Authors: James Agee

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and screenwriter


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.{$I[AN]9810001370}{$I[A]Agee, James}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Agee, James}{$I[tim]1909;Agee, James}

James Agee

(Library of Congress)

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.

BibliographyBarson, Alfred. A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972. A revisionist view of Agee, whose earliest critics thought that his talents were dissipated by his diverse interests but who judged him to have been improving at the time of his death. Barson inverts this thesis, stating that Agee’s finished work should not be so slighted and that his powers were declining when he died. Includes notes and an index.Bergreen, Laurence. James Agee: A Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984. This is one of the best biographies of Agee, thorough and well researched. Its critical analyses are cogent and thoughtful. Bergreen’s writing style is appealing. Contains illustrations, notes, bibliography of Agee’s writings, bibliography of works about him, and index.Folks, Jeffrey J. “Art and Anarchy in James Agee’s A Death in the Family.” In In Time of Disorder: Form and Meaning in Southern Fiction from Poe to O’Connor. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. Essay focusing on A Death in the Family is included in a volume that examines how Agee and other southern writers sought to create a sense of social order in their work in response to perceptions that society was unjust, chaotic, and governed by random chance.Hughes, William. James Agee, “Omnibus,” and “Mr. Lincoln”: The Culture of Liberalism and the Challenge of Television, 1952-1953. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. Resurrects Mr. Lincoln, the five television programs Agee wrote about Abraham Lincoln’s early life, which for many years were not available to the public. Places the scripts within the culture of American Cold War liberalism and describes how Agee’s experiences, political leanings, and film writings influenced his re-creation of the Lincoln legend.Kramer, Victor A. Agee and Actuality: Artistic Vision in His Work. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1991. Delves into the aesthetics of Agee’s writing and provides a valuable resource for identifying the controlling themes that pervade the author’s work.Kramer, Victor A. A Consciousness of Technique in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”: With Thirty-one Newly Selected Photographs. Albany, N.Y.: Whitston, 2001.Kramer, Victor A. James Agee. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Well-written work remains one of the more valuable sources on Agee available to the nonspecialist, useful for its analyses, its bibliography, and its chronology of the author’s life.Lofaro, Michael A., ed. Agee Agonistes: Essays on the Life, Legend, and Works of James Agee. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007. Compilation of seventeen essays from the James Agee Celebration, which was held at the University of Tennessee in April, 2005. The essays are divided into four parts, addressing Agee’s influences and syntheses, Agee’s films, Agee’s literature, and Agee’s correspondence. Also features new photographs, previously unknown correspondence, and a remembrance by Agee’s daughter.Lofaro, Michael A., ed. James Agee: Reconsiderations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992. The nine essays in this slim volume are carefully considered. Mary Moss’s bibliography of secondary sources is especially well crafted and eminently useful, as are penetrating essays by Linda Wagner-Martin and Victor A. Kramer.Madden, David, and Jeffrey J. Folks, eds. Remembering James Agee. 2d ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. The twenty-two essays in this volume touch on every important aspect of Agee’s life and work, ranging from the reminiscences of Father Flye to those of his third wife, Mia Agee. The interpretive essays on his fiction and films are particularly illuminating, as are the essays on his life as a reporter and writer for Fortune and Time.Neuman, Alma. “Thoughts of Jim: A Memoir of Frenchtown and James Agee.” Shenandoah 33 (1981-1982). A perceptive family assessment by Joel Agee’s mother.Spiegel, Alan. James Agee and the Legend of Himself. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998. This critical study of Agee’s writing offers especially sound insights into the role that childhood reminiscence plays in the author’s fiction and into the uses that Agee makes of nostalgia. The extensive discussion of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men represents one of the best interpretations of this important early work. Teachers will appreciate the section titled “Agee in the Classroom.”
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