James Agee Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a quotation from a sacred book in which the “famous men” are prophets and patriarchs. What are the effects of his applying it to poor sharecroppers?

How does James Agee make the reader feel the impact of Jay Follet’s death in A Death in the Family? Does the author’s restraint play a part?

Since Jay Follet’s fatal accident parallels that of Agee’s own father so closely, why did he not write directly about his father’s death? What does he gain by fictionalizing it?

A Death in the Family is called “a novel of delightful and deceptive simplicity.” How can one be “delighted” by such a story?

Locate the “deceptive” elements in Agee’s novel. What motives might account for an attempt to “deceive” the reader?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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

James Agee is best known for his posthumous novel A Death in the Family (1957) and his collection of essays Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). He wrote the screenplays for The Red Badge of Courage (1951), The African Queen (1952), The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (1952), and several other films.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

James Agee’s greatest literary achievement is his posthumous novel A Death in the Family, of which 194 handwritten pages, along with 114 pages of working notes, were completed before his death in 1955. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. His collection of essays, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which included photographs by Walker Evans and has since come to be regarded as a highly perceptive work about tenant farmers, received little notice immediately after its publication because Americans were preoccupied with World War II. In 1949, Agee won an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and, in 1952, his screenplay for The African Queen was nominated for an Academy Award.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The first book that James Agee (AY-jee) published, Permit Me Voyage (1934), was a collection of poems; his second was a nonfiction account of Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression. He and photographer Walker Evans lived with their subjects for eight weeks in 1936 on a Fortune magazine assignment, and a number of critics hailed the resulting book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), as Agee’s masterpiece. From 1941 through 1948, Agee wrote film reviews and feature articles for Time magazine and The Nation; thereafter, he worked on film scripts in Hollywood, his most notable screenplay being his 1952 adaptation of C. S. Forester’s novel The African Queen (1935). He also wrote an esteemed television script on Abraham Lincoln for the Omnibus series in 1952. Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962) contains his thirty-year correspondence with an Episcopalian priest who had been his teacher.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets sponsored James Agee’s first book, and Archibald MacLeish contributed its introduction. Agee went on to gain an unusual degree of literary fame for a man who published only three books, two of them slim ones, in his lifetime. Sometimes accused of wasting his talent on magazine and film “hack” work, Agee lavished the same painstaking attention on film reviews as he did on his carefully crafted books. His film work was highly prized by director John Huston, and Huston and Agee’s collaboration on The African Queen resulted in a film classic. Agee’s greatest fame developed posthumously, however, when his novel A Death in the Family won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. Three years later, Tad Mosel’s adaptation of the novel for the stage, titled All the Way Home (pr. 1960), earned another Pulitzer. The continued popularity of Agee’s work is testament to the author’s vast human sympathy, his unusual lyrical gift, and his ability to evoke the tension and tenderness of family life in both fiction and nonfiction.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barson, Alfred. A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972. A revisionist view of Agee, whose earliest critics thought that his talents were dissipated by his diverse interests but who judged him to have been improving at the time of his death. Barson inverts this thesis, stating that Agee’s finished work should not be so slighted and that his powers were declining when he died. Includes notes and an index.

Bergreen, Laurence. James Agee: A Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984. This is one of the best biographies of Agee, thorough and well researched. Its critical analyses are cogent and thoughtful. Bergreen’s writing style is appealing. Contains illustrations, notes, bibliography of Agee’s writings, bibliography of works about him, and index.

Folks, Jeffrey J. “Art and Anarchy in James Agee’s A Death in the Family.” In In Time of Disorder: Form and Meaning in Southern Fiction from Poe to O’Connor. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. Essay focusing on A Death in the Family is included in a volume that examines how Agee and other southern writers sought to create a sense of social order in their work in response to perceptions that society was unjust, chaotic, and governed by random chance.

Hughes, William. James Agee, “Omnibus,” and “Mr. Lincoln”: The Culture of Liberalism and the Challenge of Television, 1952-1953. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. Resurrects Mr. Lincoln, the five television programs Agee wrote about...

(The entire section is 685 words.)