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.
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...
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