A Short, Intense Life
James Rufus Agee was born on November 17, 1909, in Knoxville, Tennessee. The elder child of Hugh James Agee, descended from rugged Tennessee farming stock, and Laura Tyler, the product of a more educated background, would struggle throughout his life to balance the freewheeling legacy of his father with the more doctrinaire influence of his mother.
Upon Hugh's death in an automobile accident in 1916, Laura enrolled her 7-year-old son in St. Andrew's Episcopal boarding school in Sewanee, Tennessee, hoping that the company of men coupled with religious education would carry young James through this difficult period. While Agee continued to feel cut off from his family, he did establish a lifelong friendship with Father James Flye, to whom he looked as a father figure for guidance. Their correspondence would later be collected and published, providing biographers with valuable insight into Agee's volatile mindset.
After a brief stint back at Knoxville High and a 1925 trip to Europe with Father Flye, Agee enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he wrote for the Exeter Monthly. Already he was unwilling to limit himself to one literary form, and he turned out plays, poems, stories, articles, and reviews. This trend would continue during his years at Harvard, where he wrote prolifically for the Lampoon, Crimson, and Advocate, of which he was editor in chief. His parody of Time in the March 1921 Advocate caught the eye of another editor in chief -- Henry Luce of the real Time magazine -- who put Agee on staff at Fortune. Although Agee knew he was lucky to find a job at the onset of the Great Depression, he worried that the pursuit of journalism might squelch his more creative impulses. In fact, his first and only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage, was published in 1934 shortly after his arrival at the magazine, where he would remain on staff for more than 15 years. Throughout his career, Agee remained conflicted about how the strict exigencies of journalism affected his poetry and fiction, but he continued to excel in all genres, bringing a descriptive, impressionistic quality to his journalism and a documentary style to his fiction.
On assignment for Fortune in 1936, Agee and photographer Walker Evans interviewed and photographed Alabama tenant farmers, creating the moving documentary that would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). The book was largely ignored by wartime America, but upon its re-release in 1960, this classic chronicle of social injustice was finally recognized for its innovative storytelling and the humble dignity allowed its down-and-out subjects. While Evans's photographs bear stark witness to their lives, Agee's text betrays a more personal struggle to reconcile his assignment to "pry intimately into the lives an undefended and appallingly damaged group of beings for the purpose of parading... these lives before another group of human beings in the name of science, of 'honest journalism'" with his own sense of responsibility and respect for the farm families. In his introduction to the 1988 edition, John Hersey called the work a "kind of bible" for young people during the radical upheaval of the 1960s.
Agee turned a more critical eye on his subjects in book and film reviews for Time and a famous weekly film column for The Nation. These reviews drew him into the movie business itself, where he would collaborate on a series of scripts, most famously John Huston's The African Queen, for which he shared the 1952 Oscar for best adaptation. Largely autobiographical, Agee's novels are told from the point of view of a young boy. The Morning Watch mirrors his experiences on Good Friday while at boarding school. A Death in the Family, whose protagonist bears Agee's own middle name, Rufus, explores his emotions surrounding his father's sudden death. Tragically, Agee would suffer a shockingly similar fate. After a series of heart attacks, Agee suffered a fatal one in the back of a taxicab, two days before the 39th anniversary of his father's death. A Death in the Family was published posthumously and awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
During his 46 years, Agee led a hard-driving, restless life. His leftist leanings cast him in the minority of an America moving from war to war. His drinking, smoking, and philandering caused his first two marriages to collapse and brought only trouble to a third. But this intensity of spirit is what made Agee's writing so gripping. His innovative style allowed the lyric to grace works of criticism and the honest gaze of realism to examine a fictional world.
Agee's major works:
Essays + Interviews:
Life in a Small Southern Town | A Short, Intense Life | Agee's World
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