Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
As a man who lived somewhat recklessly and died much too young, Agee left behind a small body of work by no means commensurate with his extraordinary talents. His life was a tragedy of promise only partially fulfilled, and his writings offer, through careful examination of specific subjects, a universal vision of human suffering, longing, and hope.
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Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
A defining moment in the life of James Rufus Agee occurred in May, 1916, when his father, Hugh James Agee, was killed in an automobile accident. Hugh’s widow, Laura Tyler Agee, recited the details of the accident so often that her children, James and Emma, could repeat them verbatim. These are the details that Agee employed successfully in his most celebrated work, the novel entitled A Death in the Family.
In 1919, Laura moved her family to Sewanee, Tennessee, where James attended St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, there developing a lifelong friendship with Father James Harold Flye. Agee cycled through Europe with Flye and his wife in 1925 before entering Phillips Exeter Academy, where, as editor of the Phillips Exeter Monthly, he gained editorial experience that proved invaluable to him during his seven years as a reporter for Fortune. Agee also published some of his earliest writing in the Phillips Exeter Monthly.
Continuing his education at Harvard University, from which he was graduated in 1932, Agee worked during the Great Depression as a journalist. Between 1942 and 1948, Agee, starstruck since childhood, wrote the film column for The Nation. In 1949 and 1950, he contributed several long film essays (on Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and John Huston) to Life magazine. This experience was the catapult he needed to embark on a career of writing screenplays. A consistently productive...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 27, 1909, James Rufus Agee was the son of Hugh James Agee, from a Tennessee mountain family, and Laura Whitman Tyler, the well-educated and highly religious daughter of a businessman. His father sang mountain ballads to him, and his mother passed on to him her love of drama and music. Hugh Agee’s death in an automobile accident in the spring of 1916 profoundly influenced young Rufus, as he was called in the family.
Agee received a first-rate education at St. Andrew’s School, near Sewanee, Tennessee, where he developed a lifelong friendship with Father James Harold Flye; at Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire; and at Harvard College, where in his senior year he edited the Harvard Advocate. Upon his graduation from Harvard in 1932, he went immediately to work for Fortune and later worked for its sister publication, Time. Over a sixteen-year period, he did a variety of staff work, reviewing, and feature stories while living in the New York metropolitan area.
From 1950 on, Agee spent considerable time in California working mostly with John Huston, but his health deteriorated. Highly disciplined as a writer, Agee exerted less successful control over his living habits, and chronic insomnia and alcohol use contributed to his having a succession of heart attacks beginning early in 1951. Agee was married three times and had a son by his second wife and three more...
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James Agee’s writing is influenced by two boyhood experiences in Tennessee: the death of his father, killed in an automobile accident in 1916 (and fictionalized in A Death in the Family), and the Anglican religious training he received at St. Andrew’s, a boarding school run by a monastic order of the Episcopal church (explored in The Morning Watch). At St. Andrew’s Agee met Father James Harold Flye, with whom he traveled to France and England in 1925. Agee and Flye were lifelong friends and correspondents.
As a young man Agee expressed an interest in writing poetry and fiction and in film. As president of Phillips Exeter Academy’s Lantern Club, he was responsible for the screening of a variety of classic silent films. Agee was fascinated with the documentary potential of movies and their ability to create immediate felt emotion. These concerns are expressed in his later screenplays and film reviews for The Nation and Time, among other journals. Experimentation with cinematic technique—panorama, flashback, montage, and closeup—is evident in much of Agee’s writing.
At Harvard, Agee became known as a poet and was editor of the Harvard Advocate, a notable literary magazine. Eager for the more rural experiences of his childhood, he spent the summer of 1929 as a migrant farmworker in Nebraska...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
James Rufus Agee (AY-jee) was less successful as a creator of fiction than he was as a recorder of experiences. The event that marked a turning point in his early life was the death of his father, Hugh James Agee, in an automobile crash when Rufus, as his family called him, was six. The victim’s widow, Laura Tyler Agee, a self-righteous woman who came from a refined Knoxville family, undoubtedly repeated the details of the tragedy so often that her son and daughter, Emma, knew the story by heart. The young Agee enshrined the gruesome details in his memory, and they eventually became the basis for his celebrated novel, A Death in the Family.
Three years after her husband’s death, Laura Agee, a devout Episcopalian, spent part of her summer on the grounds of St. Andrew’s School in Sewanee, Tennessee, and in 1919 she took up permanent residence there. James Agee attended the school and came to know Father James Harold Flye and his wife. Flye, who spent the summer of 1925 bicycling through Europe with Agee, remained his friend throughout the author’s life. Much of the voluminous Flye-Agee correspondence has been published.
After five years at St. Andrew’s, Agee and his mother returned to Knoxville. James attended Knoxville High School for a year before entering Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, where he edited the...
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Biography (Novels for Students)
James Rufus Agee was born on November 27, 1909, in Knoxville, Tennessee. As a boy, he was always called by his middle name, the name given to the main character in A Death in the Family. When he was six, Agee’s father died in an automobile accident. Agee was sent to boarding school in his childhood, then to Philips Exeter Academy, which was to become a strong influence throughout his life. He then went to Harvard University, where he received an associate’s degree in 1932. He married the first of his three wives the following year and went to work at Fortune, one of the country’s preeminent business magazines. Though Agee’s left-leaning politics disagreed with the magazine’s focus on finance, his work there gave him the opportunity to work on his poetry.
In 1936, Fortune sent Agee and photographer Walker Evans to Alabama to report on the lives of tenant farmers. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and the suffering and dignity that Evans and Agee saw in their poor uneducated subjects impressed them so much that, when the magazine rejected their subsequent article, they expanded it to book length. The book, titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), was ignored by a reading public that was focused on America’s coming involvement in World War II. Today, the book is considered to be one of the most important and moving documents available of that time.
While still working on the book, Agee branched...
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