JAMES RUFUS AGEE (/ˈeɪdʒiː/ AY-jee ; November 27, 1909 – May
16, 1955) was an American novelist, journalist, poet, screenwriter and
film critic. In the 1940s, he was one of the most influential film
critics in the U.S. His autobiographical novel , A Death in the Family
(1957 ), won the author a posthumous
1958 Pulitzer Prize .
* 1 Early life and education
* 2 Career
* 2.1 Screenwriting
* 3 Personal life
* 3.1 Legacy
* 4 Bibliography
* 4.1 Published as
* 5 References
* 6 Further reading
* 7 External links
EARLY LIFE AND EDUCATION
Agee was born in
Knoxville, Tennessee , to Hugh
James Agee and Laura
Whitman Tyler, at Highland Avenue and 15th Street, which was renamed
James Agee Street in 1999, in what is now the Fort Sanders
neighborhood . When Agee was six, his father was killed in an
automobile accident. From the age of seven, Agee and his younger
sister, Emma, were educated in several boarding schools . The most
prominent of these was located near his mother's summer cottage two
Sewanee, Tennessee . Saint Andrews School for Mountain Boys
was run by the monastic
Order of the Holy Cross
Order of the Holy Cross affiliated with the
Episcopal Church . It was there that Agee's lifelong friendship with
Episcopal priest Father James Harold Flye, a history teacher at St.
Andrew's, and his wife Grace Eleanor Houghton began in 1919. As
Agee's close friend and mentor, Flye corresponded with him on literary
and other topics through life and became a confidant of Agee's
soul-wrestling. He published the letters after Agee's death. The New
York Times Book Review pronounced The Letters of
James Agee to Father
Flye (1962 ) as "comparable in importance to Fitzgerald's 'The
Crackup' and Thomas Wolfe's letters as a self-portrait of the artist
in the modern American scene."
James Agee Park in the Fort
Sanders neighborhood of
Knoxville, Tennessee – Agee's childhood home
and the setting for his novel
A Death in the Family .
Agee's mother married St. Andrew's bursar Father Erskine Wright in
1924, and the two moved to
Rockland, Maine . Agee went to Knoxville
High School for the 1924–1925 school year, then traveled with Father
Flye to Europe in the summer, when Agee was sixteen. On their return,
Agee transferred to a boarding school in
New Hampshire , entering the
class of 1928 at
Phillips Exeter Academy . Soon after, he began a
Dwight Macdonald .
At Phillips Exeter, Agee was president of The Lantern Club and editor
of the Monthly where his first short stories, plays, poetry and
articles were published. Despite barely passing many of his high
school courses, Agee was admitted to
Harvard University 's class of
1932. There Agee took classes taught by
Robert Hillyer and I. A.
Richards ; his classmate in those was the future poet and critic
Robert Fitzgerald , with whom he would eventually work at Time . Agee
was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate and delivered the class
ode at his commencement .
After graduation, Agee was hired by the
Time Inc. as a reporter, and
moved to New York City, where he wrote for Fortune magazine in
1932-1937, although he is better known for his later film criticism in
Time and The Nation . In 1934, he published his only volume of poetry,
Permit Me Voyage, with a foreword by
Archibald MacLeish .
In the summer of 1936, during the
Great Depression , Agee spent eight
weeks on assignment for Fortune with photographer
Walker Evans ,
living among sharecroppers in
Alabama . While Fortune did not publish
his article, Agee turned the material into a book entitled Let Us Now
Praise Famous Men (1941). It sold only 600 copies before being
remaindered . Another manuscript from the same assignment discovered
in 2003, titled Cotton Tenants, is believed to be the essay submitted
to Fortune editors. The 30,000 word text, accompanied by photographs
by Walker Evans, was published as a book in June 2013. John Jeremiah
Sullivan writes in the Summer 2013 issue of BookForum that, "This is
not merely an early, partial draft of Famous Men, in other words, not
just a different book; it’s a different Agee, an unknown Agee. Its
excellence should enhance his reputation." A significant difference
between the works is the use of original names in Cotton Tenants; Agee
assigned fictional names to the subjects of Famous Men in order to
protect their identity.
Agee left Fortune in 1937 while working on a book, then, in 1939, he
took a book reviewing job at Time , sometimes reviewing up to six
books per week; together, he and his friend
Whittaker Chambers ran
"the back of the book" for Time. In 1941, he became Time's film
critic. In 1942-1948, he worked as a film critic for The Nation.
