JAMES AGEE Biography - Writers


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Name: James Agee                                                                         
Born: 27 November 1909                                                                   
Died: 16 May 1955                                                                         
James Rufus Agee (November 27, 1909 - May 16, 1955) was an American novelist,             
screenwriter, journalist, poet, 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 Pulitzer Prize.                           
Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee at Highland Avenue and 15th Street (renamed         
James Agee Street in 1999) to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman Tyler, and had           
distant French and English ancestry on his father's side. When Agee was six, his         
father died in an automobile accident, and from the age of seven he and his               
younger sister, Emma, were educated in boarding schools.                                 
The most influential of these was located near his mother's summer cottage two           
miles from Sewanee, Tennessee. Saint Andrews School for Mountain Boys was run by         
Episcopal monks affiliated with the Order of the Holy Cross), and it was there           
that Agee's lifelong friendship with an Episcopal priest, Father James Harold             
Flye, began in 1919. As Agee's close friend and spiritual confidant, Flye was             
the recipient of many of Agee's most revealing letters.                                   
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           
didn't 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, while also writing occasional             
book reviews, and subsequently becoming the 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 1950's,       
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.