James Rufus Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 27, 1909. His father, Hugh James Agee, a warm and simple man, had worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Panama and later for the railroad in Tennessee. His mother, the former Laura Whitman Tyler, was from a wealthier family and kept a religious household. A turning point came early in Agee’s life when, on May 18, 1916, his father died in an automobile crash.
Left alone to raise James and his sister Emma, Laura Agee’s religiosity grew; it brought feelings of guilt and anger to James and led the family to a Catholic mountain retreat, where he found substitute parents in Father Harold and Grace Flye. A serious, lonely boy who loved reading, Agee experienced a spiritual crisis at the age of fourteen that further alienated him from his background and surroundings.
With his mother’s remarriage in 1924 to a conservative churchman, Agee was ready to leave home. In 1925 he entered Phillips Exeter Academy in rural New Hampshire, where he wrote poetry and contributed stories to the school’s monthly publication. Though his grades were poor, upon graduation in June of 1928 he was accepted to Harvard College. There he wrote for the newspaper and literary review and cultivated friendships with rising literary figures such as I. A. Richards, Bernard Schoenfeld, and Dwight Macdonald. Agee’s college years, like much of his life to follow, were characterized by heavy drinking and severe depressions. Though he had felt occasional homosexual leanings, involvements with a series of women culminated in his courtship of Olivia Saunders, whose family had effectively adopted Agee, and the couple was married early in 1933.
A Harvard Advocate parody of Time magazine brought Agee to the...
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