James Agee

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James Agee
James Agee 1937.jpg
Agee in 1937
BornJames Rufus Agee
November 27, 1909
Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.
DiedMay 16, 1955(1955-05-16) (aged 45)
New York City, U.S.
NationalityAmerican
Notable works A Death in the Family , Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
SpouseVia Saunders (1933-1938)
Alma Mailman (1938-1941)
Mia Fritsch (1946-1955; his death)
Children Joel (b. 1940)
Julia Teresa ("Deedee")
Andrea
John

James Rufus Agee ( /ˈ/ 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.

An autobiographical novel is a form of novel using autofiction techniques, or the merging of autobiographical and fictive elements. The literary technique is distinguished from an autobiography or memoir by the stipulation of being fiction. Because an autobiographical novel is partially fiction, the author does not ask the reader to expect the text to fulfill the "autobiographical pact". Names and locations are often changed and events are recreated to make them more dramatic but the story still bears a close resemblance to that of the author's life. While the events of the author's life are recounted, there is no pretense of exact truth. Events may be exaggerated or altered for artistic or thematic purposes.

<i>A Death in the Family</i> book by James Agee

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. 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.

This article presents lists of literary events and publications in 1957.

Contents

Early life and education

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. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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." [4]

Knoxville, Tennessee City in Tennessee, United States

Knoxville is a city in the U.S. state of Tennessee, and the county seat of Knox County. The city had an estimated population of 186,239 in 2016 and a population of 178,874 as of the 2010 census, making it the state's third largest city after Nashville and Memphis. Knoxville is the principal city of the Knoxville Metropolitan Statistical Area, which, in 2016, was 868,546, up 0.9 percent, or 7,377 people, from to 2015. The KMSA is, in turn, the central component of the Knoxville-Sevierville-La Follette Combined Statistical Area, which, in 2013, had a population of 1,096,961.

Boarding school School where some or all pupils live-in

A boarding school provides education for pupils who live on the premises, as opposed to a day school. The word "boarding" is used in the sense of "room and board", i.e. lodging and meals. As they have existed for many centuries, and now extend across many countries, their function and ethos varies greatly. Traditionally, pupils stayed at the school for the length of the term; some schools facilitate returning home every weekend, and some welcome day pupils. Some are for either boys or girls while others are co-educational.

Sewanee, Tennessee CDP in Tennessee, United States

Sewanee is a census-designated place (CDP) in Franklin County, Tennessee, United States. The population was 2,311 at the 2010 census. It is part of the Tullahoma, Tennessee Micropolitan Statistical Area.

James Agee Park in the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee  -Agee's childhood home and the setting for his novel A Death in the Family. James-agee-park-knoxville-tn1.jpg
James Agee Park in the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville, Tennessee  Agee's childhood home and the setting for his novel A Death in the Family.

Agee's mother married St. Andrew's bursar Father Erskine Wright in 1924, and the two moved to Rockland, Maine. [5] 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.

Rockland, Maine City in Maine, United States

Rockland is a city in Knox County, Maine, in the United States. As of the 2010 census, the city population was 7,297. It is the county seat of Knox County. The city is a popular tourist destination. It is a departure point for the Maine State Ferry Service to the islands of Penobscot Bay: Vinalhaven, North Haven and Matinicus.

Knoxville High School (Tennessee) former public high school in Knoxville, Tennessee

Knoxville High School was a public high school in Knoxville, Tennessee, that operated from 1910 to 1951, enrolling grades 10 to 12. Its building is a contributing property in the Emory Place Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was more recently used for adult education programs offered by Knox County Schools.

New Hampshire State of the United States of America

New Hampshire is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. It is bordered by Massachusetts to the south, Vermont to the west, Maine and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Canadian province of Quebec to the north. New Hampshire is the 5th smallest by area and the 10th least populous of the 50 states. Concord is the state capital, while Manchester is the largest city in the state. It has no general sales tax, nor is personal income taxed at either the state or local level. The New Hampshire primary is the first primary in the U.S. presidential election cycle. Its license plates carry the state motto, "Live Free or Die". The state's nickname, "The Granite State", refers to its extensive granite formations and quarries.

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, where he lived in Thayer Hall and Eliot House. At Harvard, 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 . [5] Agee was editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate and delivered the class ode at his commencement.

Harvard University private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with about 6,700 undergraduate students and about 15,250 postgraduate students. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning, and its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities.

Robert Hillyer American poet

Robert Silliman Hillyer was an American poet.

I. A. Richards English literary critic and rhetorician

Ivor Armstrong Richards, known as I. A. Richards, was an English educator, literary critic, and rhetorician whose work contributed to the foundations of the New Criticism, a formalist movement in literary theory, which emphasized the close reading of a literary text, especially poetry, in an effort to discover how a work of literature functions as a self-contained, self-referential æsthetic object.

Career

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.

