See his collected works, ed. by M. Sragow (2 vol., 2005); M. A. Lofaro, ed., A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text (2008); biographies by G. Moreau (1977) and L. Bergreen (1984); R. Spears and J. Cassidy, ed., Agee: His Life Remembered (1985); studies by P. H. Ohlin (1966), A. G. Barson (1972), V. A. Kramer (1975), M. A. Doty (1981), M. A. Lofaro (1992), J. Lowe (1994), A. Spiegel (1998), and H. Davis (2008).
(born Nov. 27, 1909, Knoxville, Tenn., U.S.—died May 16, 1955, New York, N.Y.) U.S. poet and novelist. Agee attended Harvard University. In the 1930s and '40s, film reviews for Time and The Nation made him a pioneer in serious film criticism. His lyrical Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), with photographs by Walker Evans, documents the daily lives of poverty-stricken Alabama sharecroppers. After 1948 Agee worked mainly as a screenwriter, notably on The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). He is best known for his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family (1957, Pulitzer Prize).
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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.
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, who was eight months old when Agee died.
In 1942, Agee became the film critic for Time, and at one point reviewed up to six books per week, but 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.
In 1951 in Santa Barbara, Agee 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. He was buried on a farm he owned at Hillsdale, NY.
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 and overwritten, is scene for scene the film Charles Laughton directed. The first draft is yet to be published, but it has been read by scholars - most notably Prof. 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, whatever his displeasure at having to deal with such a large script with only five weeks before the start of principal photography, renewed Agee's contract and directed him to cut it 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.
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.
Agee's book 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."
Grievous Angel: the unruly James Agee.(James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction)(Critical Essay)(Biography)
Nov 01, 2005; Discussed in this essay: James Agee: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, & Shorter Fiction, edited by Michael...