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date: 18 October 2017

Agee, James

For James Agee, night was the most enchanting and blessed part of the day, and he often wrote about its hushed, starry beauty and the wonder of being awake when nearly everyone else was under the strange and necessary spell of sleep. Agee also loved movies, another form of magic that takes place in the dark, and both of these passions are manifest in the opening pages of his best-known work, the posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Death in the Family (1957). Although Agee completed few books over the course of his somewhat frenetic, all-too-brief writing life—one volume of poetry, two works of fiction, and the provocative prose lyric Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)—he wrote scores of ardent, impeccable, and far-reaching movie reviews and ultimately left behind a highly concentrated yet remarkably innovative and profoundly influential oeuvre.

Early Career: Channeling of Passions

A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, James Rufus Agee, born on 27 November 1909, was seven years old when his father died in an automobile accident. Two years later, Agee entered St. Andrew's, an Episcopalian boarding school, and befriended Father James Harold Flye, thus establishing a nourishing and enduring relationship, the foundation for the compelling volume, The Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962). It was obvious at an early age that Agee was a natural-born writer driven by irrepressible curiosity, free-flowing compassion, an acute moral sensibility, a distrust of institutions and authority, and a deep attunement to the sonorous music of language. His imaginative and relentlessly critical turn of mind animates his frank and ruminating letters to Father Flye, which primarily cover his years at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, and the launching of a brilliant and unique writing career. His frequently prescient correspondence with his supportive and understanding confidant provides a fascinating and moving record of the evolution of a multitalented, original, conflicted, and often self-destructive artist.

Agee's vision of a free and creative life clashed, as artists' dreams almost always do, with everyday reality and the need to earn a steady living. Agee married three times in rapid succession and had four children, and thus felt that he had to toe the line and work as a full-time journalist. However, his frustration over having to defer his dreams of writing creatively, of being free of assignments, and of writing and directing his own movies goaded him into indulging his gargantuan appetite for socializing (Agee was a captivating, even legendary conversationalist), womanizing, and nightlife, all fueled by large quantities of nicotine and alcohol. Yet despite his own venomous self-condemnation for failing to achieve his desired goals, and the commentary of critics who feel that he should have accomplished more, Agee remains a vital and important figure in American literature. He was able to pour the radiance of his fiery moral and artistic convictions into everything that he wrote, from the confines of magazine articles and movie reviews to the finer chalice of fiction.

In a letter to Father Flye written from Cambridge, Massachusetts, in November 1930, Agee describes his ambition to write symphonically, and reports that he “thought of inventing a sort of amphibious style” that would combine prose and poetry. He put this vision to work during the late 1930s when, as a staff writer for Fortune, he turned what—for someone else—would have been a straightforward assignment to report on the lives of poor tenant farmers into a masterpiece of empathic observation, excruciatingly candid self-portraiture, and searing social commentary. This resounding testimony to the redoubtable human spirit was the still not fully appreciated or easy to categorize Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

In tandem with Walker Evans, a master photographer, Agee lived for eight weeks with three different Alabama tenant farm families in the summer of 1936 during the terrible Dust Bowl drought and the Great Depression. While Evans coolly used the camera to document the materially impoverished yet nonetheless dignified lives of the Ricketts, Woods, and Gudger households, Agee wrote about his and Evans's transformative experiences with these strangers abruptly turned intimates in a fever of awe, respect, despair, and guilt. Preternaturally aware and tortuously self-conscious, Agee asks, in effect, Who am I to invade and exploit such private terrain, only to retreat back to the safety and security of my privileged world? Was he, he quizzes himself, in any measure capable of conveying the nobility of these good and suffering people, the unexpected beauty of their dirt-poor lives?

Agee perceives a “sorrowful holiness” in this alien world, and his lush prose acquires a biblical tone as he catalogs in exhaustive yet glorious detail every physical aspect of their spare homes and threadbare clothes, their plain food and “simple and terrible work.” This generates a veritable river of observations that infuses everything he describes with emotion and meaning. Focusing on the families themselves, he records the subtlest of body language and the most delicate nuances of temperament and interaction among family members. And he decries the lack of mental stimulus in their work-weary, uneducated lives even more sharply than their physical deprivations. Here are people cruelly isolated and denied education, literature, art, and hope; people entrenched in the Deep South, a place, Agee perceives, of deep prejudice, institutionalized cruelty and ignorance, fear, and violence. This is a land of virulent racism, and Agee does not hesitate to say so or to lament such hate.

