James Rufus Agee (/ˈeɪdʒiː/ AY-jee; November 27, 1909 – May 16, 1955) was an American novelist, 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 1958 Pulitzer Prize.
Agee in 1937
|Born||James Rufus Agee|
November 27, 1909
Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Died||May 16, 1955 (aged 45)|
New York City, U.S.
|Notable works||A Death in the Family, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men|
|Spouse||Via Saunders (1933-1938)|
Alma Mailman (1938-1941)
Mia Fritsch (1946-1955; his death)
|Children||Joel (b. 1940)|
Julia Teresa ("Deedee")
Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman Tyler, at Highland Avenue and 15th Street, which was renamed James Agee Street, in 1909, in what is now the Fort Sanders neighborhood. When Agee was six, his father was killed in an automobile accident. From the age of seven, Agee and his younger sister, Emma, were educated in several boarding schools. The most prominent of these was located near his mother's summer cottage two miles from Sewanee, Tennessee. Saint Andrews School for Mountain Boys was run by the monastic Order of the Holy Cross affiliated with the Episcopal Church. It was there that Agee's lifelong friendship with Episcopal priest Father James Harold Flye, a history teacher at St. Andrew's, and his wife Grace Eleanor Houghton began in 1919. As Agee's close friend and mentor, Flye corresponded with him on literary and other topics through life and became a confidant of Agee's soul-wrestling. He published the letters after Agee's death. The New York Times Book Review pronounced The Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962 ) as "comparable in importance to Fitzgerald's 'The Crackup' and Thomas Wolfe's letters as a self-portrait of the artist in the modern American scene."
Agee's mother married St. Andrew's bursar Father Erskine Wright in 1924, and the two moved to Rockland, Maine. 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 sixteen. 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. Agee was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate and delivered the class ode at his commencement.
After graduation, Agee was hired by the Time Inc. as a reporter, and moved to New York City, where he wrote for Fortune magazine in 1932-1937, although he is better known for his later film criticism in Time and 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 titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It sold only 600 copies before being remaindered. Another manuscript from the same assignment discovered in 2003, titled Cotton Tenants, is believed to be the essay submitted to Fortune editors. The 30,000 word text, accompanied by photographs by Walker Evans, was published as a book in June 2013. John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in the Summer 2013 issue of BookForum that, "This is not merely an early, partial draft of Famous Men, in other words, not just a different book; it's a different Agee, an unknown Agee. Its excellence should enhance his reputation." A significant difference between the works is the use of original names in Cotton Tenants; Agee assigned fictional names to the subjects of Famous Men in order to protect their identity.
Agee left Fortune in 1937 while working on a book, then, in 1939, he took a book reviewing job at Time, sometimes reviewing up to six books per week; together, he and his friend Whittaker Chambers ran "the back of the book" for Time. In 1941, he became Time's film critic. In 1942-1948, he worked as a film critic for The Nation. 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. Agee on Film (1958) collected his writings of this period.
In 1948, Agee quit his job to become a freelance writer. One of his assignments was a well-received article for Life Magazine about the 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; he developed a friendship with photographer Helen Levitt.
In 1947 and 1948, Agee wrote an untitled screenplay for Charlie Chaplin, in which the Tramp survives a nuclear holocaust; posthumously titled The Tramp's New World, the text was published in 2005. The commentary Agee wrote for the 1948 documentary The Quiet One was his first contribution to a film that was completed and released.
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.
Soon after graduation from Harvard, he married Olivia Saunders (aka "Via") on January 28, 1933; they divorced in 1938. Later that same year, he married Alma Mailman. They divorced in 1941, and Alma moved to Mexico with their year-old son Joel to live with Communist politician and writer Bodo Uhse.
