James Agee (1909-1955). Courtesy PAL Perspectives in American Literature.

James Rufus Agee
Born James Rufus Agee
27 November 1909
Knoxville, Tennessee
Died May 16, 1955(1955-Template:MONTHNUMBER-16) (aged 45)
New York City, New York
Nationality United States 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) was an American poet, novelist, journalist, screenwriter and film critic. In the 1940s, he was one of the most influential film critics in the United States.


James Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, at Highland Avenue and 15th Street (renamed James Agee Street in 1999) in what is now the Fort Sanders neighborhood, to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman (Tyler).[1]

When Agee was 6, his father was killed in an automobile accident. From the age of 7, Agee was educated in boarding schools, as was his younger sister, Emma. The most influential of these schools was located near his mother's summer cottage 2 miles from Sewanee, Tennessee. Saint Andrews School for Mountain Boys was run by Episcopal monks affiliated with the Order of the Holy Cross. It was there that Agee's lifelong friendship with Episcopal priest Father James Harold Flye and his wife began in 1919. As Agee's close friend and spiritual confidant, Flye received many of Agee's most revealing letters.

Agee's mother married Erskind Wright in 1924, and the 2 moved to Rockland, Maine.[2] Agee went to Knoxville High School for the 1924-1925 school year, then traveled with Father Flye to Europe in the summer, when Agee was 16. On their return, Agee transferred to a boarding school in New Hampshire, entering the class of 1928 at Phillips Exeter Academy. Soon after, he began a correspondence with Dwight Macdonald.

At Phillips Exeter, Agee 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. There Agee took classes taught by Robert Hillyer and I. A. Richards; his classmate in those was the future poet and critic Robert Fitzgerald, with whom he would eventually work at TIME.[2] Agee was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate and delivered the class ode at his commencement. Soon after graduation, he married Via Saunders on January 28, 1933; they divorced in 1938. Later that same year, he married Alma Mailman.

In 1941 Alma moved to Mexico with their year-old son Joel, to live with Communist writer Bodo Uhse. Agee began living in Greenwich Village with Mia Fritsch, whom he married in 1946. They had two daughters, Teresa and Andrea, and a son John.

In 1951 in Santa Barbara, Agee, a hard drinker and chain-smoker, suffered the 1st in a series of heart attacks. Four years later, on May 16, 1955, Agee was in New York City when he suffered a fatal second heart attack. Agee, 45, was in a taxi cab en route to a doctor's appointment, two days before the anniversary of his father's death.[3] He was buried on a farm he owned at Hillsdale, New York, property still held by Agee descendants.


After graduation, Agee moved to New York, where he wrote for Fortune and Time magazines, although he is better known for his later film criticism in The Nation. In 1934, he published his only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage, with a foreword by Archibald MacLeish.

In the summer of 1936, during the Great Depression, Agee spent eight weeks on assignment for Fortune with photographer Walker Evans, living among sharecroppers in Alabama. While Fortune did not publish his article, Agee turned the material into a book entitled, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It sold only 600 copies before being remaindered. Agee left Fortune in 1939.

In 1942, Agee became the film critic for Time; at one point, he also reviewed up to 6 books per week. Together, he and friend Whittaker Chambers ran "the back of the book" for Time.[4]

He left to become film critic for The Nation.

In 1948, Agee quit both magazines to become a freelance writer. An early assignment was a well-received article for Life Magazine about the great silent movie comedians Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon. The article has been credited for reviving Keaton's career. As a freelancer in the 1950s, Agee 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 unpopular film Monsieur Verdoux (1947), since recognized as a film classic. He was also a great admirer of Laurence Olivier's Henry V and Hamlet, especially Henry V. He published 3 separate reviews of Henry V, all of which have been printed in the collection Agee on Film.


Agee's career as a movie scriptwriter was curtailed by his alcoholism. Nevertheless he is 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).