Always poetic, sometimes grandiose, overwrought, or self-serving, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men recounts a young artist's spiritual quest, one that demands an unflinching inquiry into the interloper's responsibilities. Valuing both the reportorial eye and the fruits of the imagination, Agee struggles to balance actuality and interpretation, and wonders if the camera is not a more reliable tool than the pen. His sojourn inspired intense self-scrutiny, an attempt at absolute honesty, and myriad philosophical musings. By making analysis of his own experiences, thoughts, and feelings integral to his reportage, Agee helped lay the groundwork for what became known, after his death, as New Journalism and creative nonfiction, literary arts performed with verve by the likes of Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, and John McPhee.

Agee on Film

It was not easy to find a publisher for this symphonic contemplation of poverty and sacredness, nor did it improve Agee's financial situation, so immediately after Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published, Agee became a film critic, writing for both Time and The Nation. Ultimately, he assembled a solid body of critical writing that seeded the high-impact film reviewing of Pauline Kael, and established serious criticism of popular media as a crucial element in magazine and newspaper publishing and in American letters. Film was still a relatively new, albeit already much-loved, medium when Agee began critiquing it in 1941, and no critic could have written about a burgeoning art form in a more explosive and significant time. Agee wrote about movies regularly, faithfully, and with undiminished enthusiasm from 1941 to 1948, a span of all-but-apocalyptic years that began with the creeping horrors of Hitler and Stalin and ended with the deployment of the atomic bomb in Japan. Because television had not yet emerged as the dominant force in communication and entertainment, movies—both newsreels and features—were the most immediate and visceral medium available. Agee wrote about them with corresponding intensity, placing each film within the context not only of the times but also of the entire pageant of human history.

Each perfectly composed review is a model of concise, hard-hitting, fresh, witty, and astute prose, as well as clarion and morally oriented interpretation. Agee was a gallant and fair-minded reviewer, bringing the same attention and open-mindedness to B movies as to cinema's most artistic achievements, to comedies as well as dramas. Concerned with the questions of authenticity versus artifice, romanticism versus accuracy, Agee's judicious dissection of how the war was presented in both documentaries and features is more relevant now than ever before in this age of sensationalized television coverage of violent, tragic, and scandalous events.

So powerful and far-reaching are Agee's film reviews, the poet W. H. Auden was inspired to write a now-famous letter in praise of Agee's film column to the editors of The Nation. So highly regarded was Agee in Hollywood, he ended up writing screenplays, including those for The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter (1955). After his death, his cinematic writings were collected in Agee on Film, an outstanding and enduring two-volume set.

Agee Writes Fiction

Although given to excess both in life and on the page (insiders claim that Agee's original screenplay for The Night of the Hunter was as thick as a big-city phone book), Agee was so skilled and versatile a writer and so cued to the realm of archetypes and symbols that he could—when motivated—hone the torrents of ideas and feelings that assailed him down to the tightest of compositions. This creative discipline is evident in his to-the-point film reviews, his poetry, and the succinct but mighty novella The Morning Watch (1951).

Young Richard, a boarding school student, is a serious boy obsessed with fantasies of martyrdom and sainthood. As the tale begins, he is struggling to satisfy his boarding school's religious demands, including participation on Good Friday in the morning watch, the symbolic reenactment of the hour during which Christ was betrayed. Even as he strives to be good, Richard, smart and terribly sensitive, is painfully aware of the vanity inherent in his ambitious piety, of his smug pleasure in self-generated wretchedness, and of how this self-gratification negates the very purity of spirit he seeks. Filled with self-disgust as he finally leaves the church, as well as a boy's irrepressible energy and rebelliousness, Richard instigates a forbidden escapade in the woods with two other boys.

