James Agee Park History
James Rufus Agee (November 27, 1909 – May 16, 1955) was an American novelist, poet, screenwriter, journalist, and film critic. He was considered one of the most influential film critics in the United States in the 1940s. A Death in the Family, Agee’s autobiographical novel published in 1957, won the author a Pulitzer Prize after his death.
James Agee was born to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman Tyler in Knoxville at 15th Street and Highland Avenue. Fifteenth Street was renamed James Agee Street in 1999. He had French and English ancestry on his father's side. Agee’s father died in an automobile accident when Agee was only six years old. Agee and his younger sister, Emma, were educated in boarding schools starting when he was seven years old.
One of his boarding schools was located near his mother's summer cottage about two miles from Sewanee, Tennessee. Affiliated with the Order of the Holy Cross, Saint Andrews School for Mountain Boys was run by Episcopal monks. Agee formed lifelong friendship with an Episcopal priest, Father James Harold Flye at this school. Throughout his life, Agee would write revealing letters to his close friend Flye.
Agee attended Knoxville High School during the 1924-1925 school year. When he was sixteen, Agee traveled with Father Flye to Europe during the summer. Upon their return, Agee moved to Phillips Exeter Academy, a boarding school in New Hampshire. He became the president of The Lantern Club and editor of the Monthly, where his first short stories, plays, poetry and articles were published. Although he struggled through many of his high school courses, Agee attended Harvard University, as part of the class of 1932. He served as the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate and delivered an ode at his graduation.
Agee wrote for Fortune and Time magazines. He is well known for his film criticism in The Nation. Agee married Via Saunders in 1933, and they divorced in 1938. He married Alma Mailman in the same year. Agee published his only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage, in 1934.
Agee spent eight weeks in the summer of 1936 on assignment for Fortune with photographer Walker Evans living among Alabama sharecroppers. When Fortune did not publish his article, Agee turned the material into a book entitled, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941. It sold only 600 copies. Agee left Fortune in 1939. Agee’s wife Alma moved to Mexico with the couple’s one-year-old son, Joel, to live with Communist writer Bodo Uhse. In 1946, Agee married Mia Fritsch. They had two daughters, named Teresa and Andrea, and a son, John. John was eight months old when Agee died.
In 1948, Agee became a freelance writer. He wrote an article for Life Magazine about the great silent movie comedians, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, and Harold Lloyd. The piece has been credited for reviving Keaton's career. Throughout the 1950s, Agee wrote magazine articles and worked on movie scripts.
While in Santa Barbara in 1951, Agee had the first two in a series of heart attacks. The heart problem claimed his life four years later at the age of 45. Agee died on May 16, 1955 while in a taxi on the way to a doctor's appointment. He passed away two days before the anniversary of his father's death. Agee was buried on a farm he owned at Hillsdale, NY.
Agee is one of the credited screenwriters of two of the great films of the 1950s: The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955).
Although he received modest recognition during his lifetime, Agee’s reputation has grown since his death. A Death in the Family was Agee’s novel that focused on the events surrounding his father's death. The novel was published in 1957, after his death. In 1958, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Ignored during its original publication in 1941, Agee's book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is considered among the greatest literary works of the 20th Century by the New York School of Journalism and the New York Public Library.
List of Works
1934 Permit Me Voyage, in the Yale Series of Younger Poets
1935 Knoxville: Summer of 1915, prose poem later set to music by Samuel Barber.
1941 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families, Houghton Mifflin
1951 The Morning Watch, Houghton Mifflin
1951 The African Queen, screenplay from C. S. Forester novel
1952 Face to Face (The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky segment), screenplay from Stephen Crane story
1954 The Night of the Hunter, screenplay from Davis Grubb novel
1957 A Death in the Family (stage adaptation: All the Way Home)
Agee on Film
Agee on Film II
Letters of James Agee to Father Flye
The Collected Short Prose of James Agee