James Agee Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

James Agee Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Despite his prolonged absence from the South after 1925, James Agee had internalized the details of the area and its people well enough to write about them with exceptional conviction and authenticity. In some of his earliest short prose pieces, such as “Minerva Farmer” (1925), he uses Knoxville, in this case the University of Tennessee, as a backdrop. “A Sentimental Journey” (1928) recounts details about the life of a young widow not unlike his mother, whose marriage had been frowned on by her socially prominent family. “Bound for the Promised Land” (1928) recounts an African American funeral in Tennessee.

In his later work, Agee sometimes writes outside his southern milieu, but he is most convincing in the loosely autobiographical mode that often characterizes his work. His best writing is based on facts that he modifies and embellishes to suit his artistic objectives. The resulting stories, such as the posthumously published “Dream Sequence” (1968), focus on characters who have figured in Agee’s life, but he imbues them with a universality, creating archetypes that represent concepts stretching far beyond the narrow geographical range in which his stories take place.

In his novella The Morning Watch, Richard, the protagonist, at times is reminiscent of one of James Joyce’s protagonists. Agee reveals Richard’s subconscious in such a way as to make the reader question whether the twelve-year-old’s peak of religious fervor and spiritual insight will last. A master of subtle suggestion, Agee hints that it will not.

Agee brought to his prose poetic qualities that elevated it above the ordinary events about which he wrote. Almost magically, he transformed the commonplace into the extraordinary. His comments about modern society and the inroads it makes on individuality, reflected especially in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Morning Watch, combine with his preoccupation with innocence and death, as seen so clearly in “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” to produce a body of work unique in modern American literature.

The Collected Short Prose of James Agee

This collection, edited by Robert Fitzgerald, who starts the volume with an extensive memoir, presents four finished pieces of short fiction in the sections “Early Stories” and “Satiric Pieces,” along with four fragments and other miscellaneous items. Among the last group, “A Mother’s Tale” (1952), a fable, is most interesting. “Death in the Desert” (1930) is reprinted from The Harvard Advocate, in which it first appeared during Agee’s junior year at Harvard. In the following year, The Harvard Advocate published “They That Sow in Sorrow Shall Reap”...

(The entire section is 1127 words.)