Agee's tracking of his intrepid young hero's revelations is at once spellbinding and cleverly humorous, but what he is really after, and what he creates, is an unveiling of the dichotomies that shape our confounding lives. Agee's precise chronicling of the predawn church service perfectly conjures both the holiness and repressiveness of the tradition, while his vivid depiction of nature discloses an earthy sacredness in which every plant and animal, every spear of light and shadow, reflects the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, the essence, after all, of the story of Christ. Richard is fascinated by two biblical creatures—a ghostly locust shell and the unnerving grace and gleam of a snake—and undergoes a spontaneous form of self-baptism when he dives naked into deep, cold water. Whether kneeling in church or romping in nature, Agee's scrupulous young hero bravely confronts his failure to live up to religious teachings and his own spiritual intimations. Thus, Agee's poetic and piercing tale of one boy's moral awakening becomes emblematic of every human being's seemingly impossible struggle to consistently do right.

An intrinsically autobiographical writer compelled by temperament to examine morality's gray scale, the many facets of guilt, sin (especially pride), and the repercussions of loss, Agee once again unveils the inner reality of a boy's life much like his own in his tour de force, A Death in the Family. This psychologically exacting, dramatically taut, and iridescently textured novel illuminates the minds of a Tennessee family in shock after the sudden death in a freak car accident of Jay Follet, a thirty-six-year-old husband and father. This parallels Agee's own father's death, and, in an odd way, anticipates Agee's death in a taxicab in May 1955, where he was felled by a heart attack at age forty-five.

The Follet boy is named Rufus, which is Agee's middle name and the name he went by as a boy, and the exquisitely detailed renderings of Knoxville and the geography of one family's grief are as much the product of memory as of the imagination. Agee's magnificent second novel is a far grander work than The Morning Watch, as electric with dialogue as with description, and richly evocative in structure and pacing.

The novel's time frame is compact. Jay and Mary Follet are pulled from sleep by the ringing of the telephone. Jay listens skeptically as his drunken brother, Ralph, insists that their father is near death, but decides to make the trip anyway, just in case. He is reluctant to leave his warm bed, loving wife, and sweetly sleeping children, and he and Mary are very affectionate toward each other as he prepares for the long drive. Death is indeed imminent, but its aim is off: Follet Sr. lives to bury his favorite son. And obedient Mary and inquisitive Rufus are forced to test the resiliency of religious beliefs and family bonds.

Agee's articulation of his characters' stunned psyches is striking in its fluency and authority; the characters are authentic and alive both in terms of their streaming consciousness and their physical particularity and voice. Their tragedy and their awkward attempts to find solace in conventional rituals—and to quickly reestablish normalcy—are universal and timeless. Anguish is deftly counterbalanced with wit, and every paragraph glows with tender regard for humanity in all its absurdity and courage, vanity and love. This is a powerful novel, an abiding work of literature, and Agee will long be treasured for his empathy, passion, exactitude, moral imperative, and splendidly lyrical writing.

Works

Nonfiction

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)Find this resource:

Agee on Film (1958, 1960)Find this resource:

Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962)Find this resource:

The Collected Short Prose of James Agee (1969)Find this resource:

Poetry

Permit Me Voyage (1934)Find this resource:

The Collected Poems of James Agee (1968)Find this resource:

Fiction

The Morning Watch (1951)Find this resource:

A Death in the Family (1957)Find this resource:

Further Reading

Bergreen, Laurence. James Agee: A Life. New York, 1984. A comprehensive and unsurpassed biography.Find this resource:

Kramer, Victor A.Agee and Actuality: Artistic Vision in His Work. Troy, N.Y., 1991.Find this resource:

Lofaro, Michael A., ed. James Agee: Reconsiderations. Knoxville, Tenn., 1992.Find this resource:

Madden, David, and Jeffrey J. Folks, eds. Remembering James Agee. 2d ed. Athens, Ga., 1997. A forum of wonderfully personal discussions about various facets of Agee's life and work featuring family members, friends (including Father Flye), and fellow writers.Find this resource:

Moreau, Genevieve. The Restless Journey of James Agee. Translated by Miriam Kleiger and Morty Schiff. New York, 1977. A European perspective on the American writer.Find this resource:

Spiegel, Alan. James Agee and the Legend of Himself: A Critical Study. Columbia, Mo., 1998.Find this resource: