James Rufus Agee November 27, 1909 - May 16, 1955 was an American novelist, screenwriter, journalist, poet, 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 Pulitzer Prize.
Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee at Highland Avenue and 15th Street (renamed James Agee Street in 1999) to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman Tyler, and had distant French and English ancestry on his father's side. When Agee was six, his father died in an automobile accident, and from the age of seven he and his younger sister, Emma, were educated in boarding schools.
The most influential of these was located near his mother's summer cottage two miles from Sewanee, Tennessee. Saint Andrews School for Mountain Boys was run by Episcopal monks affiliated with the Order of the Holy Cross), and it was there that Agee's lifelong friendship with an Episcopal priest, Father James Harold Flye, began in 1919. As Agee's close friend and spiritual confidant, Flye was the recipient of many of Agee's most revealing letters.
Agee went to Knoxville High School for the 1924-1925 school year, then travelled with Father Flye to Europe in the summer, when Agee was sixteen. On their return, Agee moved to boarding school in New Hampshire, entering the class of 1928 at Phillips Exeter Academy. There he 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. He was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate and delivered the class ode at his commencement.
After graduation, he wrote for Fortune and Time magazines, although he is better known for his later film criticism in The Nation. He married Via Saunders on January 28, 1933; they divorced in 1938 and that same year he married Alma Mailman. In 1934, he published his only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage, with a foreword by Archibald MacLeish.
In the summer of 1936, Agee spent eight weeks on assignment for Fortune with photographer Walker Evans living among sharecroppers in Alabama. While Fortune didn't publish his article (he left the magazine in 1939), Agee turned the material into a book entitled, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men 1941. It sold only 600 copies before being remaindered. That same year, Alma moved to Mexico with their year-old son, Joel, to live with Communist writer Bodo Uhse. Agee began living with Mia Fritsch in Greenwich Village, whom he married in 1946. They had two daughters, Teresa and Andrea, and a son, John, who was eight months old when Agee died.
In 1942, Agee became the film critic for Time, while also writing occasional book reviews, and subsequently becoming the film critic for The Nation. In 1948, however, he quit both magazines to become a freelance writer. One of his assignments was a well received article for Life Magazine about the great silent movie comedians, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon, which has been credited for reviving Keaton's career. As a freelance in the 1950's, he continued to write magazine articles while working on movie scripts, often with photographer Helen Levitt.
Agee was an ardent champion of Charlie Chaplin's then extremely unpopular film Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which has since become a film classic. He was also a great admirer of Laurence Olivier's Henry V and Hamlet, especially Henry V, for which he actually published three separate reviews, all of which have been printed in the collection Agee on Film.
In 1951 in Santa Barbara, California, Agee suffered the first two in a series of heart attacks, which ultimately claimed his life four years later at the age of 45. He died on May 16, 1955 while in a taxi cab en route to a doctor's appointment -- coincidentally two days before the anniversary of his father's death. James Agee (1909-1955)] Chronology of his Life and Work He was buried on a farm he owned at Hillsdale, NY.
Hollywood and The Night of the Hunter
Agee's career as a movie scriptwriter was curtailed by alcoholism, but he is nevertheless one of the credited screenwriters on two of the great films of the 1950s: The Night of the Hunter (1955) and The African Queen (1951).
Agee's contribution to Hunter is shrouded in controversy, and the claim has been raised that the published script was actually 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 and overwritten, is scene for scene the film Charles Laughton directed. The first draft is yet to be published, but it has been read by scholars - most notably Prof. Jeffrey Couchman of Columbia University, who published his findings in an essay, "Credit Where Credit Is Due."
Also false are the reports that Agee was fired from the film. Laughton, whatever his displeasure at having to deal with such a large script with only five weeks before the start of principal photography, renewed Agee's contract and directed him to cut it 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 brought to light by Laughton's biographer Simon Callow, whose book about The Night of the Hunter sets this part of the record straight. .
During his lifetime, Agee enjoyed only modest public recognition, but since his death his literary reputation has grown. In 1957 his novel, A Death in the Family (which was based on the events surrounding his father's death), was published posthumously and in 1958 won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Agee's reviews and screenplays have been collected in Agee on Film, which has been controversial not only because of the allegations concerning The Night of the Hunter, but because one of the Time reviews included in the first volume (of the film Roxie Hart) was not written by Agee. According to a bound volume of the book in the library of Time magazine, corroborated by the style of the review itself, which is at variance with Agee's usual style.
Agee's book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, ignored on its original publication in 1941, has been placed among the greatest literary works of the 20th Century by the New York School of Journalism and the New York Public Library. Samuel Barber has set sections of "Descriptions of Elysium" from Permit Me Voyage to music, including the song "Sure On This Shining Night"; in addition, he set prose from the traditionally included "Knoxville" section of "A Death in the Family" in his work for soprano entitled "Knoxville: Summer of 1915."
List of works
- 1934 Permit Me Voyage, in the Yale Series of Younger Poets
- 1935 Knoxville: Summer of 1915, prose poem later set to music by Samuel Barber.
- 1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families, Houghton Mifflin
- 1951 The Morning Watch, Houghton Mifflin
- 1951 The African Queen, screenplay from C. S. Forester novel
- 1952 Face to Face (The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky segment), screenplay from Stephen Crane story
- 1954 The Night of the Hunter, screenplay from Davis Grubb novel
- 1957 A Death in the Family (posthumous; stage adaptation: All the Way Home)
- Agee on Film
- Agee on Film II
- Letters of James Agee to Father Flye
- The Collected Short Prose of James Agee
- Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, Shorter Fiction (Michael Sragow, ed.) (Library of America, 2005) ISBN 978-1-93108281-5. Stories include "death in the Desert," "They That Sow in Sorrow Shall Reap" and "A Mother's Tale."
- 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 978-1-93108282-2.
- Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes (Jonathan Lethem, preface) (Fordham University Press, 2005) ISBN 978-0-82322492-0.
- 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", Critical Essays in Modern Literature, University of Pittsburgh Press, 175 pages, 1968.
- Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken. London: Routledge, 2005
- A Mother's Tale
- A chronology of James Agee's life & work from Agee Films