James Agee Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111207057-Agee.jpg James Agee. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 729 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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 writer, Agee succeeded best when he wrote autobiographically oriented fiction. His novella The Morning Watch (1951) recounts a young boy’s religious experience in the chapel of a boys’ school much like St. Andrew’s. His early sketch “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (1936) recounts the innocent days in the year before his father’s death and serves as a prelude to A Death in the Family. Suffering for several years from heart trouble, Agee died at age forty-five in a New York City taxicab on his way to his doctor’s office. His greatest popular recognition followed his death.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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 children by his third, Mia Fritsch, who survived him. He succumbed to a fatal heart attack in a New York City taxicab on May 16, 1955, at the age of forty-five.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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 and Kansas. This experience put Agee in touch with the struggle of the rural poor during the early days of the Depression.

As a result of the Advocate’s parody issue of Time magazine, Agee was hired as a staff writer for Fortune magazine in 1932. A concern for social responsibility coupled with a skepticism regarding the role of journalism are expressed in his famous documentary report on the sharecropping system in the South. The work was found inappropriate for publication in Fortune, and was published in book form as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a remarkable blend of narrative, autobiography, social history, and philosophy. The book was issued with photographs by Walker Evans.