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Portrait of J. Agee
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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 acknowledged the restless journey his biography would encompass. Poet, novelist, journalist, film critic, and social activist, Agee would lead an unorthodox, hard-driving life that would result in an early death. So voracious was he for experience that in valuing life, as he put it, he could not help but shape 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 both short term and long term.

Thirty years 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 later 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 wit 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 abandonment by his mother, he, nevertheless, found solace in the rigorous academic curriculum, and he 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 forty-four years.

Go Next Fortune &
The New Masses

It was Flye who recognized his 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 was graduated in 1932. While working as a journalist for FORTUNE MAGAZINE in New York he published his first and only volume of verse, PERMIT ME VOYAGE in 1934, and in 1936 he embarked with photographer Walker Evans on an assignment to document the lives of poor Southern farmers. He and Walker 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 depiction of a Tennessee boyhood.

Agee's restlessness intensified in the late 30s'. His last major assignment before he left FORTUNE on 1939 was a trip to Havana in 1937. By the early 40's his involvement with THE 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, which was published posthumously in 1957, 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 enough, was the anniversary of his own father's death.


(set by Samuel Barber)

Listen to "Sure on This Shining Night" in the Songbook

Sure on this shining night
Of starmade shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.

The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.

Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand'ring far

Of shadows on the stars.


"How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves....You can never go home again."

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