Time Inc. was an American worldwide mass media corporation founded on November 28, 1922, by Henry Luce and Briton Hadden and based in New York City. It owned and published over 100 magazine brands, including its namesake Time, Sports Illustrated, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, Fortune, People, InStyle, Life, Golf Magazine, Southern Living, Essence, Real Simple, and Entertainment Weekly. It also had subsidiaries which it co-operated with the UK magazine house Time Inc. UK, whose major titles include What's on TV, NME, Country Life, and Wallpaper. Time Inc. also co-operated over 60 websites and digital-only titles including MyRecipes, Extra Crispy, TheSnug, HelloGiggles, and MIMI.

<i>Fortune</i> (magazine) magazine

Fortune is an American multinational business magazine headquartered in New York City, United States. It is published by Fortune Media Group Holdings, owned by Thai businessman Chatchaval Jiaravanon. The publication was founded by Henry Luce in 1929. The magazine competes with Forbes and Bloomberg Businessweek in the national business magazine category and distinguishes itself with long, in-depth feature articles. The magazine regularly publishes ranked lists, including the Fortune 500, a ranking of companies by revenue that it has published annually since 1955.

Time is an American weekly news magazine and news website published in New York City. It was founded in 1923 and originally run by Henry Luce. A European edition is published in London and also covers the Middle East, Africa, and, since 2003, Latin America. An Asian edition is based in Hong Kong. The South Pacific edition, which covers Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, is based in Sydney. In December 2008, Time discontinued publishing a Canadian advertiser edition.

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." [6] 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. [7]

Great Depression 20th-century worldwide economic depression

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; in most countries it started in 1929 and lasted until the late-1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how intensely the world's economy can decline.

Walker Evans American photographer

Walker Evans was an American photographer and photojournalist best known for his work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) documenting the effects of the Great Depression. Much of Evans's work from the FSA period uses the large-format, 8×10-inch (200×250 mm) view camera. He said that his goal as a photographer was to make pictures that are "literate, authoritative, transcendent".

Alabama State of the United States of America

Alabama is a state in the southeastern region of the United States. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Georgia to the east, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and Mississippi to the west. Alabama is the 30th largest by area and the 24th-most populous of the U.S. states. With a total of 1,500 miles (2,400 km) of inland waterways, Alabama has among the most of any state.

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. [8] In 1941, he became Time's film critic. [9] In 1942-1948, he worked as a film critic for The Nation. [10] 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. [11] 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. [12]

Screenwriting

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. [13] The commentary Agee wrote for the 1948 documentary The Quiet One was his first contribution to a film that was completed and released. [14]

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. [ citation needed ]

Personal life

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. [15] He was buried on a farm he owned at Hillsdale, New York, property still held by Agee descendants.

Legacy

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. [16]

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. [17]

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has grown to be considered Agee's masterpiece. [18] 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. [19]

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. [20]

Bibliography

Published as

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References

  1. "James Agee (1909–1955): Let us now praise famous writers". Chicago Tribune . February 27, 1977. 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. Journal of the Eighty-Fourth Annual Convention of the Church, Diocese of Tennessee, Nashville, Tenn., 1916
  3. "Father James Harold Flye Papers - Vanderbilt University" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-05-02. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  4. Rev. James H. Flye, 100, is dead; Friend of James Agee, the writer, The New York Times, April 14, 1985. Retrieved November 27, 2015.
  5. 1 2 Agee Chronology
  6. Sullivan, John Jeremiah. "Southern Exposures". BookForum. BookForum. Retrieved 18 June 2013.
  7. Haughney, Christine. "A Paean to Forbearance (the Rough Draft)". New York Times. New York Times. Retrieved 18 June 2013.
  8. Chambers, Whittaker (1952). Witness. Random House. pp. 478, 493, 504, 615. ISBN   0-89526-571-0.
  9. William Stott. Agee, James Rufus, American National Biography Online, February 2000. Retrieved November 27, 2015.
  10. James Agee's reviews on the Nation's website. Retrieved November 27, 2015.
  11. Murphsplace.com
  12. Helen Levitt, Who Froze New York Street Life on Film, Is Dead at 95, The New York Times, March 30, 2009. Retrieved November 27, 2015. — Walker Evans of New York's Photo League wrote, "Levitt's work was one of James Agee's great loves, and, in turn, Agee's own magnificent eye was part of her early training."
  13. Wranovics, John. Chaplin and Agee. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 29, 66, 159. ISBN   1-4039-6866-7
  14. Wranovics (2005), p. 78
  15. James Agee (1909–1955) Chronology of his Life and Work
  16. 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   1-57233-594-7
  17. Gritten, David (17 Jan 2014). "Night of the Hunter: a masterpiece of American cinema". telegraph.co.uk.
  18. Morris, Nigel (2003). Poplawski, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism. Greenwood Publ. p. 4. ISBN   9780313310171 . Retrieved 26 August 2013.
  19. Simon, David. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans". davidsimon.com.
  20. Matthew Everett, "R.B. Morris Revives His One-Act Play About James Agee," Knoxville Mercury, 26 October 2016.

Further reading