Rollover Information
About the Series Schedule The Archive Learning Resources The American Collection Home Search Shop
A Death in the Family
Masterpiece Theatre A Death in the Family
Essays + Interviews [imagemap with 7 links]
1 2 3 Essays + Interviews Subsections

A Timeline of Agee's World

James Agee | Cultural Events | World Events

James Agee

James Rufus Agee, first child of Jay and Laura Agee, is born on November 27 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Agee will later remember his childhood before his father's death as idyllic.

1916:Father's death
Agee's father, Hugh James Agee, is killed in an auto accident on May 18. The incident haunts Agee for the rest of his life and will serve as the basis for A Death in the Family.

1919:Saint Andrew's
Agee's mother enrolls him in an Episcopal boarding school in Sewanee, Tennessee. Here he meets Father Flye, who will serve as a confidant and father figure throughout his life.

1922:Songs of the Way
Agee's mother, Laura Tyler, publishes a book of poetry reflecting a mix of literary and religious themes.

1924:Mother's remarriage
Agee's mother marries Father Erskind Wright, bursar at St. Andrew's, and they relocate to Rockland, Maine. Agee never warms to his stepfather, finding him "narrow, moralistic, and rigid."

To escape the friction between himself and his parents, Agee accepts Father Flye's invitation to tour France and England for the summer. The journey serves to strengthen the bond between them.

Phillips Exeter Academy
In the fall, Agee enrolls in Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. His academic record is uneven, but he excels in writing for the school's many publications.

1927:The Lantern Club
Agee is elected president of the Lantern Club, the Exeter literary society, and editor of Exeter Monthly. He writes everything from plays to poems, as he will throughout his career.

1928:Harvard University
The poet Robert Fitzgerald is Agee's classmate in lectures by Robert Hillyer and I.A. Richards.

1929:Nebraska and Kansas
Agee spends the summer harvesting wheat in the heartland, whetting his appetite for independence and bohemian living.

1931:Harvard Advocate
Agee serves as editor in chief of the Harvard student newspaper, but also writes for Lampoon and the Crimson. His parody of Time in the Advocate catches the attention of editor Henry Luce, who offers him a job at Fortune.

Agee is engaged as a cub reporter at Fortune. He will continue to work there for the next 15 years.

On January 28, Agee weds Olivia "Via" Saunders, a classmate from Harvard.

1934:Permit Me Voyage
In October, Agee's first and only volume of poetry is published as part of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, with a foreword by Archibald MacLeish. These poems establish religion as a central theme of his life and work.

Agee takes a leave of absence from Fortune to focus on writing. He moves to remote Anna Maria Key, where he becomes fascinated with James Joyce. His story "Knoxville: Summer, 1915," a precursor to A Death in the Family, reveals Joycean influence.

Agee and Walker Evans spend eight weeks in Alabama, interviewing and photographing tenant farming families for a series of Fortune articles that become the basis for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Although their time in Florida is harmonious, Agee's depressions and moral struggles with his writing lead to the end of his marriage to Via. Before their divorce is final, he has already taken up with Via's violin teacher, Alma Mailman.

Agee marries Alma Mailman and moves to New Jersey, where he works to revise the manuscript of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

1939:Three Tenant Families
Agee delivers the manuscript of what will later become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to Harper's, which rejects it as dated.

Book reviews
Agee begins to write book reviews for Time with Whittaker Chambers and old friend Robert Fitzgerald.

1940:Son born
Agee's first child, Joel, is born on March 20th.

1941:Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Agee and Evans's classic chronicle of Alabama tenant farmers is published by Houghton Mifflin.

Film reviews
Agee begins to review films for Time, an interest that will eventually lead him to Hollywood screenwriting.

Agee's marriage to Alma Mailman disintegrates, and the two separate for good.

1942:The Nation
Agee begins to write a column of film criticism for The Nation, a post he will hold until September 1948.

1945:Third marriage
Agee marries Mia Fritsch, a former colleague at Fortune.

In the Street
Agee collaborates with photographers Helen Levitt and Janice Loeb for this short, lyrical documentary film about life in an East Harlem neighborhood.

1946:First daughter born
Agee's first daughter, Julia Teresa, is born on November 7. Her birth sparks a new period of introspection in Agee, who struggles to come to terms with his feelings about religion and death.

1948:From Time to Life
Leaving Time, Agee begins a series of articles on the film industry for Life, among them a piece about his future collaborator John Huston. Said Agee friend Robert Fitzgerald, "He loved movies more than anyone I ever knew."

Finding Life's salary inadequate, Agee begins to write film scripts based on Stephen Crane's "The Blue Hotel" and "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky." After completing the scripts, he receives an invitation to work with John Huston.

1950:Second daughter born
Agee's second daughter, Andrea Maria, is born on May 15.

The African Queen
After completing the manuscript for The Morning Watch, Agee goes to Hollywood and collaborates with John Huston on the script for The African Queen, based on C.S. Forester's novel.

1951:Heart attacks
While in Hollywood, Agee experiences his first of several heart attacks. To the distress of family and friends, he is careless with his health and continues to smoke.

The Morning Watch
Agee's first novel, the story of a young man's search for his identity, is published in April by Houghton Mifflin.

1952:Oscar win
Agee shares an Oscar with John Huston for their screen adaptation of The African Queen.

In a taxi, en route to a doctor's appointment, Agee dies of a heart attack, two days before the 39th anniversary of his father's death. Father Flye comes from Wichita to conduct his funeral. He is buried on a farm in Hillsdale, TN, still owned by his family.

1957:A Death in the Family
Agee's autobiographical novel is published posthumously by McDowell-Oblensky. Editor David McDowell places several sections that fall outside the story's main narrative in italics.

1958:Pulitzer Prize
A Death in the Family earns Agee the literary award posthumously.

Agee on Film
A collection of Agee's early film criticism is published by McDowell-Oblensky.

1961:Letters of James Agee to Father Flye
Agee's correspondence to his beloved father figure are published.

1968:The Collected Poems of James Agee
Agee's poems, edited with an introduction by Robert Fitzgerald, are published by Houghton Mifflin.

A feature documentary film on the life and work of James Agee is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary and wins the Blue Ribbon at American Film Festival.

1992:To Render a Life
A feature film documentary based on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men premieres at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies and is nominated for Documentary of the Year by the International Documentary Association.

1999:Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Agee and Evans's seminal documentary work is rated a "top work of 20th-century literature" by both the New York Public Library and the New York University School of Journalism.

Cultural events

1900:Sister Carrie
Theodore Dreiser's realistic novel Sister Carrie is taken out of circulation after selling 456 copies. Dreiser's depiction of a young girl's sexual prowess -- and power -- is considered too titillating.

Ida Tarbell's exposé of the oil monopoly, History of the Standard Oil Company, appears in McClure's. She is one of several journalists who Theodore Roosevelt lambastes as "muckrakers" after the man in Pilgrim's Progress who could see only filth.

The Wings of the Dove
Although it centers on that most Jamesian of themes -- a flawed heroine's struggle with money and marriage -- this Henry James novel reflects greater concern with philosophy over plot and marks the beginning of his last great burst of productivity.

1905:The House of Mirth
In her second novel, Edith Wharton examines an aristocratic American society destroyed by its own rigidity when faced with the incursions of a new mercantile class. Her penetrating analysis of her own caste earns her a wide popular audience.

1907:Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright completes the Robey House near Chicago.

The Education of Henry Adams
In what is considered the most distinguished of all American autobiographies, Henry Adams turns a critical eye on his era and traces the new century's changing moral and philosophical landscape.

1909:Ashcan School
Painters in New York City's Greenwich Village, including Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and George Bellows, protest the conservative National Academy's rejection of their gritty depictions of city life.

The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers is formed in New York City.

1916:The Birth of a Nation
D.W. Griffiths's groundbreaking film is hailed as a technical and popular triumph. But its romantic view of the birth of the Ku Klux Klan stirs controversy, and the recently formed NAACP protests what they call its vicious racial stereotyping.

1918:My Ántonia
Willa Cather's stark portrait of a woman's life in frontier Nebraska becomes known for its vivid descriptions of the vast prairie landscape.

Radio station KDKA begins broadcasting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By November 1922, there are 564 licensed radio broadcasters in the United States. America turns on the radio for music, news, and entertainment.

1923:Time founded
On March 3, high school friends Briton Hadden and Henry Luce publish the first news magazine, hoping to help educate an ill-informed populace.

1925:The New Yorker
The New Yorker magazine begins publication

1926:The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway's novel about a "lost generation" of American and British expatriates is published.

The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, introduces sound to motion pictures.

1929:The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner's novel of the Compson family utilizes stream of consciousness.

1930:Sinclair Lewis wins Nobel
The author of The Jungle is the first American to win the international prize for literature.

