FW: ANB - Bio of the Day [James Agee]
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[ illustration ]
James Agee, 1937. Photograph by Walker Evans.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-103100).
Agee, James Rufus (27 Nov. 1909-16 May 1955), writer, was born
in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Hugh James Agee, a construction
company employee, and Laura Whitman Tyler. The father's family
were poorly educated mountain farmers, while the mother's were
solidly middle class. Agee was profoundly affected by his father's
death in a car accident in 1916. He idealized his absent father
and struggled against his mother and her genteel and (he felt)
cold values. "Agee's mother wanted him to be clean, chaste, and
sober," the photographer Walker Evans, a close friend, observed.
"So of course he was none of these things." The father's death
inspired the adult Agee to spend nearly two decades, on and off,
re-creating in words "my childhood and my father as they were,
as well and as exactly as I can remember and represent them."
The resulting manuscript, which Agee could never bring himself
to finish, was published posthumously as A Death in the Family
(1957) and won the Pulitzer Prize and his greatest fame.
Laura Agee responded to her husband's death by intensifying
her religious commitment. In the summer of 1918 she moved her
little family (Agee had a younger sister) to St. Andrews (near
Sewanee), Tennessee, to live among members of the Episcopalian
monastic order of the Holy Cross. The following year she enrolled
Agee in St. Andrew's School, which was run by the order. At the
school Agee met Father James Harold Flye, who became his spiritual
adviser and lifelong correspondent. Letters of James Agee to
Father Flye (1962) is the best introduction to Agee the man and
one of the great letter collections in American literature.
St. Andrew's was a school for farm boys from Appalachia, few
of whom went on to college. More was expected from Agee, and
in 1925 he entered Phillips Exeter Academy as a sophomore. He
graduated three years later and enrolled in Harvard College.
At these schools he wrote most of his poetry (collected in Permit
Me Voyage in 1934) and short stories. In his senior year at Harvard
he wrote a parody of Time magazine that appeared in the Harvard
Advocate, of which he was president. On the strength of the parody,
he was offered a job as a reporter at Time Inc.'s Fortune magazine.
Agee stayed with Fortune from 1932 until 1937, writing articles
on topics as varied as steel rails, orchids, Saratoga Springs,
and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Like many intellectuals during
the depression, he was politically leftist in his sympathies
(he wrote that he "felt allegiance or part-allegiance to catholicism
and to the communist party"), although he was never doctrinaire
or politically active. His radicalism was of the spirit: he longed
to feel and communicate the pain of those on society's bottom rung.
He got his chance in the summer of 1936 when Fortune assigned
him and Walker Evans to do an article with text and pictures
on southern sharecropping. He and Evans gathered material in
Alabama over two months. When they returned to New York City,
Agee prepared an article that, he told Father Flye, "will be
impossible in any form and length Fortune can use."
Rather than a typical, and typically condescending, expose of
the sharecroppers' plight, Agee wrote a piece that was a mixture
of lyricism, painstaking description, scathingly personal confession,
and moral outrage. Fortune's editors tried reworking the article,
held it for a year, then turned it down. Agee, on a small advance
from Harper & Brothers, left the magazine and expanded the article
into his masterpiece, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was
rejected by Harper & Brothers and was not published until 1941
by Houghton Mifflin. The book received mostly favorable reviews
but sold only 600 copies. Agee never again tried to write anything
In 1939 he joined Time as book reviewer, and two years later
he moved to movie reviewing. His fame as a film critic rests,
however, on the longer reviews he did for the Nation from December
1942 until July 1948. In these columns he mastered a new approach
to commenting on movies--chatty, knowledgeable, opinionated,
good-humored. "Of the movies I have seen lately the one I like
best was To Have and Have Not," he wrote. "It has so little to
do with Ernest Hemingway's novel that I see no point in discussing
its 'faithfulness'; it is, rather, a sort of call-house version
of Going My Way." His reviews were collected in Agee on Film
(1958), one of the first books to present a movie reviewer's
work as of permanent literary value.
By the mid-1940s Agee had been married three times (to Olivia
Saunders, 1933-1938; Alma Mailman, 1938-1941; and Mia Fritsch
1943-), fathered two children (two more would follow), and become
a legend in New York magazine circles. A night person and an
insatiable talker, he was undisciplined about everything except
the writing that he had to do on deadline. He was addicted to
alcohol, cigarettes, and benzedrine (his wife Mia once said his
motto was "a little bit too much is just enough for me"), and
he took no care of his health (movie director John Huston said
Agee went to the dentist only to get teeth removed).
In the late 1940s he began to write movie scripts (and, later,
ones for television). Of the scripts produced, his greatest successes
were The Quiet One (1949), a documentary about a troubled black
boy in New York City; The African Queen (1951), on which he collaborated
with director Huston; a five-part TV series about Abraham Lincoln's
early years for the prestigious "Omnibus" program (1952-1953);
and The Night of the Hunter (1955), the only movie Charles Laughton
directed. By the early fifties, though, Agee's excesses had ruined
his health. He suffered a series of heart attacks and recurrent
angina, which kept him from writing the end of The African Queen
or joining its filming on location, and which so weakened his
work on The Night of the Hunter that Laughton had to rewrite the script.
In his last months Agee went back to writing about himself.
He had published a short novel about his adolescent religiosity,
The Morning Watch (1951), which provoked little interest, and
he probably expected no better of his writing about his childhood
and his father's death. In 1955 he died of a heart attack in
a New York taxicab, with no will, no insurance, and only $450
in the bank. He considered his life a failure and a waste of
talent, but the posthumous publication of A Death in the Family,
his film criticism, a second edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous
Men (1960), and his letters to Father Flye earned him a reputation,
which seems certain to endure, as an important and original writer.
Most of Agee's manuscripts and letters are in the Humanities
Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin. Other libraries
and individuals with Agee manuscripts and letters are listed
in Laurence Bergreen, James Agee: A Life (1984). Bergreen's biography,
the most complete yet published, is unsympathetic to Agee and
raised a storm of criticism when it appeared. Ross Spears, whose
documentary film Agee (1979) contains interviews with Agee's
wives and friends, points out many errors in Bergreen's book
in "Fiction as Life," Yale Review 74 (Winter 1985): 296-306.
See also Alan Spiegel, James Agee and the Legend of Himself:
A Critical Study (1998). Five of Agee's film scripts are collected
in Agee on Film, vol. 2 (1960). Remembering James Agee, ed. David
Madden (1974), collects essays by Agee's last wife and his important
friends and co-workers. Agee's second wife, Alma Neuman, describes
Agee's life while he was writing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
in "Thoughts of Jim: A Memoir of Frenchtown and James Agee,"
Shenandoah 33, no. 1 (1981-1982): 25-36. Richard Pells, Radical
Visions and American Dreams (1973), and William Stott, Documentary
Expression and Thirties America (1973), analyze Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men and the intellectual and cultural contexts in which
it was made. The 18 May 1955 issue of the New York Times has an
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William Stott, . "Agee, James Rufus";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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