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Perhaps best known for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which is Agee’s documentary book about share croppers, James Agee was also a gifted man of letters who wrote poetry, novels, screenplays, criticism, and articles for magazines. Agee drew on his own life, experiences, and background for many of his works. Agee’s status was cemented by an Academy Award nomination for his script for The African Queen (1951) and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his novel A Death in the Family (1957) after his premature death at the age of 45.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Tragedy, Sharp Intellect
Agee was born November 27, 1909, in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Hugh James and Laura (Tyler) Agee. His father worked for a small construction company founded by his father-in-law, while his pious mother enjoyed writing poetry, an art her son would soon come to love. Agee’s father died in a car accident when Agee was six years old and his death greatly impacted Agee’s life.
After Hugh Agee’s death, the family moved to the mountains of south central Tennessee, where Agee received his early education at Saint Andrews, a private school run by members of the Order of the Holy Cross. There, Agee became close with Father James Harold Flye, a member of the order with whom he shared many intellectual interests and a life-long correspondence. In 1925, Agee began attending a prestigious college prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire.
Focused on Writing Career
By this time, Agee’s interest had focused on literature and writing. He became the editor of the school magazine, the Monthly, and president of the literary club, the Lantern, in 1927. Agee was also writing poetry, and his burgeoning talent was recognized by such famous poets as Robert Frost.
Agee then entered Harvard University, where his determination to become a writer intensified. However, he was also often sidetracked by uncertainty, and his spirits would plummet so low that he sometimes considered suicide. The next day, his mood would often greatly improve. Such emotional extremes continued through-out his life. Despite this internal conflict, he wrote for, then became president of, the Harvard Advocate.
After graduating from Harvard in 1932, Agee was hired by Fortune magazine to work as a reporter. By this time, the United States was deep in the Great Depression. The Great Depression was the worst economic crisis in the history of the United States and soon spread worldwide. It officially began with the stock market crashing on October 29, 1929, and lasted nearly a decade. All major economic indexes fell, and the unemployment rate became extremely high. At the peak of the Great Depression in 1933, more than one out of every four people in the labor force were without jobs.
For Fortune, Agee wrote about various businesses as well as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the massive New Deal project which brought jobs and electricity to the Southeast. The New Deal was the name given to the many programs launched during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, intended to help the United States recover from the Great Depression.
Published First Books
While writing for Fortune, Agee published the only volume of poetry collected during his lifetime, Permit Me to Voyage (1934). The poems in the collection were highly personal and included poems writ ten while he was a student at Exeter. Agee would continue to write poetry throughout his life, and the poems were published after his death in The Collected Poems of James Agee (1968).
In 1936, Fortune sent Agee to Alabama to study the Southern farm economy and write a documentary series about the daily life of a sharecropping family. Sharecroppers were tenant farmers who were supplied with land and tools by the landowners in exchange for a share of the crops. During the Great Depression, most sharecroppers earned no more than a few hundred dollars for their crops and were often left destitute after paying their bills.
Agee chose to write about three families and emphasize their human dignity instead of the viewpoint that they were ”social problems.” The passionate articles created by Agee, as well as the accompanying photographs taken by Walker Evans, were rejected by Fortune, but Agee did not let the project die. Instead, Agee and Evans created a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941. Initially a failure, the book was reprinted in 1960 and became one of the most significant literary documents produced during the Great Depression.
Wrote About and For Films
By the time Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was originally published, Agee was working at Time magazine. He joined the magazine in 1939 as a book reviewer, then became its movie critic in 1941. Agee wrote highly regarded film reviews for the magazine until 1948. At the same time, he also composed a well-known movie column, which included film reviews, for the Nation from 1942 to 1948. In his reviews for Time and the Nation, he was the first to raise the level of weekly reviewing to that of prose art. In 1949 and 1950, Agee also contributed several long film essays to Life magazine.
A life-long film buff, Agee also wrote original movie scripts, though none were ever produced. He did write screenplays based on the novels of other authors, including such films as The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). While Agee was writing such high-profile films, he was also writing several lauded novels that were published in the 1950s. Among the best known was the short novel, The Morning Watch (1951), about a twelve-year-old boy attending an Episcopal school. In the autobiographical novel, Agee explores how a child experiences a spiritual crisis yet comes to an appreciation and sense of real self.
After decades of using and abusing tobacco and alcohol, as well as suffering several heart attacks, Agee died of heart failure on May 16, 1955, in New York City. After his death, his literary career continued. One of his best known novels, A Death in the Family, was published in 1957 and won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Also autobiographical, the novel is a period evocation of Southern Americana, as well as an aching memoir of parents, children, and the negotiation of loss after a father dies in a car accident when the protagonist is a child. Agee also received notice for his collected film reviews, Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments (1958), the reprint of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and collections of his poetry and prose published in 1968.