Agee began living in Greenwich Village with Mia Fritsch, whom he married in 1946. They had two daughters, Julia and Andrea, and a son John. In 1951 in Santa Barbara, Agee, a hard drinker and chain-smoker, suffered a heart attack; on May 16, 1955, Agee was in New York City when he suffered a fatal heart attack in a taxi cab en route to a doctor's appointment. He was buried on a farm he owned at Hillsdale, New York, property still held by Agee descendants.
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.
Agee's reviews and screenplays have been collected in two volumes of Agee on Film. There is some dispute over the extent of his participation in the writing of The Night of the Hunter.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has grown to be considered Agee's masterpiece. Ignored on its original publication in 1941, the book has since been placed among the greatest literary works of the 20th century by the New York School of Journalism and the New York Public Library. It was the inspiration for the Aaron Copland opera The Tender Land. David Simon, journalist and creator of acclaimed television series The Wire, credited the book with impacting him early in his career and informing his practice of journalism.
The composer Samuel Barber set sections of "Descriptions of Elysium" from Permit Me Voyage to music, composing a song based on "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 titled Knoxville: Summer of 1915. "Sure On This Shining Night" has also been set to music by composers René Clausen, Z. Randall Stroope and Morten Lauridsen.
In late 1979 the filmmaker Ross Spears premiered his film AGEE: A Sovereign Prince of the English Language, which was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and was awarded a Blue Ribbon at the 1980 American Film Festival. AGEE featured James Agee's friends, Dwight Macdonald, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Saudek, and John Huston, as well as the three women to whom James Agee had been married. In addition, Father James Harold Flye was a featured interviewee. President Jimmy Carter speaks about his favorite book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
The Man Who Lives Here Is Loony, a one-act play by Knoxville-based songwriter and playwright RB Morris, takes place in a New York apartment during one night in Agee's life. The play has been performed at venues around Knoxville, and at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village.
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...
A Death in the Family is an autobiographical novel by author James Agee, set in Knoxville, Tennessee. He began writing it in 1948, but it was not quite complete when he died in 1955 (with reputedly many portions having been written in the home of his friend Frances Wickes). It was edited and released posthumously in 1957 by editor David McDowell. Agee's widow and children were left with little money after Agee's death and McDowell wanted to help them by publishing the work. Agee won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958 for the novel. The novel was included on Time's 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.Agee (film)
Agee is a 1980 American documentary film directed by Ross Spears, about the writer James Agee. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.All the Way Home (film)
All the Way Home is a 1963 drama film about a young boy and his mother dealing with the sudden death of his father. It stars Jean Simmons, Robert Preston, and Pat Hingle, with the boy being portrayed by Michael Kearney. It was based on the 1957 James Agee novel A Death in the Family and the 1960 Tad Mosel play All the Way Home.All the Way Home (play)
All the Way Home is a play written by American playwright Tad Mosel, adapted from the 1957 James Agee novel, A Death in the Family. Both authors received the Pulitzer Prize for their separate works.Bruce Jackson (scholar)
Bruce Jackson (born May 21, 1936) is an American folklorist, documentary filmmaker, writer, photographer. He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and the James Agee Professor of American Culture at the University at Buffalo. Jackson has edited or authored books published by major university presses. He has also directed and produced five documentary films.Dwight Garner (critic)
Dwight Garner (born 1965) is an American journalist, now a literary critic for The New York Times. Prior to that he was senior editor at The New York Times Book Review, where he worked from 1999 to 2009. He was also the founding books editor of Salon.com, where he worked from 1995 to 1998.
His essays and journalism have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper's Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, the Oxford American, Slate, The Village Voice, the Boston Phoenix, The Nation, and elsewhere. He has served on the board of the National Book Critic's Circle. In a January 2011 column for Slate, the journalist Timothy Noah called Garner a "highly gifted critic" who had reinvigorated The New York Times's literary coverage, and likened him to Anatole Broyard and John Leonard.He is the author of Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements, and he is at work on a biography of James Agee.
Dwight Garner was born in West Virginia and graduated from Middlebury College. He lives in Frenchtown, New Jersey. He is married to the cookbook writer Cree LeFavour, whose memoir, Lights On, Rats Out, discusses her history of self-mutilation.Fort Sanders, Knoxville
Fort Sanders is a neighborhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, USA, located west of the downtown area and immediately north of the main campus of the University of Tennessee. Developed in the late 19th century as a residential area for Knoxville's growing upper and middle classes, the neighborhood now provides housing primarily for the university's student population. The neighborhood still contains a notable number of its original Victorian-era houses and other buildings, several hundred of which were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 as the Fort Sanders Historic District.
Fort Sanders is named for a Civil War-era Union bastion that once stood near the center of the neighborhood, which was the site of a key engagement in 1863. In the 1880s, several of Knoxville's wealthier residents built sizeable houses in what is now the southern half of Fort Sanders, then known as "White's Addition," while the northern half, known as "Ramsey's Addition," was developed to provide housing for plant managers and workers employed in factories along Second Creek. Fort Sanders was incorporated as the separate city of West Knoxville in 1888, and was annexed by Knoxville in 1897. In its early years, Fort Sanders residents included some of Knoxville's leading industrialists and politicians, as well as professors from the University of Tennessee.
Fort Sanders was the childhood home of author James Agee, and provided the setting for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Death in the Family. A ten-fold expansion of U.T.'s student body after World War II brought about the need for student housing, and many of the old homes in Fort Sanders have since been converted into apartments.In the Street (film)
In the Street is a 16-minute documentary film released in 1948 and again in 1952. The black and white, silent film was shot in the mid-1940s in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City. Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee were the cinematographers; they used small, hidden 16 mm film cameras to record street life, especially of children. Levitt edited the film and, subsequent to its first release, added a piano soundtrack composed and performed by Arthur Kleiner.The film is generally considered as an extension of Levitt's (now famed) street photography in New York City, and Levitt subsequently re-used the title, In the Street, for a volume reproducing her photographs. Loeb was a painter and photographer. James Agee was a noted writer; both Loeb and Agee subsequently collaborated with Levitt on a second film, The Quiet One (1948).
Manny Farber summarized the film at the time, "The movie, to be shown around the 16mm circuit, has been beautifully edited (by Miss Levitt) into a somber study of the American figure, from childhood to old age, growing stiffer, uglier, and lonelier with the passage of years." The artist Roy Arden recently summarized the film somewhat differently, "In The Street is reportage as art. It reports the facts, but for their useless beauty above all. While it could be argued that the film tells us how working class residents of Spanish Harlem lived in the 1930s and 1940s - how they looked and behaved, the addition of expository narration could have told us so much more. Statistics and other facts could have helped us put what we see into context and multiplied the use-value of the film. The absence of narration or other texts proves the artist's intent that we are intended to enjoy the film as a collection of beautiful appearances."In 2006, In the Street was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". A videotape version of the film was released in 1996, but is apparently out of print.Jonathan Rosenbaum
Jonathan Rosenbaum (born February 27, 1943) is an American film critic. Rosenbaum was the head film critic for the Chicago Reader from 1987 until 2008, when he retired at the age of 65. He has published and edited numerous books and has contributed to some of the world's most notable film publications, including Cahiers du cinéma and Film Comment.
He promotes the dissemination and discussion of foreign film. His strong views on filmgoing in the U.S. hold that Hollywood and the media tend to limit the full range of the films Americans can see, at the cineplex and elsewhere.
Jonathan Rosenbaum appears in the 2009 documentary For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism discussing the film criticism of Manny Farber, and giving his approval to young people writing film reviews today on the Internet.
Regarding Rosenbaum, French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard said: "I think there is a very good film critic in the United States today, a successor of James Agee, and that is Jonathan Rosenbaum. He's one of the best; we don't have writers like him in France today. He's like André Bazin."Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a book with text by American writer James Agee and photographs by American photographer Walker Evans, first published in 1941 in the United States. The work documents the lives of impoverished tenant farmers during the Great Depression. Although it is in keeping with Evans' work with the Farm Security Administration, the project was initiated not by the FSA, but by Fortune magazine. The title derives from a passage in the Wisdom of Sirach (44:1) that begins, "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us".Michael Williams (Henry V)
Michael Williams is a character in William Shakespeare's Henry V. He is one of three soldiers visited by King Henry before the Battle of Agincourt.
While walking among his troops on the eve of battle, the King arrives incognito upon a trio of soldiers. They are ruminating on their chances of mere survival, let alone victory in the coming fight. The King pretends to be a junior officer and joins in the discussion. Michael Williams espouses his view on the responsibilities a commander has for the men in his charge, to the extent that he may even be responsible for their souls. He has the grand setpiece speech that includes the line; "There be few that die well that die in a battle." The King successfully rebukes this, as all soldiers are responsible for their own souls.
There is some speculation as to the merits of the King surrendering himself for ransom in order to save the lives of his soldiers. Henry declares he knows the King would never allow himself to be ransomed and would fight the enemy to the death. Williams shows he knows some of the psychology involved, and declares that of course the King would say that, "to make us fight cheerfully: but when our throats are cut he may be ransomed and we ne'er the wiser." The King says in his guise that if that happened he would "never trust the King after."
Williams finds that remark to be so ridiculous as to be outrageous—as if the King would care whether an ordinary man trusted his word or not. The King in return finds he cannot allow his word as a man to be doubted. Williams and Henry agree to settle their argument after the battle, should they live, both wearing charges of the other so they could be recognised.
After Agincourt, the victorious King is in a playful mood, and he presents Williams' glove to Fluellen, the Welsh captain, pretending it is a French trophy. When Williams strikes Fluellen to settle the score of the previous night, Fluellen threatens Williams with treason. The King separates them with apologies to Fluellen and promises of gold to Williams for showing honor and bravery. Fluellen tries to add a small amount to Williams' purse, but Michael Williams replies to him; "I will none of your money."
In his review of Laurence Olivier's version in 1944, reviewer James Agee calls this exchange "the most inspired part" of the play, as Michael Williams presents the only challenge to Henry in any way, and almost the only personal conflict. Williams' bravery and intelligence is shown as a spur to Henry's own conscience.In the 1989 movie adaptation of Henry V, Williams was played by the British actor Michael Williams; in this version, there is a wordless scene after Agincourt in which the King simply gives the glove to Williams, who initially looks thankful but then shocked as he realizes he has quarreled with the King. The character appears in the 1990 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Defector", in Data's holodeck re-enactment of Act IV, Scene I, played under heavy makeup by Patrick Stewart, who had asked to portray Williams or John Bates due to his unabashed love of Shakespeare.Moundville, Alabama
Moundville is a town in Hale and Tuscaloosa counties in the U.S. state of Alabama. It was incorporated on December 22, 1908. From its incorporation until the 1970 census, it was wholly within Hale County. At the 2010 census the population was 2,427, up from 1,809 at the 2000 census. It is part of the Tuscaloosa Metropolitan Statistical Area. Within the town is Moundville Archaeological Site, the location of a prehistoric Mississippian culture political and ceremonial center.Otis Ferguson
Otis Ferguson (August 14, 1907 – September 14, 1943) was an American writer best remembered for his music and film reviews in The New Republic in the 1930s.
Although he can be seen as a predecessor to film critics James Agee, Manny Farber, Pauline Kael, and Andrew Sarris, he has been characterized by Robert Christgau as "the first rock critic" due to his appreciation of jazz and its impact on popular culture. Ferguson died in action during World War II.
His film criticism is praised and discussed by critics Richard Schickel and Wesley Morris in the documentary film For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (2009).
On the release of The Wizard of Oz (1939) Ferguson wrote a notoriously negative review. In the review, he made the remark, "It has dwarfs, Technicolor, freak characters, and Judy Garland. It can't be expected to have a sense of humor as well."After the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Ferguson joined the Merchant Marine. He died in 1943 when his ship was bombed while anchored in the Gulf of Salerno.Robert Fitzgerald
Robert Stuart Fitzgerald (; 12 October 1910 – 16 January 1985) was an American poet, critic and translator whose renderings of the Greek classics "became standard works for a generation of scholars and students". He was best known as a translator of ancient Greek and Latin. He also composed several books of his own poetry.The African Queen (film)
The African Queen is a 1951 British-American adventure film adapted from the 1935 novel of the same name by C. S. Forester. The film was directed by John Huston and produced by Sam Spiegel and John Woolf. The screenplay was adapted by James Agee, John Huston, John Collier and Peter Viertel. It was photographed in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff and had a music score by Allan Gray. The film stars Humphrey Bogart (who won the Academy Award for Best Actor – his only Oscar), and Katharine Hepburn with Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Walter Gotell, Richard Marner and Theodore Bikel.The African Queen was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1994, with the Library of Congress deeming it "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". The film holds a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 41 reviews.The Night of the Hunter (film)
The Night of the Hunter is a 1955 American thriller directed by Charles Laughton, and starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. The screenplay by James Agee was based on the 1953 novel of the same title by Davis Grubb. The plot focuses on a corrupt minister-turned-serial killer who attempts to charm an unsuspecting widow and steal $10,000 hidden by her executed husband.
The novel and film draw on the true story of Harry Powers who was hanged in 1932 for the murder of two widows and three children in Clarksburg, West Virginia. The film's lyrical and expressionistic style with its leaning on the silent era sets it apart from other Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s, and it has influenced later directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Robert Altman.In 1992, The Night of the Hunter was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The influential film magazine Cahiers du cinéma selected The Night of the Hunter in 2008 as the second-best film of all time, behind Citizen Kane.The Quiet One (film)
The Quiet One is a 1948 American documentary film directed by Sidney Meyers. The documentary chronicles the rehabilitation of a young, emotionally disturbed African-American boy; it contains a commentary written by James Agee, and narrated by Gary Merrill. In his 1949 review, Bosley Crowther characterized the film succinctly:Out of the tortured experiences of a 10-year-old Harlem Negro boy, cruelly rejected by his loved ones but rescued by the people of the Wiltwyck School, a new group of local film-makers has fashioned a genuine masterpiece in the way of a documentary drama.
The still photographer Helen Levitt was one of the film's cinematographers and writers, along with the painter Janice Loeb. The neoclassical composer Ulysses Kay wrote the score for the film. The film's principle cinematographer, Richard Bagley, also photographed the critically acclaimed New York semidocumentary feature On the Bowery. The film's three writers - Meyers, Loeb, and Levitt - were nominated for the Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Academy Award; the film itself was also nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award. The National Board of Review named The Quiet One the second best film of 1949.William Todd Schultz
William Todd Schultz (born c. 1969) is an American writer specializing in biographies and psychobiographies of artists, based in Portland, Oregon. Schultz received a BA in Philosophy and Psychology from Lewis and Clark College in 1985, an MA in Personality Psychology from the University of California in 1987, and a PhD in Personality Psychology from the University of California in 1993.Schultz's first psychobiographical subject was James Agee. Other early articles focused on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jack Kerouac, Roald Dahl, Franz Kafka, and Oscar Wilde. In 2005, Schultz conceived and edited Oxford's Handbook of Psychobiography. He curates Oxford's "Inner Lives" series, consisting of personality profiles of provocative artists and historical figures.
Schultz has published three books, all on artists: "Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers" (2011); "An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus" (2011); and "Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith" (2013).
In 2015, Schultz was awarded the Erik Erikson Prize for Excellence in Mental Health Media.