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 attention of publisher Henry Luce, and upon graduation in 1932 Agee moved to New York to write for Fortune. Meanwhile, he worked sporadically on several autobiographical novels. In 1934, some of his poetry was anthologized in Modern American Poetry and was selected for publication by Yale University under the title Permit Me Voyage. A Fortune assignment in 1936 to report on tenant farmers in Alabama led to a piece which was rejected by the magazine but developed into the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).
In 1937, Agee met and fell in love with Alma Mailman. After years of discontent, he and Olivia divorced, and Alma became his second wife in 1938. This marriage lasted three years and resulted in the birth of a son, Joel. By 1940, Agee had met and fallen in love with Mia Fritsch, his third wife, to whom he remained married until his death and by whom he fathered three children, Julia, Andrea, and John.
Having become a book reviewer at Time in 1938, Agee capitalized on his fascination with the cinema to become the magazine’s film reviewer in 1941 and to accept the same post at The Nation in 1942. He also served as a steady consultant in the expansion of the Library of Congress Film Archives. He had always loved film, and his work as a reviewer and consultant led naturally to filmmaking itself. His first venture was “In the Street,” made with photographer Helen Levitt in 1945. In 1948, Agee left his positions with Time and The Nation and turned his efforts to film and fiction. Agee established friendships with directors Charlie Chaplin and John Huston and was hired by Huston in 1950 to write a screenplay for C. S. Forester’s 1935 novel The African Queen; the film was released in 1951. A coronary thrombosis in early 1951 interrupted Agee’s work and precipitated his physical decline.
Agee’s first novel, The Morning Watch , based on his years at St. Andrew’s retreat, appeared in 1951. The following year, he penned a series on U.S. president Abraham Lincoln for television, and in 1953 a film he wrote based on Stephen Crane’s story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” was released. With his constant smoking and drinking and...
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