Agee was an ardent champion of
Charlie Chaplin 's then unpopular film
Monsieur Verdoux (1947), since recognized as a film classic. He was
also a great admirer of
Laurence Olivier 's Henry V and Hamlet ,
especially Henry V. Agee on Film (1958) collected his writings of
In 1948, Agee quit his job to become a freelance writer. One of his
assignments was a well-received article for
Life Magazine about the
silent movie comedians
Charles Chaplin ,
Buster Keaton , Harold Lloyd
Harry Langdon . The article has been credited for reviving
Keaton's career. As a freelancer in the 1950s, Agee continued to write
magazine articles while working on movie scripts; he developed a
friendship with photographer
Helen Levitt .
Agee's career as a movie scriptwriter was curtailed by his
alcoholism. Nevertheless, he is one of the credited screenwriters on
two of the most respected films of the 1950s: The African Queen (1951
) and The Night of the Hunter (1955 ).
His contribution to Hunter is shrouded in controversy. Some critics
have claimed the published script was written by the film's director
Charles Laughton . Reports that Agee's screenplay for Hunter was
incoherent have been proved false by the 2004 discovery of his first
draft, which although 293 pages in length, is scene for scene the film
which Laughton directed. While not yet published, the first draft has
been read by scholars, most notably Professor Jeffrey Couchman of
Columbia University . He credited Agee in the essay, "Credit Where
Credit Is Due." Also false were reports that Agee was fired from the
film. Laughton renewed Agee's contract and directed him to cut the
script in half, which Agee did. Later, apparently at
Robert Mitchum 's
request, Agee visited the set to settle a dispute between the star and
Laughton. Letters and documents located in the archive of Agee's agent
Paul Kohner bear this out; they were documented by Laughton's
Simon Callow , whose BFI book about The Night of the Hunter
set this part of the record straight.
Soon after graduation from Harvard, he married Olivia Saunders (aka
"Via") on January 28, 1933; they divorced in 1938. Later that same
year, he married Alma Mailman. They divorced in 1941, and Alma moved
Mexico with their year-old son Joel, to live with Communist
politician and writer
Bodo Uhse .
Agee began living in
Greenwich Village with Mia Fritsch, whom he
married in 1946. They had two daughters, Julia and Andrea, and a son
John. In 1951 in Santa Barbara , Agee, a hard drinker and
chain-smoker, suffered a heart attack; on May 16, 1955, Agee was in
New York City
New York City when he suffered a fatal heart attack in a taxi cab en
route to a doctor's appointment. He was buried on a farm he owned at
Hillsdale, New York , property still held by Agee descendants.
During his lifetime, Agee enjoyed only modest public recognition.
Since his death, his literary reputation has grown. In 1957, his novel
A Death in the Family (based on the events surrounding his father's
death) was published posthumously and in 1958 won the Pulitzer Prize
for fiction. In 2007, Dr. Michael Lofaro published a restored edition
of the novel using Agee's original manuscripts. Agee's work had been
heavily edited before its original publication by publisher David
Agee's reviews and screenplays have been collected in two volumes of
Agee on Film. There is some dispute over the extent of his
participation in the writing of The Night of the Hunter.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has grown to be considered Agee's
masterpiece. Ignored on its original publication in 1941, the book
has since been placed among the greatest literary works of the 20th
century by the New York School of Journalism and the New York Public
Library . It was the inspiration for the
Aaron Copland opera The
Tender Land .
David Simon , journalist and creator of acclaimed
The Wire , credited the book with impacting him
early in his career and informing his practice of journalism.
1st edition cover
Samuel Barber set sections of "Descriptions of Elysium"
from Permit Me Voyage to music, composing a song based on "Sure On
This Shining Night." In addition, he set prose from the "Knoxville"
A Death in the Family in his work for soprano and orchestra
entitled Knoxville: Summer of 1915 . "Sure On This Shining Night" has
also been set to music by composers René Clausen, Z. Randall Stroope
Morten Lauridsen .
In late 1979 the filmmaker, Ross Spears, premiered his film AGEE: A
Sovereign Prince of the English Language, which was later nominated
for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and was awarded a
Blue Ribbon at the 1980 American Film Festival. AGEE featured James
Agee's friends, Dwight Macdonald, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Saudek,
John Huston , as well as the three women to whom
James Agee had
been married. In addition, Father James Harold Flye was a featured
interviewee. President Jimmy Carter speaks about his favorite book,
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
The Man Who Lives Here Is Loony, a one-act play by Knoxville-based
songwriter and playwright RB Morris, takes place in a New York
apartment during one night in Agee's life. The play has been performed
at venues around Knoxville, and at the
Cornelia Street Cafe in
* 1934 Permit Me Voyage, in the
Yale Series of Younger Poets
* 1935 Knoxville: Summer of 1915 , prose poem later set to music by
* 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families ,
* 1949 The Tramp's New World, screenplay for Charlie Chaplin
The Morning Watch , Houghton Mifflin
* 1951 The African Queen , screenplay from
C. S. Forester
C. S. Forester novel
* 1952 Face to Face (
The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky segment),
Stephen Crane story
* 1954 The Night of the Hunter , screenplay from
Davis Grubb novel
A Death in the Family (posthumous; stage adaptation: All the
* 1948 Agee on Film
* 1952 Agee on Film II
* 1962 Letters of
James Agee to Father Flye
* 1972 The Collected Short Prose of James Agee
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (new edition)
* 2013 Cotton Tenants: Three Families, Melville House
* Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, Shorter
Michael Sragow , ed.) (
Library of America , 2005) ISBN
978-1-931082-81-5 . Stories include "Death in the Desert," "They That
Sow in Sorrow Shall Reap" and "A Mother's Tale."
* Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Violette Editions, 2001, ISBN
* Film Writing and Selected Journalism: Uncollected Film Writing,
'The Night of the Hunter', Journalism and Book Reviews (Michael
Sragow, ed.) (
Library of America , 2005) ISBN 978-1-931082-82-2 .
* Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes, (Jonathan
Lethem, preface) (
Fordham University Press , 2005) ISBN
* ^ "
James Agee (1909–1955): Let us now praise famous writers".
Chicago Tribune . February 27, 1977. Retrieved 2010-12-04. James Agee
was born in
Knoxville in 1909, to a father whose people were farmers
(in Tennessee and Virginia) and a mother whose family members
considered themselves "more cosmopolitan." Agee's father died young,
in an accident frequently memorialized (most eloquently in the
autobiographical novel A Death in the Family), but the conflict he
helped engender would persist...
* ^ Journal of the Eighty-Fourth Annual Convention of the Church,
Diocese of Tennessee, Nashville, Tenn., 1916
* ^ Father James Harold Flye Papers - Vanderbilt University.
* ^ Rev. James H. Flye, 100, is dead; Friend of James Agee, the
writer, The New York Times, April 14, 1985. Retrieved November 27,
* ^ A B Agee Chronology
* ^ Sullivan, John Jeremiah. "Southern Exposures". BookForum.
BookForum. Retrieved 18 June 2013.
* ^ Haughney, Christine. "A Paean to Forbearance (the Rough
Draft)". New York Times. New York Times. Retrieved 18 June 2013.
* ^ Chambers, Whittaker (1952). Witness. Random House. pp. 478,
493, 504, 615. ISBN 0-89526-571-0 .
* ^ William Stott. Agee, James Rufus, American National Biography
Online, February 2000. Retrieved November 27, 2015.
* ^ James Agee's reviews on the Nation's website. Retrieved
November 27, 2015.
* ^ Murphsplace.com
* ^ Helen Levitt, Who Froze New York Street Life on Film, Is Dead
at 95, The New York Times, March 30, 2009. Retrieved November 27,
Walker Evans of New York\'s
Photo League wrote, "Levitt’s
work was one of James Agee’s great loves, and, in turn, Agee’s own
magnificent eye was part of her early training."
James Agee (1909–1955) Chronology of his Life and Work
James Agee and Michael A. Lofaro, ed. A Death in the Family: A
Restoration of the Author's Text. Knoxville: University of Tennessee
Press, 2007. ISBN 1-57233-594-7
* ^ Gritten, David (17 Jan 2014). "Night of the Hunter: a
masterpiece of American cinema". telegraph.co.uk.
* ^ Morris, Nigel (2003). Poplawski, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of
Literary Modernism. Greenwood Publ. p. 4. ISBN 9780313310171 .
Retrieved 26 August 2013.
* ^ Simon, David. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by
James Agee and
Walker Evans". davidsimon.com.
* ^ Matthew Everett, "R.B. Morris Revives His One-Act Play About
Knoxville Mercury, 26 October 2016.
* Letters of
James Agee to Father Flye, ISBN 0-87797-301-6
* James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, etc., The Library of
America , 159, with notes by Michael Sragow, 2005.
* Alma Neuman, Always Straight Ahead: A Memoir, Louisiana State
University Press, 176 pages, 1993. ISBN 0-8071-1792-7 .
* Kenneth Seib, "James Agee: Promise and Fulfillment", in Critical
Essays in Modern Literature, University of Pittsburgh Press, 175
* Geneviève Moreau, "The Restless Journey of James Agee", William
Morrow and Company, New York, 1977.
* Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, London: