The morning of Harvard’s commencement ceremony in 1932, James Agee rushed over to Sanders Theatre with his convocation ode, which he had been elected to perform in front of his graduating class. He had composed the poem only the night before, finishing it shortly before he was to deliver it. In his rush to arrive on time, he forgot his mortarboard and hastily borrowed one from a female colleague; when he ascended the stage to present his ode, he found that he was wearing a conspicuously red Radcliffe tassel.
James Rufus Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman Tyler. His father was killed in a car accident when Agee was only six, and the tragedy left a lasting impression. His devout Christian mother found the strength to prevail through her faith in God, and, at the same time, she sent her children away to a Christian boarding school. There, Agee found refuge in the friendship of Father James Harold Flye, who replaced the absence of his father and the lack of warmth Agee received from his sanctimonious mother. Early on, he struggled with his faith in God, who provided, on the one hand, the security he felt in school, but who, on the other hand, arbitrarily let his father die. These irreconcilable doubts, paired with the torment he felt at the hands of inevitable mortality, stayed with Agee until he died.
Father Flye became Agee’s lifelong confidant from the time he was a child at Saint Andrews School, and it is his correspondence with Flye that often reveals Agee’s deepest insecurities and concerns. He once told Flye, “I’d do anything on earth to become a really great writer. That’s as sincere a thing as I’ve ever said.” During his college years, Agee served as the editor of The Harvard Advocate, where he published many of his own poems and stories. He was proud to be at Harvard, but also enjoyed poking fun at its magisterial air, once referring in the Advocate to “that high-falutin flub-drubbery which is Harvard.” He used this sense of humor to do a parody of Time magazine, the skill of which, ironically, landed him a writing job with Fortune magazine, headed by the same newsman, who was impressed with his style.
While writing for Fortune, Agee published his first volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage, in 1934, which contains a foreword by Archibald MacLeish. He began to feel that his writing projects for the magazine were impersonal and soulless, devoid of creativity. In 1936, one of his assignments led him to travel through the deep South, documenting the lives of poor farmers. Shortly after finishing the job, he resigned from the magazine, using the material he had gathered to write Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, released in 1941.
After leaving Fortune, Agee picked up a job as a film critic for Time magazine, and then The Nation. He also served as screenwriter for both The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. Controversy surrounded his contribution to The Night of the Hunter when rumors arose that he did not actually write the screenplay. This charge was, however, proved false when, in 2004, his original manuscript was found. His criticisms were collected in Agee on Film, and many of his original manuscripts were recently published in scholarly editions of his work by the University of Tennessee Press in Agee’s native Knoxville.
Despite the moderate success Agee gained as a writer, his personal life had been on a downward spiral from the time he was a young man. He divorced his first wife, Via Saunders, after only five years of marriage. His marriage to his second wife, Alma Mailman, proved to be even shorter, when she left him, taking with her his only son. Later he married Mia Fritsch, with whom he had three children; they remained married until his death. His penchant for heavy drinking and smoking was beginning to take a toll on his health, and both of these vices were large contributors to his heart disease. He once told Father Flye, “I realize that I have an enormously strong drive, on a universally broad front, toward self-destruction.”
In the last years of his life, Agee began working on one of his most famous works, A Death in the Family, which is based on the personal trauma he suffered after his own father’s death. Unfortunately, he did not live to see it published. He died from a heart attack in a New York City cab when he was 45, three years before he would be awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his last novel.
If you are walking down 15th Street in Knoxville, a seemingly random arrangement of large red figures comes into view. Keep walking, and you will notice, at only one point during the trip, that the statues come together to form the word “Moment.” This memorial was erected in James Agee Park in 2005, perhaps meant to signify a life that lasted for only a brief moment in time, ended by a tragic self-destruction, but leaving a lasting legacy.
Permit Me Voyage (poetry), 1934
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (nonfiction), 1941
The Morning Watch (novella), 1951
A Death in the Family (novel), 1957
Collected Poems of James Agee, 1969
Collected Short Prose of James Agee, 1978
Agee on Film (criticism), 1983
Brooklyn is Southeast of the Island (nonfiction), 2005
James Agee’s profile on TodayInLiterature.com:
John Leonard’s article “James Agee: Journalist, Critic, Novelist, Screenwriter” in The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/25/books/review/25leonard.html
Will Blythe’s essay “Agee Unfettered” in The New York Times Book Review:
The Library of America’s interview with Andrew Hudgins on James Agee: