(RUFUS) JAMES AGEE
"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.
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.