When I think of James Agee, I think of words written for and about other
tortured writers. I cant help it.
"Hes a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every
wrong direction on his lonely way back home," wrote Kris Kristofferson,
referring to a dozen roustabout musicians he knew. He might have been writing
"When I have fears that I may cease to be/ Before my pen has gleand my
teeming brain..." wrote poet John Keats, about himself.
He felt such fears. Felt them famously. They tore at him during the last
sad, yet triumphant decade of his life, 1945 to 1955, when he wrote two
novels, co-wrote the screenplay for "The African Queen" and some of his most
Agee, a tall, deep-voiced, handsome man, is often pictured in those years
holding a drink or a cigarette in the presence of famous men and beautiful
women. Yet its his books about ordinary people—and the urgency with which
they expressed his belief in the divinity of all existence—for which Agee is
A movie based on one of those books, "A Death in the Family," is scheduled to
be filmed in Knoxville and Nashville in coming months.
As good as that book is, Agee likely would have written more and better books
had he lived on. His pen had scarcely begun to harvest his teeming brain—and
oh, how it teemed, with dreams, memories, philosophies and fears.
Still, Agee neednt have worried about his works being forgotten. Movies, a
play, collections of his film criticism, correspondence and more have been
published and republished, decade after decade. "Let Us Now Praise Famous
Men," a wildy uneven book about Mississippi sharecroppers, has become a cult
classic. Its a forerunner of participatory journalism and the New Journalism
of the 1970s. Like Agees fiction and poetry, it is confessional at times in
tone and substance.
Still, to enter a James Agee book is to enter a maze of contradictions.
Partly truth and partly fiction, "A Death In the Family" wasnt so much
composed as it was compiled. Editors pulled the manuscript together from
Agees papers after his death by heart attack in a New York cab on Oct. 16,
The book won a Pulitzer Prize, yet critics have debated its merits for
decades. Some have declared it isnt really a novel at all. The plot is thin,
and suspense and character development are almost nil. Most of the prose is
about Mary Follet and her young son Rufus dealing with the death of her
husband—his father—Jay Follet. The characters are closely based on Agees
own nuclear family.
Passages that were added after Agees death are presented in italics. Agee
drew these from memory and near-misses of memory, and to me these are the
Most of the novel reads like a long narrative poem, and some of it is tough
going. In fact, Ive never quite made it through an Agee book without, at
some point, tiring of it and muttering to myself about consistency of style,
tone or point of view.
But Ive also never read an Agee book that didnt, in one passage or another,
move me to tears and leave me amazed at his understanding of the universe and
the human soul.
Take the opening to "A Death in the Family." Its actually a self-contained
work, a poem in prose by the title, "Knoxville, 1915." Tenderly it evokes
early childhood memories of life with family at 1505 Highland Avenue. The
house fell victim to a wrecking crew on the very day contracts were signed in
1962 to initiate "All the Way Home," the first film made of "A Death in the
Family." Still, Agees old home place lives on. Listen... to "Knoxville 1915."
"We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee in the time
that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child....
"The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great
sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than
mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping
birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is
living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is
good to me. By some chance they are here, all on this earth; and who shall
ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts, on the grass,
in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night... May God bless my
people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them
kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away...."
In some sense they have never been forgotten or taken away. Agees memorable
words made certain of that.