James Agee

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2204

Some figures are not necessarily well served by a biographical study. The romance of legend may tell a more pleasing tale than recovered fact. Such is the case with James Agee. At the beginning of his career, when he was still a student at Harvard University, he wrote of himself, “If I can’t, someday, be a great or nearly great writer, I don’t want to write at all—and there’s nothing else in the world I want to do. I’d rather not live than to live in the failure of what I might have done.” Although written in the assurance of his youth, his statement proved all too drearily prophetic. Agee’s messy and wasteful life was a kind of self-flagellation for what he was not. What he was, was a writer of rich talent and virtuosity. What he was not was a writer with the objectivity and discipline to use his gifts in the ways they demanded. Agee tried his hand at many kinds of writing. As Laurence Bergreen’s thoughtful and understanding biography James Agee: A Life makes clear, the results, while often impressive and even wondrous, were less than they should have been.

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The outlines of Agee’s childhood are well-known to those familiar with his short novels, The Morning Watch (1951) and A Death in the Family (1957), or with the stage or screen versions of the second book. As a boy he idolized his warm and outgoing father, although he felt that he failed to live up to his father’s expectations. After Jay Agee was absurdly killed in a car accident, his body unmarred save for a small cut on his chin, the boy turned to his mother, a much colder, more repressed woman. His childhood and adolescence were shaped by the tremendous loss he felt—that of the father who left him and of the mother who kept him at arm’s length. At this time in Agee’s life, as Bergreen reports it, the boy went through very disturbing changes. He began to kill small animals, indulge in sexual and religious fantasies, commit acts of self-abasement. His mother had him circumcised when he was eight years old, an action he saw as punishment for his habitual masturbation. He, his mother, and his sister moved from Knoxville and the surroundings he associated with his father to Saint Andrews, an Episcopalian Monastic Order of the Holy Cross, still in Tennessee. There, he had to room in a dormitory while his mother and sister lived in a nearby house, one he could see but was not allowed to enter. He thought of having himself crucified on a cross in sight of the house, turning himself into the Jesus his mother loved more than she did her own son. Finally, partly through the influence of a young teacher at Saint Andrews, the Reverend James Harold Flye, he abandoned his more extreme imaginings and turned to literature and writing, his lifelong endeavor.

Even such a brief summary indicates what a Freudian minefield Agee’s childhood presents to a biographer (Agee himself valued Carl Jung over Sigmund Freud and always resisted psychoanalysis), and it is to Bergreen’s credit that he treats this material with care. Agee had what he called a “’run to Mama’ complex” in his relationship with women, and he often adopted male figures such as Father Flye, the sharecropper Bud Fields, and film director John Huston as paternal influences. On occasion, Bergreen does indulge in rather facile analysis, such as when he describes a dream Agee had of himself as a frog: “In all likelihood this dream encapsulated the way he saw himself, surrounded on all sides by insurmountable difficulties, as ugly and guilt-ridden as a frog.” How guilt-ridden is a frog? one might ask. Still, on the whole, Bergreen hesitates to explain Agee’s later actions by such means.

If Agee’s childhood was a troubling one, his young manhood was nevertheless full of promise. He was accepted at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy and at Harvard University. In both schools, despite middling grades, he gained recognition for his writing, first in the Phillips Exeter Monthly and then in the Harvard Advocate. As president of the Advocate in his senior year, he initiated a parody of the newly begun Time magazine, and the resultant publicity helped him get a job with Time Inc. immediately after graduation. There, despite his irregular work habits and his tendency to assail both the organization and Henry Luce, he was treated with relative understanding. There, he worked with such rising literary figures as Archibald MacLeish, Dwight MacDonald, and Robert Fitzgerald; later he became acquainted with such disparate personalities as Charles Chaplin, Whittaker Chambers, and John Huston. As Bergreen makes clear, Agee never lacked opportunity and, in fact, was generally lucky in his friends and connections, although he did not always make the best use of them.

Agee’s reputation today is an uncertain one and tends to rest on selected endeavors rather than his overall career. Thus, some critics admire his ground-breaking film criticism (ground-breaking because it was personal, reflective, and extremely idiosyncratic) but dismiss his fiction as slight and overblown. Others pass over the criticism or novels in favor of the great experiment Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), his poetic-realistic (and highly personal) chronical of three Alabama sharecropper families during the Depression. Still others admire his screenplays, especially his script for The African Queen (1951), which he wrote with John Huston. Few have much to say for the poetry, which was largely the product of his youth (although the collection Permit Me Voyage, 1934, was published as part of the Yale Younger Poets series) or for his general writings for Fortune or Time magazines, where he worked for sixteen years. In one sense, Agee’s total output was not very great, and much of it was admittedly ephemeral. As Bergreen illustrates, however, given the routine chaos of Agee’s life, it is surprising that he achieved as much as he did.

Agee was always an autobiographical writer and poet, whatever his ostensible subjects. His novels A Death in the Family and The Morning Watch describe the death of his father and the loss of religious faith. A projected novel, which Agee called “Bigger Than We Are: A Love Story,” deals with the failure of his marriage to Olivia Saunders, his first wife, and his affair with Alma Mailman, who became his second. Bergreen treats these works as unvarnished truth—he calls A Death in the Family “actually a memoir in its fidelity to fact”—and quotes liberally from them as evidence as he recounts these times in Agee’s life. Agee himself wrote of A Death in the Family:This book is chiefly a remembrance of my childhood, and a memorial to my father; and I find that I value my childhood and my father as they were, as well and as exactly as I can remember and represent them, far beyond any transmutation of these matters I have made, or might ever make, into poetry or fiction. I know that I am making the choice most dangerous to an artist, in valuing life above art but it now seems to me I have no actual choice, but am in fact compelled, against my judgment and wish as an artist.

