James Agee (1909-1955)

James Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1909. After his father died when he was six years old, his mother sent him to attend St. Andrew's school, where he cultivated a strong appreciation for the Anglo-Catholic Church. In 1928, he entered the exclusive Philips Exeter Academy, graduating in 1928 and entering Harvard University the same year. After graduating from Harvard in 1932, Agee started working as a reporter for Time Inc, —working as reporter for Fortune magazine, then as a book and film critic for Time magazine before becoming a film critic for The Nation. Agee was, in fact, considered probably the leading film critic of the time, and his writings on film are still frequently used in Film Studies courses.

Agee was married three times—first to Olivia Saunders from 1933 to 1938, followed by his marriage to Alma Mailman from 1938 to 1941. This second marriage produced a son, Joel Agee, who would become an editor and writer. In 1946 Agee and Mia Fritsch married and the couple had three children, daughters Julia (Deedee) and Andrea and a son, John.

In 1934 Agee published a volume of poetry called Permit Me Voyage. In 1936 at the height of the Great Depression, traveled with famed photographer Walker Evans documenting the lives of sharecropper families in the deep rural South. While their collaboration did not result in any publications through Time Inc., as was planned, Agee and Evans were able to publish their writings and photographs in a book called Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. While it was not a success when it was published, the book’s reputation has grown considerably since and it is now well known as an innovative work of journalism and as a lasting reminder of the dreadful plight of sharecroppers during the Depression years.

A collection of Agee’s film criticisms from the period where that became his writing focus starting in 1941 was later released in a book named Agee on Film (1958). Agee was also involved in the screenplays for two of the most revered films of the 1950s—The African Queen (1951) directed by John Huston and The Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton, with whom Agee had a somewhat contentious relationship. By this point, years of hard living, including heavy smoking and alcoholism, had taken a toll on Agee. He was wrapping up his work on A Death in the Family just before his sudden death on May 16, 1955. Agee suffering a heart attacking while riding in a taxicab in New York City on his way to a doctor’s appointment. Although never entirely finished the work before his death, the novel was published two years later in 1957, and Agee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for it posthumously.

Background on A Death in the Family

A Death in the Family (1957) is an unusual novel in that it is both a detailed remembrance and an archetypal depiction of events within any family. It is about marital love and loss, the need for religious faith, and the conflict between urban and rural characteristic of America at that time. It is also (and perhaps more important) Agee’s documentation of his life when he was four, five, and six years old.

The novel is autobiographical in the sense that it is about the death of Agee’s father. However, it is also an important exploration of the city-country conflict that has characterized American experience from post-Civil-War days through the 20th century. When Agee was born, Knoxville was rapidly becoming an urban center, yet it was still highly rural compared to the New York City where he spent his later years. A Death in the Family documents a period when many American lives were still determined by both rural and city backgrounds of their families. In writing the novel, Agee not only attempts to capture the relationship between himself and his father, but also to evoke a time when his family was in a state of tension between the rural past and the urban future.

Putting together a composite manuscript of A Death in the Family was a difficult editorial task, as Agee died before completing the final revisions for the novel. His manuscript contained variant material that fell outside the principal narrative and that he had not yet decided how to incorporate. The editors decided to put the unfinished sections in is at the end of each division within the work, rather than all together either at the beginning or at the end. This choice on the part of the editors has been a point of discussion by critics of the novel; some have thought it presumptuous to insert these passages at random junctures, as we have no way of knowing what Agee himself would have done.

There is considerable evidence to support the claim that the twenty chapters comprising the basic linear narrative of the novel were only a part of a much longer autobiographical work Agee was planning—the sequential narrative would probably have formed the concluding portion of a projected longer novel. Agee left behind some twenty pages of notes to indicate that he was planning an extensive autobiographical recollection of his childhood, and only some of these memories appear in the published iized sections. In addition, it is likely that a section titled "Dream Sequence" would have made a more fitting prologue than the "Knoxville: Summer 1915" piece. Regardless of editorial intent, the work stands as a landmark autobiographical novel and a timely exploration of the conflict between America's urban and rural heritage.

A Death in the Family was adapted in the play All the Way Home that was awarded a Pulitizer Prize in 1961. There was a film adaptation of the novel and the play by Philip H. Reisman, Jr., also called All the Way Home in 1963. Both the play and the film have a different ending and differ in other ways from the novel, reflecting the disagreement over what Agee’s original intent had been.