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James Agee

James Agee

James Rufus Agee (1909-1955) is known as a novelist, screenwriter, journalist, poet and film critic. He was born in Knoxville, Tennessee to Hugh James Agee, a rugged Tennessee farmer, and Laura Tyler, a more educated and artistic woman of a middle-class upbringing, a class discrepancy that would influence Agee's writing throughout his life. Agee's father's premature death in an automobile accident, when James was only six years old, also played an important thematic role in his later works.

After attending St. Andrews, an Episcopal boarding school, Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard College, where he was the president of the Harvard Advocate, Agee wrote for various magazines including Time, the Nation and the New Masses. He also published a volume of poems, Permit Me Voyage, in 1934 as a part of the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

In 1936, Fortune magazine commissioned Agee and photographer Walker Evans to go to Alabama to write a story on tenant farmers. Although Fortune did not publish the article, Agee had collected enough material for a book, which was published in 1941 as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Considered a failure at the time, the work now is generally thought to be an original masterpiece. Agee also began a weekly column for the Nation in 1941, which continued, along with book and film reviews for Time, until 1948. At that point, Agee shifted his focus to film scripts and fiction. He wrote The African Queen, a screenplay from a C.S. Forster novel in 1951; The Morning Watch, an autobiographical novel based on his early boarding school experiences, also in 1951; and The Night of the Hunter, a screenplay from a Davis Grubb novel in 1955.

In Agee's second autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), the writer finally was able to write about the experience of a father's death and the reactions of various family members. Agee suffered a series of heart attacks beginning in 1951 and did not complete the novel for publication before his death. He began work on the screenplay, A Tanglewood Story, in 1954 but was unable to finish it before his death from a heart attack on May 16, 1955, potentially aggravated by Agee's lifelong struggle with alcoholism . He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1957 for A Death in the Family, which was made into a play for the stage, All The Way Home, in 1960.