James Rufus Agee, Author

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James Rufus Agee, Author

Birthdate: (45)
Birthplace: Knoxville, Tennessee, United States
Death: May 16, 1955 (45)
New York, New York, United States (Heart attack)
Place of Burial: Hillsdale, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Hugh James "Jay" Agee and Laura Whiman Tyler
Husband of Via Agee; Alma Agee and <private> Agee (Fritsch)
Father of <private> Agee; <private> Agee; <private> Agee and <private> Agee

Occupation: Author; 1958 Pulitizer Prize for Fiction
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About James Rufus Agee, Author

James Rufus Agee (November 27, 1909 – May 16, 1955) was an American author, 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. James Rufus Agee - Books

James Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, at Highland Avenue and 15th Street (renamed James Agee Street in 1999) in what is now the Fort Sanders neighborhood to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman Tyler.[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 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. It was there that Agee's lifelong friendship with Episcopal priest Father James Harold Flye and his wife began in 1919. As Agee's close friend and spiritual confidant, Flye received many of Agee's most revealing letters.

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. 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.

Soon after graduation, Agee married Via Saunders on January 28, 1933; they divorced in 1938. Later that same year, he married Alma Mailman.

In 1941 Alma moved to Mexico with their year-old son Joel, to live with Communist writer Bodo Uhse. Agee began living in Greenwich Village with Mia Fritsch, whom he married in 1946. They had two daughters, Teresa and Andrea, and a son John.

In 1951 in Santa Barbara, Agee, a hard drinker and chain-smoker, suffered the first two in a series of heart attacks. Four years later, on May 16, 1955, Agee was in New York City when he suffered a fatal second heart attack. Agee, 45, was in a taxi cab en route to a doctor's appointment, two days before the anniversary of his father's death.[2] He was buried on a farm he owned at Hillsdale, New York, property still held by Agee descendants.


After graduation, Agee moved to New York, where he wrote for Fortune and Time magazines, although he is better known for his later film criticism in The Nation. In 1934, he published his only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage, with a foreword by Archibald MacLeish.

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 entitled, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It sold only 600 copies before being remaindered. Agee left Fortune in 1939.

In 1942, Agee became the film critic for Time; at one point, he also reviewed up to six books per week. Together, he and friend Whittaker Chambers ran "the back of the book" for Time.[3]

He left to become film critic for The Nation.

In 1948, Agee 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. 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, often with photographer Helen Levitt.

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. He published three separate reviews of the movie, all of which have been printed in the collection Agee on Film.


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.

In 2008, Jeffrey Couchman published The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film. A scholarly history and analysis of Charles Laughton’s masterpiece, it evaluates the film from many angles. The book also provides the first study of James Agee’s legendary first-draft script.


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.[4]

Agee's reviews and screenplays have been collected in two volumes of Agee on Film. The issues related to The Night of the Hunter attracted controversy.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, ignored on its original publication in 1941, has been placed among the greatest literary works of the 20th century by the New York School of Journalism and the New York Public Library.

The composer Samuel Barber set sections of "Descriptions of Elysium" from Permit Me Voyage to music, creating a song of "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 entitled Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

University of Tennessee Libraries' Writer in Residence, RB Morris, wrote a one-man play adapted from the life and works of James Agee, The Man Who Lives Here is Loony,[5] which was performed during UT's "James Agee Celebration" in Spring 2005.

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 (posthumous; stage adaptation: All the Way Home)
  • 1948 Agee on Film
  • 1952 Agee on Film II
  • 1972 The Collected Short Prose of James Agee
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James Rufus Agee, Author's Timeline

November 27, 1909
Knoxville, Tennessee, United States
May 16, 1955
Age 45
New York, New York, United States
Hillsdale, New York, United States