Works in Literary Context
Agee’s literary themes were strongly influenced by his childhood experiences: growing up in a Christian family in Tennessee; suffering the loss of his father as a small child; and attending an Episcopalian grammar school, where he was taught various social and religious philosophies. His work as a reporter and film critic also informed his writing, though his personal point of view often showed through even in his journalistic works. His best-known book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was an example of a new journalistic movement: personal journalism. Among the writers who influenced Agee were William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and William Blake.
Much of Agee’s writings, including his poetry and two novels, draws from personal experience and is autobiographical in nature. In fictional works that are autobiographical, authors incorporate elements from their own lives into their writings. In both The Morning Watch and A Death in the Family, Agee draws on two elemental facts from his childhood which deeply influenced his life and affected his outlook: the death of his father when Agee was six years old, and the religious piety of his mother, a piety with which he would constantly struggle. The Morning Watch, for example, is the story of a young student at a religious school who grows away from orthodoxy and toward self-awareness, and, eventually alienation. In A Death in the Family, the young protagonist’s father has been killed in an automobile accident—just like Agee’s father—leaving the boy and his family to cope with his absence, just as Agee’s family had to do.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is one of the first examples of personal journalism. This book challenged the traditional conventions of reporting and literature which demanded objectivity. Instead, Agee inserted himself and his personal beliefs into the story in a variety of ways. Occasionally self-indulgent, his language is often breathtaking in its intellectual passion, moral force, and near holographic reproduction of the physical reality of the sharecroppers’ lives. Agee’s prose is also turbulent, extravagant, and self-reflexive. Part anatomy of the impoverished conditions surrounding a tenant farmer’s life, part poetic and metaphysical inquiry into the mysteries of existence, part intimate confession of Agee’s search for his aesthetic identity and family roots, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was a highly original work. By using such personal journalism techniques, Agee comes to a realization and understanding of the humanity within himself and in others. The genre of personal journalism became more common in the 1960s, influenced in part by the reprint of this book in 1961.
Works in Critical Context
While most Agee’s works are highly praised, many critics believed that he failed to reach the artistic achievement for which he seemed destined. Instead of settling on one particular genre and doing it well, he chose instead to try it all during his lifetime and never focused long enough to achieve sustained greatness, though such novels as A Morning Watch were highly regarded. Agee’s premature death also meant that his greatest fame came after his death. Such was the case with what many critics consider his most important contribution to literature, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
The Morning Watch
The autobiographical novel The Morning Watch has been praised by critics for its subtle rendering of the protagonist’s development from immature idealism to a mature awareness of life’s complexity. At the same time, commentators have frequently criticized the work for sacrificing substance to technique, particularly in its overly rhetorical style and excessive reliance on symbolism. As Victor A. Kramer noted in Renascence, ”Throughout The Morning Watch, Agee is most concerned with evoking the complex emotions of particular imagined moments.” Commenting on the symbolism, John S. Phillipson in the Western Humanities Review commented ”In the one hundred and twenty pages of James Agee’s The Morning Watch, the symbols and motifs act, interact, and interrelate complexly. In their ordered complexity they contrast with the disorder and confusion within the mind of the book’s protagonist….”
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Upon publication in 1941, a few critics noted that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men featured Agee’s technically ambitious prose along with Evans’ harshly realistic photographs. However, the book failed to engage an American public increasingly preoccupied with World War II. After his publisher put out a reprint of the book in 1961, the critical and popular response to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men changed. The book was lauded for creating a stirring portrait of share croppers’ lives as well as an incisive expression of the artist’s dilemma in fashioning that portrait.
For example, William Stott, in his book Documentary Expression and Thirties America, noted that ” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is confessional in a way no documentary had been” and that ”Agee’s extraordinary participation in the narrative . . . set the book apart from other documentary writing of the thirties.” An expanded edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published in 2000, and continued to receive positive notices. A reviewer in Creative Review commented, ”Stylistically, Agee veers from the compact sections describing with minute fascination the physical environment and the waking, sleeping, eating, working social lives of his hosts to long, meandering almost stream-of-consciousness passages, expressing his personal response to the situation of the sharecroopers.”
- Bergeen, Laurence. James Agee: A Life. New York: Dutton, 1984.
- Lofaro, Michael A., ed. James Agee: Reconsiderations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
- Lowe, James. The Creative Process of James Agee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
- Scott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
- Garner, Dwight. ”Grievous Angel: The Unruly James Agee.” Harper’s Magazine (November 2005): 91. ”Let Us Praise a Famous Book.” Creative Review (July 2001): 68.
- Kramer, Victor A. Review of The Morning Watch. Renascence (Summer 1975): 221-230.
- Valinuas, Algis. ”What James Agee Achieved.” Commentary (February 2006): 49.
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