His contribution to Hunter is shrouded in controversy. Some critics have claimed the published script was 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 which Laughton directed. While not yet published, the first draft has been read by scholars, most notably Professor Jeffrey Couchman of Columbia University. He credited Agee in the essay, "Credit Where Credit Is Due." Also false were 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 documented by Laughton's biographer Simon Callow, whose BFI book about The Night of the Hunter set this part of the record straight.

In 2008, Jeffrey Couchman published The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film. A scholarly history and analysis of Laughton’s masterpiece, it evaluates the film from many angles. The book also provides the 1st study of Agee’s legendary 1st-draft script.



James Agee Park, Knoxville, Tennessee. Photo by Brian Stansberry. Licensed under Creative Commons, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

During his lifetime, Agee enjoyed only modest public recognition. Since his death, his literary reputation has grown.

In 1957, his novel, A Death in the Family (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. Agee's work had been heavily edited before its original publication by publisher David McDowell.[5]

Agee's reviews and screenplays have been collected in two volumes of Agee on Film. The issues related to The Night of the Hunter attracted controversy.

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.

Composer Samuel Barber set sections of "Descriptions of Elysium" from Permit Me Voyage to music, creating a song of "Sure On This Shining Night." In addition, he set prose from the "Knoxville" section of A Death in the Family in his work for soprano and orchestra 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,[6] which was performed during UT's "James Agee Celebration" in Spring 2005.




  • The Morning Watch (autobiographical novel). Boston: Houghton Mifflin / Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1951.
  • A Death in the Family. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1957; NY: Bantam Books, 1969.
    • A Death in the Family: A restoration of the author's aext: The works of James Agee, Volume 1. (edited by Michael Lofaro. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2007.

Short fictionEdit

  • Four Early Stories by James Agee. West Branch, IA: Cummington Press, 1964.


  • Agee on Film. New York: McDowell, Obolensky 1958-60.
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three tenant families (with Walker Evans). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943; London & New York: Penguin, 2006.
  • James Agee: Selected journalism (edited by Paul Ashdown). Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
  • Film Writing and Selected Journalism. (edited by Michael Sragow). New York: Library of America, 2005.

Collected editionsEdit

  • The collected short prose of James Agee (edited by Robert Fitzgerald). Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
  • Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and shorter fiction. New York: Library of American, 2005.
  • Agee: Selected literary documents (edited by Victor A. Kramer). Troy, NY: Whitston, 1996.
  • Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes, (preface by Jonathan Lethem). Fordham University Press, 2005.

Letters and journalsEdit

  • Letters of James Agee to Father Flye. New York: G. Braziller, 1962.
  • The Last Letter of James Agee to Father Flye. Boston: Godine, 1969.
  • James Agee Rediscovered: The journals of 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men', and other new manuscripts (edited by Michael A Lofaro & Hugh Davis). Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[7]

See also Edit

Thomas Hampson performs "Sure on this Shining Night"

Thomas Hampson performs "Sure on this Shining Night"

References Edit

  • 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", in Critical Essays in Modern Literature, University of Pittsburgh Press, 175 pages, 1968.
  • Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, ed. Ian Aitken, London: Routledge, 2005


  1. "James Agee (1909-1955): Let us now praise famous writers". Chicago Tribune. February 27, 1977.,+1977&author=&pub=Chicago+Tribune&desc=James+Agee+(1909-1955):+Let+us+now+praise+famous+writers&pqatl=google. Retrieved 2010-12-04. "James Agee was born in Knoxville in 1909, to a father whose people were farmers (in Tennessee and Virginia) and a mother whose family members considered themselves "more cosmopolitan." Agee's father died young, in an accident frequently memorialized (most eloquently in the autobiographical novel A Death in the Family), but the conflict he helped engender would persist..." 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Agee Chronology
  3. James Agee (1909-1955) Chronology of his Life and Work
  4. [|Chambers, Whittaker] (1952). Witness. Random House. pp. 478, 493, 504, 615. ISBN 0-89526-571-0. 
  5. 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
  6. Writer in Residence RB Morris (2004-2008), University of Tennessee Libraries.
  7. Search results = au:James Ageee, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Mar. 15, 2014.

External links Edit

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