born november 27, 1909
died may 16, 1955 new york, new york
poet, novelist, movie critic, movie scriptwriter
Walker Evans, in the introduction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men">
"The talk, in the end, was his great distinguishing feature. He talked his prose, Agee prose.… It rolled just as it reads; but he made it sound natural.…"
walker evans, in the introduction to let us now praise famous men
Although a relatively young man when he died at age forty-five, James Agee filled his years with a variety of literary pursuits. He wrote poetry, movie scripts, movie critiques, short prose, and novels. His best-known works are a documentary on white tenant farmers in the Deep South, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, first published in 1941; a short novel called The Morning Watch, published in 1951; and a longer novel, A Death in the Family, published in 1957, after his death. Agee's literary themes were strongly influenced by his childhood experiences: growing up in a Christian family in Knoxville, Tennessee; suffering the loss of his father; and attending an Episcopalian grammar school, where he was taught various social and religious philosophies.
Born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, Agee attended grammar school with his sister Emma at Saint Andrews. Saint Andrews was run by members of the Order of the Holy Cross of the Episcopal Church. Agee became friends with Father Flye, a member of the St. Andrews community. For years after leaving Saint Andrews he kept up correspondence with Father Flye, with whom he shared many intellectual interests.
Agee entered the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in the fall of 1925 and told Father Flye that he felt his literary career would take root there. Literature and writing were already Agee's only real love. By 1927 he was editor of the school magazine, the Monthly, and president of the literary club, the Lantern. His attempts at poetry had come to the attention of famous poets such as Robert Frost (1874–1963). With his talent already apparent, Agee was accepted into Harvard University, where his determination to become a writer intensified. However, Agee was often sidetracked by uncertainty, and his spirits would plummet so low that he sometimes considered suicide, only to be in a much improved mood the next day. These emotional extremes would continue throughout his life. Despite this internal conflict, while at Harvard he wrote for, then became president of the Harvard Advocate.
At Fortune magazine
After graduation from Harvard, Agee went to work for Fortune magazine in 1932 as a reporter and later an editor. While at Fortune Agee enhanced his skills as a writer. He wrote about various businesses and about the Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive New Deal project that brought jobs and electricity to the Southeast. ("New Deal" was the name given to the many programs the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt [1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry] initiated to help America recover from the Depression.)
In 1934 he published his first and only volume of poems, Permit Me Voyage. The poems were highly personal, some written as early as his high school days at Exeter. Agee would continue writing poetry but did not collect it into another book. His poems were eventually published in 1968 in The Collected Poems of James Agee, edited by Robert Fitzgerald.
In 1936, in the middle of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in U.S. history, Fortune sent Agee to Alabama. His assignment was to study the Southern farm economy and write a series of documentary articles on the daily life of a sharecropping family. Sharecroppers were farmers who did not own the land they worked. Instead, the landowners supplied them with land and tools and then took part of the crop in exchange. In the 1930s sharecroppers rarely earned more than a few hundred dollars in cash for their crops, and once bills were paid for expenses such as food and medical care, almost nothing was left to live on for the rest of the year. Walker Evans (1903–1975), a photographer on leave from the Resettlement Administration's Historical Section (a federal agency), accompanied Agee. The assignment was to last one month, but Agee and Evans ended up staying two months. In writing and pictures Agee and Evans attempted to honestly relate the lives of three families called the Ricketts, Gudgers, and Woods. Rather than write the articles from the viewpoint that the families were "social problems," Agee showed the great human dignity the families possessed. The material was rejected by Fortune, but Agee continued to work on it, and in 1941 Houghton Mifflin Company published Agee's writing and Evans's photographs in a book titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book was not well received and sold only a few hundred copies. However, in 1960 Houghton Mifflin reprinted it, and it became an American classic. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Agee comes to a realization and understanding of the humanity in himself and in others. In the introduction of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans describes Agee's total commitment while researching the book and his joy at leaving behind the New York intellectual scene for a while:
he could live inside the subject, with no distractions. back country poor life wasn't really far from him, actually. he had some of it in his blood, through relatives in tennessee. anyway, he was in flight from new york magazine editorial offices, from greenwich village social-intellectual evenings, and especially from the whole world of high-minded, well-bred, money-hued culture.... in alabama he sweated and scratched with submerged glee. the families understood what he was down there to do. he'd explained it, in such a way that they were interested in his work.
Ever since his childhood, Agee had relished movies. Combining his interest in movies with his writing ability, Agee became a well-known movie critic in the 1940s. He wrote movie critiques for Time magazine from 1941 until 1948. He also wrote a widely read column on movies for the magazine Nation from 1942 to 1948.
Not only a critic, Agee also wrote movie scripts, but none of his original scripts were ever filmed. However, he wrote several screenplays based on novels written by other authors, most notably The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). Agee, always vitally involved with how the camera was manipulated during filming, frequently outlined the entire filming process.
