James Agee

James Agee was an American author, journalist, poet, screenwriter, and film critic. His autobiographical novel A Death in the Family (1957) won him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Composers who have set his poetry include Samuel Barber and Thomas Pasatieri.

Photo: Portrait of James Agee, taken by Walker Evans, courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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“I know I am making the choice most dangerous to an artist in valuing life above art.”

With these words James Agee (pronounced AY-jee) acknowledged the restless journey his biography would encompass. Poet, novelist, journalist, film critic, and social activist, Agee led an unorthodox, hard-driving life that resulted in an early death. His voracious appetite for experience–valuing life, as he put it–shaped the penetrating, passionate, and colorful poetry and prose he produced.

Of Huguenot ancestry, James Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1909, the son of a postal worker who was killed in the prime of his life in an automobile accident. The loss of his father marked James Agee in the short term as well as the long term.

Decades later it would form the kernel of the novel which is the cornerstone of his fame, A Death in the Family, but more immediately it resulted in what the author would see as an expulsion from a childhood Eden. In 1916 Agee was sent to an Episcopal boarding school in the Appalachians, Saint Andrews Seminary. Not unlike James Joyce’s experience with the Jesuits, the years spent in this monastic environment would shape and scar Agee for the rest of his days. Tormented by his sense of isolation and a feeling of abandonment by his mother, he nevertheless found solace in the rigorous academic curriculum, and formed his closest and most enduring friendship with his mentor, Father Flye, who became a surrogate parent, confidant, and spiritual inspiration for the remainder of Agee’s life.

It was Flye who recognized Agee’s intellectual and creative gifts, introduced him to classical literature and music, and helped him win a place at the prestigious Exeter Academy and then at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1932. In 1934, while working as a journalist for Fortune magazine in New York, Agee published his first and only volume of verse, Permit Me Voyage, and in 1936 he embarked with photographer Walker Evans on an assignment to document the lives of poor Southern farmers. The two traveled through Tennessee and Alabama, sometimes living with their subjects, and collecting the oral and visual histories that culminated first in their Fortune reportage and then in their book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)–a milestone classic on social injustice in America. Agee’s renewed contact with his Southern roots led him to write The Morning Watch and Knoxville: Summer 1915, both sensitive depictions of a Tennessee boyhood.

Agee’s restlessness intensified in the late 30’s. His last major assignment before he left Fortune in 1939 was a trip to Havana in 1937. By the early 40’s his involvement with the Communist magazine New Masses, and his leftist leanings, made him uncomfortable with America’s war involvement. Two marriages dissolved and a third would be troubled; his smoking and drinking increased and contributed to his heart disease. Agee would seek new platforms for his writing: pioneering the art of film criticism for The Nation and Time magazine, completing his novel A Death in the Family, and writing several screenplays and documentary film scripts–leaving one on the Tanglewood Festival unfinished at the time of his death. He succumbed to a heart attack on his way to a doctor’s appointment on May 16, 1955. The date, ironically, was the anniversary of his own father’s death.

–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

Photo: Walker Evans, photographer, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [Reproduction number e.g., LC-USZ62-123456]

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