The writer James Agee (1909-1955) was a poet, journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He also was the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an eloquent and anguished testimony about the essential human dignity of impoverished sharecroppers during the 1930s. The book is regarded as one of the most significant literary documents associated with the Great Depression.
Born November 27, 1909, in Knoxville, Tennessee, James Agee was 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 mother had close ties to the Anglo-Catholic church and enjoyed writing poetry. His father's death in a car accident when James was six strongly influenced his life. He later described the incident in his autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, which was published posthumously (1957) and won a Pulitzer Prize. For most of his career he was a journalist writing for Henry Luce publications (TIME, Fortune, LIFE) and a screenwriter. As a reporter in 1936, his encounter with three families of sharecroppers in Alabama became the basis for the very personal documentary-style book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was an ambitious literary attempt to honor people enduring extreme poverty.
Not long after his father's death Agee moved with his family to the mountains in south-central Tennessee where he attended St. Andrews, a small Episcopalian school, from 1919 to 1924. He established a deep friendship with Father James Harold Flye that developed into a life-long correspondence. While at St. Andrews he experienced the spiritual crisis which he later described in his novel The Morning Watch (1951).
He spent one year at high school in Knoxville before attending Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire from 1925 to 1928. As a student at Harvard College (1928-1932) he wrote numerous short stories, poems, and essays. His work on a parody of TIME magazine helped him get a job after graduation as a reporter for Fortune magazine. Through another Fortune writer, the poet Archibald MacLeish, Agee submitted a collection of poems that was selected by the Yale Series of Younger Poets and published as Permit Me Voyage (1934).
For Fortune (1932-1938), Agee wrote long articles on a wide range of business and cultural topics, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and the American highway system. In 1936 he was assigned to do an article on tenant farming in the South. Accompanied by photographer Walker Evans, who was employed by the Farm Security Administration, Agee spent several weeks with three poor families in Alabama.
A departure from traditional journalism, his impassioned article was rejected by the magazine. He spent several more years writing a book that made use of a number of literary techniques to describe the dignity of these anonymous people. Combining elements of documentary journalism, poetry, autobiography, and philosophy, and including many of Evans' photographs, the work was published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It initially sold only 600 copies; however, after it was reissued in 1960 it was recognized by scholars and critics as one of the most significant literary documents produced during the Great Depression
In 1939 Agee took a job reviewing books for TIME magazine. From 1941 to 1948 he wrote film reviews for TIME, and, after writing a cover piece on the impact of the atom bomb in August 1945, he wrote on political and cultural issues until 1947. From 1942 to 1948 he also wrote film reviews for The Nation magazine that established him as one of the nation's best-known and respected writers about films and the movie industry. In 1949 and 1950 he contributed several long film essays (on Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and John Huston) to LIFE magazine.
To support his work on two novels (The Morning Watch and A Death in the Family) that were based on experiences from his childhood, Agee shifted his attention in the late 1940s from journalism to screen writing. He was involved with two independent productions: In the Street, about children in Harlem, and The Quiet One, about a school for delinquent children, which won an award for best film at the Venice Film Festival. For Hollywood, he worked on adaptation of Stephen Crane's The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky and The Blue Hotel, as well as director John Huston's The African Queen, which earned an Oscar nomination for best screenplay (1952).
In the early 1950s he worked for the Twentieth-Century Fox studio, wrote a script about Abraham Lincoln for the television series Omnibus, wrote a screenplay based on the life of the French Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin, and worked on scripts about the Tanglewilde Music Festival and colonial Williamsburg.
Agee's lifestyle, included heavy drinking and smoking, vices that interfered with his writing and severely impaired his health. He suffered the first of several heart attacks in 1951 while working on The African Queen, and later died of a heart attack on May 16, 1955, at the age of 45.
Although he was employed for almost his entire writing career as a journalist or scriptwriter, and despite his early death, Agee produced a considerable and diverse body of creative work, including poetry, essays, and novels. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men challenged the traditional conventions of reporting and literature and helped define a new genre of personal journalism that became more common in the 1960s.
Although Agee never fulfilled his personal ambition as a writer, the critical success of his novel A Death in the Family, published after his death, and the delayed recognition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men established his reputation as one of the most talented writers of his generation.
In the 1930s Agee was twice married and divorced (to Via Saunders and to Alma Mailhouse, with whom he had one child) and was later married to Mia Fritsch, with whom he had three children.
To appreciate Agee as a writer one should read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and the novel A Death in the Family (1957). To understand his religious and personal struggles one can read his short novel The Morning Watch (1951) and also the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962). For perspective on Agee as a film critic and screenwriter, see the two volumes of Agee on Film (1958, 1960). Agee's poetry can be found in The Collected Poems of James Agee (1968) and examples of his journalism are available in James Agee: Selected Journalism (also 1968).
For information on Agee's life the best biography is James Agee: A Life, by Laurence Bergreen (1984). Also valuable is The Restless Journey of James Agee (1977) by Genevieve Moreau, which includes more analysis of his writing. Views of Agee by those who knew him can be found in Remembering James Agee (1974), edited by David Madden, and Agee: His Life Remembered (1985), edited by Ross Spears and Jude Cassidy. For a look at the legacy of the people and conditions featured in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, see And Their Children After Them by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson (1989).