Agee's best-known novels are The Morning Watch and A Death in the Family. Published in 1951, The Morning Watch is a short novel about a twelve-year-old lad attending an Episcopal school, just as Agee had done as a child. In the book he explores how the child comes to an appreciation and understanding of his real self.
A Death in the Family, published in 1957, two years after Agee's own death, received a 1958 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It was adapted into the play All the Way Home, which was produced in 1960 and 1961 and received a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Fame after death
Having abused his body with both alcohol and tobacco, Agee died of heart failure in 1955. He achieved his greatest fame after death, with the Pulitzer Prize for A Death in the Family and with the successful reprinting of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1958 his film reviews were collected and published in Agee on Film. His poetry and prose were published in separate collections in 1968, and James Agee: Selected Journalism came out in 1985.
For More Information
agee, james. agee on film: reviews and comments. new york, ny: mcdowell, obolensky, 1958.
agee, james. a death in the family. new york, ny: mcdowell, obolensky, 1957.
agee, james. the morning watch. boston, ma: houghton mifflin, 1951.
agee, james, and walker evans. let us now praise famous men. boston, ma: houghton mifflin, 1941.
ashdown, paul, ed. james agee: selected journalism. knoxville, tn: university of tennessee, 1985.
fitzgerald, robert, ed. the collected poems of james agee. boston, ma: houghton mifflin, 1968.
fitzgerald, robert, ed. the collected short prose of james agee. boston, ma: houghton mifflin, 1968.
phelps, robert. "james agee." in the letters of james agee to father flye. new york, ny: braziller, 1962.
The writer James Agee (1909-1955) was a poet, journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He also was the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an eloquent and anguished testimony about the essential human dignity of impoverished sharecroppers during the 1930s. The book is regarded as one of the most significant literary documents associated with the Great Depression.
Born November 27, 1909, in Knoxville, Tennessee, James Agee was the son of Hugh James and Laura (Tyler) Agee. His father worked for a small construction company founded by his father-in-law, while his mother had close ties to the Anglo-Catholic church and enjoyed writing poetry. His father's death in a car accident when James was six strongly influenced his life. He later described the incident in his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, which was published posthumously (1957) and won a Pulitzer Prize. For most of his career he was a journalist writing for Henry Luce publications (TIME, Fortune, LIFE) and a screenwriter. As a reporter in 1936, his encounter with three families of sharecroppers in Alabama became the basis for the very personal documentary-style book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was an ambitious literary attempt to honor people enduring extreme poverty.
Not long after his father's death Agee moved with his family to the mountains in south-central Tennessee where he attended St. Andrews, a small Episcopalian school, from 1919 to 1924. He established a deep friendship with Father James Harold Flye that developed into a life-long correspondence. While at St. Andrews he experienced the spiritual crisis which he later described in his novel The Morning Watch (1951).
He spent one year at high school in Knoxville before attending Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire from 1925 to 1928. As a student at Harvard College (1928-1932) he wrote numerous short stories, poems, and essays. His work on a parody of TIME magazine helped him get a job after graduation as a reporter for Fortune magazine. Through another Fortune writer, the poet Archibald MacLeish, Agee submitted a collection of poems that was selected by the Yale Series of Younger Poets and published as Permit Me Voyage (1934).
For Fortune (1932-1938), Agee wrote long articles on a wide range of business and cultural topics, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and the American highway system. In 1936 he was assigned to do an article on tenant farming in the South. Accompanied by photographerWalker Evans, who was employed by the Farm Security Administration, Agee spent several weeks with three poor families in Alabama.
A departure from traditional journalism, his impassioned article was rejected by the magazine. He spent several more years writing a book that made use of a number of literary techniques to describe the dignity of these anonymous people. Combining elements of documentary journalism, poetry, autobiography, and philosophy, and including many of Evans' photographs, the work was published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It initially sold only 600 copies; however, after it was reissued in 1960 it was recognized by scholars and critics as one of the most significant literary documents produced during the Great Depression
In 1939 Agee took a job reviewing books for TIME magazine. From 1941 to 1948 he wrote film reviews for TIME, and, after writing a cover piece on the impact of the atom bomb in August 1945, he wrote on political and cultural issues until 1947. From 1942 to 1948 he also wrote film reviews for The Nation magazine that established him as one of the nation's best-known and respected writers about films and the movie industry. In 1949 and 1950 he contributed several long film essays (on Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and John Huston) to LIFE magazine.
To support his work on two novels (The Morning Watch and A Death in the Family) that were based on experiences from his childhood, Agee shifted his attention in the late 1940s from journalism to screen writing. He was involved with two independent productions: In the Street, about children in Harlem, and The Quiet One, about a school for delinquent children, which won an award for best film at the Venice Film Festival. For Hollywood, he worked on adaptation of Stephen Crane's The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky and The Blue Hotel, as well as director John Huston's The African Queen, which earned an Oscar nomination for best screenplay (1952).
In the early 1950s he worked for the Twentieth-Century Fox studio, wrote a script about Abraham Lincoln for the television series Omnibus, wrote a screenplay based on the life of the French Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, and worked on scripts about the Tanglewilde Music Festival and colonial Williamsburg.
Agee's lifestyle, included heavy drinking and smoking, vices that interfered with his writing and severely impaired his health. He suffered the first of several heart attacks in 1951 while working on The African Queen, and later died of a heart attack on May 16, 1955, at the age of 45.
Although he was employed for almost his entire writing career as a journalist or scriptwriter, and despite his early death, Agee produced a considerable and diverse body of creative work, including poetry, essays, and novels. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men challenged the traditional conventions of reporting and literature and helped define a new genre of personal journalism that became more common in the 1960s.
Although Agee never fulfilled his personal ambition as a writer, the critical success of his novel A Death in the Family, published after his death, and the delayed recognition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men established his reputation as one of the most talented writers of his generation.
In the 1930s Agee was twice married and divorced (to Via Saunders and to Alma Mailhouse, with whom he had one child) and was later married to Mia Fritsch, with whom he had three children.
To appreciate Agee as a writer one should read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and the novel A Death in the Family (1957). To understand his religious and personal struggles one can read his short novel The Morning Watch (1951) and also the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962). For perspective on Agee as a film critic and screenwriter, see the two volumes of Agee on Film (1958, 1960). Agee's poetry can be found in The Collected Poems of James Agee (1968) and examples of his journalism are available in James Agee: Selected Journalism (also 1968).
For information on Agee's life the best biography is James Agee: A Life, by Laurence Bergreen (1984). Also valuable is The Restless Journey of James Agee (1977) by Genevieve Moreau, which includes more analysis of his writing. Views of Agee by those who knew him can be found in Remembering James Agee (1974), edited by David Madden, and Agee: His Life Remembered (1985), edited by Ross Spears and Jude Cassidy. For a look at the legacy of the people and conditions featured in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, see And Their Children After Them by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson (1989). □
James Rufus Agee (November 27, 1909–May 16, 1955) was a gifted man of letters who in his brief but intense life left an indelible touch on a variety of literary forms: poetry, novels, film criticism, screenplays, essays, and journalism. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Agee was one of America's best film critics (for Time and The Nation, 1941–1948), and the first to raise the mechanics of weekly reviewing to the level of prose art. His scripts for such films as The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955) were generally judged superior to their novelistic sources. His posthumous autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), which won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, remains a much-loved period evocation of southern Americana, as well as an aching memoir of parents, children, and the negotiation of loss. Arguably, his greatest achievement was a product of his late youth, the Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), co-authored with the photographer Walker Evans. Part anatomy of the impoverished conditions surrounding a tenant farmer's life, part poetic and metaphysical inquiry into the mysteries of existence, part intimate confession of the author's search for his aesthetic identity and family roots, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a book like no other. Admittedly unclassifiable, it is without doubt one of the most brilliant and original junctures of image and text in the annals of mixed media creation.
In the summer of 1936, Fortune magazine sent Agee and Evans to the South "to prepare an article on cotton tenantry in the United States." The coauthors spent approximately six weeks on assignment, much of the time actually living with three tenant families in Hale County, Alabama. Agee meant for the resulting text of almost five hundred pages and Evans's thirty-one plates (later expanded to sixty-two) to be understood as analogous but very different views of the same subject. Accordingly, the images were lucid, surgical, and selfless, while the prose was turbulent, extravagant, and self-reflexive. Evans's models were connoisseurs of fact, the photographers Eugène Atget and Matthew Brady; Agee's were visionary poets, William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and William Blake. Occasionally self-indulgent, the author's language is frequently breathtaking in its intellectual passion, moral force, and near holographic reproduction of the physical reality. Equally characteristic is the way Agee refuses to view the farmer as a ready-made protest symbol, or in any way as an applicant for the reader's pity or patronization. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men remains honorably distinct in the literature of the Depression in its vision of the imperiled family as exalted in tragedy, inheritors of a moral aristocracy, and virtual gods in ruins.
See Also:EVANS, WALKER.
Agee, James. Agee on Film, Vol. 1: Reviews and Comments. 1958. Reprint, 1983.
Agee, James. A Death in the Family. 1957. Reprint, 1969.
Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 1941. Reprint, 1960.
Bergreen, Lawrence. James Agee: A Life. 1984.
Spiegel, Alan. James Agee and the Legend of Himself: A Critical Study. 1998.
Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. 1973.