1934:The Ways of White Folks
Langston Hughes's collection of short stories indicting racism in America is published.

1937:Their Eyes Were Watching God
The African American literary community criticizes folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston's novel as exploitative. Written in black dialect from the point of view of a female protagonist, the book will experience a revival in the '60s and '70s.

1939:The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck's novel about the Joad family is published.

1940:Native Son
Richard Wright's novel about Bigger Thomas is published.

1949:Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller's play about the tragic Willy Loman is performed and published to critical acclaim.

1952:Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison's novel about the life of its black narrator and his search for a racial identity is published.

1956:Howl and Other Poems
Allen Ginsberg publishes his taboo-breaking, Walt Whitman-influenced poem "Howl" in a collection that secures his place as a member of the Beat Generation and an icon of the future '60s counterculture.

1957:On the Road
Jack Kerouac publishes the novel that will become the "bible" of the Beat Generation. In a style that relies on jazz rhythms and speech patterns, Kerouac gives voice to a counterculture that forgoes conventional success in favor of sensation.

2000:White Teeth
Twenty-something Londoner Zadie Smith publishes her epic novel to enthusiastic reviews. It will win both The Guardian First Book Award and the Whitbread First Novel Award.

World events

1901:Queen Victoria dies
After the longest reign in the history of the British monarchy (64 years), Queen Victoria dies. The Victorian era is marked by a rigid moral code and the expansion of the British empire.

President McKinley assassinated
Shortly after his reelection to a second term, U.S. President William McKinley is killed by a self-proclaimed anarchist. McKinley is succeeded by Theodore Roosevelt.

1903:First successful airplane flight
In a North Carolina field, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright make the first successful engine-powered airplane flight.

1905:Revolution in Russia
Following an uprising, Czar Nicholas II attempts to convert Russia's autocracy to a constitutional monarchy. His extensive reforms include the creation of the Duma, which fosters the development of legal political activity and parties.

IWW founded
Labor leader William "Big Bill" Haywood founds the International Workers of the World ("Wobblies"). The IWW organizes workers in mines, lumberyards, farms, and factories, particularly in the West.

1906:San Francisco earthquake
The natural disaster kills an estimated 500 people, and fire destroys much of the city.

1909:Freud in America
In a lecturing tour of the United States, Sigmund Freud introduces the concept of psychoanalysis to large segments of the American population.

Model T Ford
Henry Ford introduces the Model T. It sells for about $850 and can, says Ford, be purchased in any color the buyer wishes, as long as the buyer wants black. Colors are added the next year. By 1926 the price drops to $310.

NAACP founded
W.E.B. Du Bois and a group of multiracial activists found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), originally called the National Negro Committee.

1910:Great Plains settlement
The number of farms triples from two million in 1860 to more than six million in 1910. In states like Nebraska and Kansas, more acres are put under cultivation during these five decades than were in the previous 250 years.

1912:HMS Titanic sinks
On her maiden voyage, the HMS Titanic sinks after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic; 1,513 lives are lost.

1913:Parcel post
With the introduction of parcel post, residents of the Great Plains and the West can receive packages from mail-order companies such as Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck.

1914:Panama Canal
After taking over the project from France some three decades earlier, America completes construction of the Panama Canal. President Theodore Roosevelt sees the Canal as a necessity for naval power and security, not for commerce, as the French had.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand assassinated
On June 28, Austrian archduke Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo. His murder sparks the beginning of war in Europe.

1916:Theory of Relativity
Albert Einstein introduces his General Theory of Relativity.

1917:America enters the war
Unable to maintain a position of neutrality, America enters the "Great War" on the side of the Allies (France, Britain, and Russia). The war will end with Germany's surrender on November 11, 1918, with an estimated casualty rate of 10 million.

1919:18th Amendment
Congress ratifies Prohibition, which places a nationwide ban on the manufacture and transport of intoxicating liquor. Blamed for an increase in crime, dependence on alcohol, and unemployment, Prohibition is repealed with the 21st Amendment of 1929.

Winesburg, Ohio
Based on everyday speech, Sherwood Anderson's prose style influences that of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

1920:19th Amendment
The 19th Amendment is passed, giving U.S. women the right to vote.

1925:Scopes trial
John Scopes, a Tennessee schoolteacher, is tried for violating state law which prohibits the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution. Defended by Clarence Darrow, Scopes is convicted and then acquitted.

