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James Agee
Born James Rufus Agee
27 November 1909
Knoxville, Tennessee
Died May 16, 1955 (aged 45)
New York City, New York
Nationality United States
Notable work(s) A Death in the Family, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

James Rufus Agee (November 27, 1909 – May 16, 1955) (pronounced /ˈeɪdʒi/ AY-jee) was an American author, journalist, poet, screenwriter and film critic. In the 1940s, he was one of the most influential film critics in the U.S. His autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), won the author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.



Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, at Highland Avenue and 15th Street (renamed James Agee Street in 1999) to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman Tyler. When Agee was six, his father died in an automobile accident. From the age of seven, he and his younger sister, Emma, were educated in boarding schools. The most influential of these was located near his mother's summer cottage two miles from Sewanee, Tennessee. Saint Andrews School for Mountain Boys was run by Episcopal monks affiliated with the Order of the Holy Cross, and it was there that Agee's lifelong friendship with an Episcopal priest, Father James Harold Flye, began in 1919. As Agee's close friend and spiritual confidant, Flye was the recipient of many of Agee's most revealing letters.

Agee went to Knoxville High School for the 1924–1925 school year, then travelled with Father Flye to Europe in the summer, when Agee was sixteen. On their return, Agee moved to boarding school in New Hampshire, entering the class of 1928 at Phillips Exeter Academy. There, he was president of The Lantern Club and editor of the Monthly where his first short stories, plays, poetry and articles were published. Despite barely passing many of his high school courses, Agee was admitted to Harvard University's class of 1932. He was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate and delivered the class ode at his commencement.

In 1951 in Santa Barbara, Agee, a hard drinker and chain-smoker, suffered the first two in a series of heart attacks, which ultimately claimed his life four years later at the age of 45. He died on May 16, 1955, while in a taxi cab en route to a doctor's appointment — coincidentally two days before the anniversary of his father's death.[1] He was buried on a farm he owned at Hillsdale, New York.


After graduation, he wrote for Fortune and Time magazines, although he is better known for his later film criticism in The Nation. He married Via Saunders on January 28, 1933; they divorced in 1938, and, that same year, he married Alma Mailman. In 1934, he published his only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage, with a foreword by Archibald MacLeish.

In the summer of 1936, Agee spent eight weeks on assignment for Fortune with photographer Walker Evans living among sharecroppers in Alabama. While Fortune did not publish his article (he left the magazine in 1939), Agee turned the material into a book entitled, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It sold only 600 copies before being remaindered. That same year, Alma moved to Mexico with their year-old son, Joel, to live with Communist writer Bodo Uhse. Agee began living with Mia Fritsch in Greenwich Village, whom he married in 1946. They had two daughters, Teresa and Andrea, and a son, John.

In 1942, Agee became the film critic for Time and, at one point, reviewed up to six books per week. Together, he and friend Whittaker Chambers ran "the back of the book" for Time. He left to become film critic for The Nation. In 1948, however, he quit both magazines to become a freelance writer. One of his assignments was a well-received article for Life Magazine about the great silent movie comedians, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon, which has been credited for reviving Keaton's career. As a freelance in the 1950s, he continued to write magazine articles while working on movie scripts, often with photographer Helen Levitt.

Agee was an ardent champion of Charlie Chaplin's then extremely unpopular film Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which has since become a film classic. He was also a great admirer of Laurence Olivier's Henry V and Hamlet, especially Henry V, for which he actually published three separate reviews, all of which have been printed in the collection Agee on Film.


Agee's career as a movie scriptwriter was curtailed by alcoholism, but he is nevertheless one of the credited screenwriters on two of the most respected films of the 1950s: The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955).

Agee's contribution to Hunter is shrouded in controversy, and the claim has been raised that the published script was actually written by the film's director, Charles Laughton. Reports that Agee's screenplay for Hunter was incoherent have been proved false by the 2004 discovery of his first draft, which although 293 pages in length, is scene for scene the film Laughton directed. The first draft is yet to be published, but it has been read by scholars, most notably Professor Jeffrey Couchman of Columbia University, who published his findings in an essay, "Credit Where Credit Is Due." Also false are the reports that Agee was fired from the film. Laughton renewed Agee's contract and directed him to cut the script in half, which Agee did. Later, apparently at Robert Mitchum's request, Agee visited the set to settle a dispute between the star and Laughton. Letters and documents located in the archive of Agee's agent Paul Kohner bear this out; they were brought to light by Laughton's biographer Simon Callow, whose BFI book about The Night of the Hunter sets this part of the record straight.

In 2008, "The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film" by Jeffrey Couchman, [Northwestern University Press] was published. It is a scholarly history and analysis of Charles Laughton’s masterpiece that looks at the classic film from many angles. The book provides a study of James Agee’s legendary first-draft script, long thought lost, and discovered while Couchman was working on his book. The first person to discuss the script, Couchman settles a fifty-year controversy about Agee’s contribution to the film.


During his lifetime, Agee enjoyed only modest public recognition, but, since his death, his literary reputation has grown. In 1957, his novel, A Death in the Family (which was based on the events surrounding his father's death), was published posthumously and in 1958 won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 2007, Dr. Michael Lofaro published a restored edition of the novel, using Agee's original manuscripts, which had been heavily edited before its original publication by publisher David McDowell.[2]

Agee's reviews and screenplays have been collected in Agee on Film, which has been controversial not only because of the allegations concerning The Night of the Hunter, but because one of the Time reviews included in the first volume (of the film Roxie Hart) was not written by Agee.[3]

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, ignored on its original publication in 1941, has been placed among the greatest literary works of the 20th Century by the New York School of Journalism and the New York Public Library. Samuel Barber has set sections of "Descriptions of Elysium" from Permit Me Voyage to music, including the song "Sure On This Shining Night"; in addition, he set prose from the traditionally included "Knoxville" section of "A Death in the Family" in his work for soprano entitled "Knoxville: Summer of 1915."

University of Tennessee Libraries' Writer in Residence, RB Morris, wrote a one-man play adapted from the life and works of James Agee, The Man Who Lives Here is Loony,[4] which was performed during UT's James Agee Celebration in Spring 2005.

List of works

Published as

  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, Shorter Fiction (Michael Sragow, ed.) (Library of America, 2005) ISBN 978-1-93108281-5. Stories include "death in the Desert," "They That Sow in Sorrow Shall Reap" and "A Mother's Tale."
  • Film Writing and Selected Journalism: Uncollected Film Writing, The Night of the Hunter, Journalism and Book Reviews (Michael Sragow, ed.) (Library of America, 2005) ISBN 978-1-93108282-2.
  • Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes (Jonathan Lethem, preface) (Fordham University Press, 2005) ISBN 978-0-82322492-0.


  1. ^ James Agee (1909-1955) Chronology of his Life and Work
  2. ^ James Agee and Michael A. Lofaro, ed. A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007. ISBN 1572335947
  3. ^ According to a bound volume of the book in the library of Time magazine, corroborated by the style of the review itself, which is at variance with Agee's usual style.
  4. ^ Writer in Residence RB Morris (2004-2008), University of Tennessee Libraries.
  • Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, ISBN 0877973016
  • James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, etc., The Library of America, 159, with notes by Michael Sragow, 2005.
  • Alma Neuman, Always Straight Ahead: A Memoir, Louisiana State University Press, 176 pages, 1993. ISBN 0-8071-1792-7.
  • Kenneth Seib, "James Agee: Promise and Fulfillment", Critical Essays in Modern Literature, University of Pittsburgh Press, 175 pages, 1968.
  • Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken. London: Routledge, 2005

External links

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