November 27, 1909 - May 16, 1955
James Agee was born in Knoxville, Tenn., and spent his early childhood there. His father died in an automobile accident when Agee was a child. Agee attended St. Andrews School in Sewanee, Tenn., where he met his lifelong mentor, Father James Harold Flye. He also attended Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, N.H., where he began writing poetry and short stories. Upon his graduation from Harvard in 1932, he moved to New York City to work for Fortune magazine. In 1936, Fortune sent Agee and photographer Walker Evans to Alabama to gather material for a story about tenant farmers. Although Fortune decided not to publish the article, Agee and Walker turned their material into a book, which was published in 1941 as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
In 1939, Agee began to work for Time magazine, first writing book reviews, then movie reviews. In 1942, he also became the movie columnist for The Nation. Agee believed that film was the most important art form because it came the closest to portraying reality, both physical and psychological. In 1948, he resigned both magazine jobs to write novels and film scripts, including the scripts for The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. In 1951, Agee suffered the first of many heart attacks, but he continued to write. He died in New York City in 1955, leaving an unfinished manuscript for a semi-autobiographical novel. His editors assembled the pieces of the manuscript and published it in 1957. This novel, A Death in the Family, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958.
In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee attempted to document both the lives of Alabama tenant farmers and his own efforts to convey those lives with respect and authenticity. Agee worked in many genres: poetry, novels, short stories, screenplays, and reviews. He tried to blend the portrayal of physical reality with that of psychological reality.
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Photo by Walker Evans; courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Walker Evans Collection, LC-USZ62-103100.
Last updated on Dec 19, 2007.