1927:Lindbergh's flight
Charles Lindbergh flies solo across the Atlantic (New York to Paris) in his monoplane, "The Spirit of St. Louis."

1929:Stock market crash
On October 24, the U.S. stock market crashes. The country sinks into the grip of the Great Depression.

1932:Roosevelt elected
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected president in a landslide victory for the first of four terms.

Created in 1935 under Roosevelt's New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provides work for millions of Americans during the Great Depression.

1936:Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War begins in July.

1937:Amelia Earhart vanishes
Earhart vanishes over the Pacific near the finish of what would have been the first solo around-the-world flight by a woman pilot.

1939:War in Europe
World War II begins in Europe. It will not end until the Japanese surrender in September of 1945.

1941:Pearl Harbor attacked
On December 7, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The following day, America officially enters the war.

TV broadcasting begins in the United States although viewing does not become widespread until after the war.

1945:War in Europe ends
On May 8, V.E. Day, the war in Europe ends.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki
In August, with war still raging in the Pacific, the United States drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

1947:Jackie Robinson
On April 15, Jackie Robinson becomes the first African American since 1884 to sign a contract with a major baseball club, the Brooklyn Dodgers. He is named National League Rookie of the Year.

Capitalizing on the nation's fear of communist advances in Eastern Europe and China, Senator Joseph McCarthy begins his crusade against communism in the United States.

Korean War
With Soviet backing, North Korea invades South Korea. The United Nations, with the United States as the principal participant, supports South Korea, establishing a precedent for U.S. containment of communism.

1960:JFK elected president
John Fitzgerald Kennedy becomes the first Catholic and the youngest man ever to be elected president.

1961:The Berlin Wall
The building of the Berlin Wall begins in August. Completed in 1963, the Wall is a literal and symbolic divider between communism and democracy. It will stand until 1989, when the border will finally be opened.

1963:March on Washington
On August 28, Martin Luther King Jr. leads the peaceful March on Washington. The march, a quarter of a million strong, culminates in King's "I Have a Dream" speech and brings the civil rights movement into the mainstream for many whites in America.

JFK assassinated
On November 22, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Lee Harvey Oswald is arrested for the crime and is subsequently shot and killed by Jack Ruby.

1964:War in Vietnam
On August 7, Congress passes the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution with a unanimous vote in the House and a 98-2 vote in the Senate. The resolution sanctions war in Vietnam and is widely supported in public opinion.

LBJ elected president
Lyndon Baines Johnson is elected president in November. His presidency will be marked by tremendous advances in civil rights legislation and escalation of the war in Vietnam.

1968:Martin Luther King assassinated
On April 4, the day after delivering his "I See the Promised Land" speech, Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. James Earl Ray confesses to the murder and remains in prison until his death in 1999.

Robert F. Kennedy assassinated
On June 5, then-Senator and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is gunned down in Los Angeles by Jordanian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan at a victory rally following the California primary.

Nixon wins
Richard M. Nixon is elected president. Four years later he will be reelected in a near-landslide victory, despite arrests that signal the beginning of the Watergate scandal.

1970:Kent State killings
On May 4, four unarmed students are killed by National Guardsmen called in to quash a campus rally protesting the American invasion of Cambodia.

1972:U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam
The last American troops are withdrawn from Vietnam although advisors and administrators will remain until 1975.

1974:Nixon resigns
After several former White House aides are convicted and sentenced in Watergate cover-up and related matters, Nixon resigns on August 4 to avoid almost certain impeachment.

1975:Fall of Saigon
As Communist forces overrun Saigon a panicked evacuation of troops, civilians, and refugees begins, ending the United States's 20-year military involvement in Vietnam.

1976:Jimmy Carter elected
Jimmy Carter narrowly defeats incumbent Gerald R. Ford to become the 39th president of the United States, and the first from the Deep South to be elected since the Civil War.

1980:Reagan elected
In November, Ronald Reagan is elected president of the United States, promising relief from the low morale and high inflation of the Carter years.

Essays + Interviews:
Life in a Small Southern Town | A Short, Intense Life | Agee's World

Essays + Interviews | Novel to Film | Cast + Credits | Story Synopsis
Teacher's Guide | The Forum | Links + Bibliography

Home | About The Series | The American Collection | The Archive
Schedule & Season | Feature Library | eNewsletter | Book Club
Learning Resources | Forum | Search | Shop | Feedback

WGBH Logo PBS logo CPB Logo
ALT Films Logo


Masterpiece is sponsored by: