Agee had nearly completed A Death in the Family, which was published unfinished in 1957 and earned for him a Pulitzer Prize in 1958. The book, relating a young boy’s perception of his father’s death in an automobile crash, is the one for which Agee is best remembered. In it, as in The Morning Watch, Agee demonstrates his unique ability to penetrate the consciousness of youth and write a sustained account of a crucial experience through which a child has lived.