Still, to use fictional writings in this way is a questionable practice, for no matter how faithful Agee was to his memory, he was nevertheless a creative artist re-creating events and dialogue from an often distant past.

Although A Death in the Family is undoubtedly Agee’s best-known work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is probably the most important. Agee had first used the title for an early short story, but its ironic applicability to this study of Southern sharecroppers living in a “Christbitten” world was too true for him to pass up. It started as an assignment for Fortune magazine, that celebration of wealth and success begun during the Depression. Agee was partnered with Walker Evans, a master of stark, truthful, and non-judgmental photography. Together they set out to record, in word and picture, the “reality” of those people who worked land not theirs, who existed on the margin of despair. Both Agee and Evans were determined to avoid the kind of dishonesty they found in the photojournalistic work of Margaret Bourke-White, the famous Life photographer, who (in collaboration with Erskine Caldwell) had produced You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), which Agee thought was opportunistic and condescending. As Bergreen describes this episode in Agee’s life (and it is one of the strongest chapters in the biography), Agee “yearned to put aside conventional journalistic objectivity in favor of becoming at one with the poor and oppressed, to live as they did, eat their food, and sleep in their beds. Empathy was all.” For all of Agee’s good intentions, however, his approach was as unfair as Bourke-White’s. Agee and Evans “did not want any sort of poverty,” Bergreen notes; “they wanted a special, pure, exalted poverty, a holy poverty, if possible, because they intended to demonstrate that the poor possessed more innate dignity and strength than the bourgeoisie.” Agee sought after “extreme realism” in his text, a realism that would match that of Evans’ photographs, but Agee again imposed himself on his material so that (unlike Evans, the invisible artist) he became a central figure in the work which, in addition to being a study of these three sharecropper families, also was “as exhaustive a reproduction and analysis of personal experience, including the phases and problems of writing and communication, as I am capable of.” It is not surprising that Fortune rejected the early version of this highly personal work, or that, several years later, Harper & Brothers rejected it as well. When Houghton Mifflin finally did publish it in 1941, it sold approximately six hundred copies, two hundred more than Agee predicted. Today, it is a classic, recognized as a forerunner of the self-analytic journalism of the 1960’s and 1970’s, although how often it is actually read is a matter of conjecture.

Agee is probably best remembered today for his work in films, as a critic and screenwriter. Bergreen shows that this serious interest developed early in his life. While a student at Harvard, he wrote of the possibilities of film, which “could be a fulfillment of all that Blake wanted to do.” Agee wrote film reviews for Time, where they were often cut and Time-styled, and for The Nation, where he was allowed to roam at length as his inclinations took him. He could be perversely wrongheaded, as in his dismissal of Citizen Kane (1941), and he could be an obstinate champion, as in his support of Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947), to which he devoted three separate columns in The Nation. Agee railed against the sentimental patriotism and blatant propaganda he found in Hollywood films during World War II (which he opposed), but he praised John Huston’s war documentaries The Battle of San Pietro (1945) and Let There Be Light (1946) as honest and brave. At the same time, he desperately sought deferment from the service and used Time’s influence (which he often scorned) to keep him from being drafted.

Agee had an exalted view of film and its possibilities, but his own work as screenwriter failed to break new ground and, in fact, sometimes showed a lack of practical understanding of the film medium. He was very impressed by Italian neorealism after the war in such films as Shoeshine (1946), and his collaboration on The Quiet One (1949), a documentary about the Wiltwyck School for delinquent children, helped make the film a truly impressive work, but he also wrote a misguided screenplay for Chaplin that was never produced called “Scientists and Tramp,” which would have placed Charlie the Tramp in a world ravaged by nuclear destruction. Agee shamelessly angled to work with John Huston, and together they wrote The African Queen (except for the ending, which was added after Agee had suffered his first heart attack), but when Huston offered him the chance to do the script for Moby Dick (1956), an exciting opportunity, Agee turned it down to work on Noa Noa in 1953, his overwrought and never-filmed study of Paul Gauguin. Bergreen notes that Agee’s screenplay for The Night of the Hunter (1955) was unfilmable, and that Charles Laughton, the director, was forced to rewrite the script himself, although Agee received the credit. These and other projects failed to match the possibilities Agee had foreseen in the art of filmmaking.

The Agee that Laurence Bergreen presents in this fair, even-handed biography is a sad and not particularly brave or engaging figure. Little evidence exists of the kind of fine toughness and bottom-line artistic dedication that one might expect to find. His life was self-indulgent and self-destructive, and he hurt many people in his failed search for personal happiness. Bergreen’s refusal to romanticize Agee in the manner in which Agee tended to romanticize himself may reduce the man in the reader’s estimation. Still, the intensity and the waste of Agee’s life holds its own fascination, and the work itself survives, to be judged on its own merits.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

American Film. IX, September, 1984, p. 57.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, July 27, 1984, p. 17.

Library Journal. CIX, June 15, 1984, p. 1236.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 15, 1984, p. 2.

Macleans. XCVII, July 30, 1984, p. 49.

New Leader. LXVII, August 6, 1984, p. 18.

The New Republic. CXCI, September 3, 1984, p. 25.

New York. XVII, July 23, 1984, p. 50.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, July 8, 1984, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, May 18, 1984, p. 138.

Time. CXXIV, July 2, 1984, p. 85.

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