In 1958, three years after James Agee suffered a terminal heart attack in a taxicab at 45, his friend and fellow film critic Manny Farber wrote an essay called “Nearer My Agee to Thee.” The title captured Farber’s characteristically mischievous attempt to wrest the real writer from his pious followers. “Even when he modified and showboated until the reader got the Jim-jams, Agee’s style was exciting in its pea-soup density.” In retrospect, Farber’s effort to forestall sanctimony by objective assessment seems doomed, because Agee was such a prime candidate for literary sainthood: Handsome, tortured good looks, a cross between Montgomery Clift and Robert Ryan; body-punishing habits (alcohol, cigarettes, work jags, insomnia); a rebellious streak; many loves; obsession with integrity; and an early death. He belonged to that bruised, vulnerable, too-good-for-this-world poster club of actors, writers and rock stars whose authenticity was vouchsafed by premature passing.
The canonization of James Agee now appears to be complete with Library of America’s two-volume set, which brings together his major works of fiction and film criticism, plus some high journalism and the Night of the Hunter screenplay. In a way, Agee is a perfect fit for the LOA, which, having published the obvious national classics by Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, James, etc., has since branched out to include “major minor” writers like Dawn Powell, H.P. Lovecraft and Carson McCullers, whose careers can be polished off in a volume or two. If these forays have exposed the LOA to criticism for diluting the house’s founding standards, they have also provoked fruitful reassessments of marginal literary figures, while putting into readers’ hands impeccably edited and elegantly printed texts that might otherwise be scattered or out of print.
Beyond his thanatoptic mystique, Agee’s reputation rests on three claims: a hugely peculiar nonfiction tome, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; an impressive body of movie criticism; and a beautiful, heartbreaking novel, A Death in the Family. Having now bolted down almost 1,600 pages in the two volumes, I find it easier to agree that Agee’s overall achievement merits inclusion in the LOA’s list than to know what to make of my lingering ambivalence toward this literary charmer.
Agee was born in 1909 and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. When he was 7 his much-loved father, Jay, died in an automobile accident. This tragedy, and the grief and longing that ensued, helped shape his consciousness for life. His mother placed him in the St. Andrew’s School, where his Anglo-Catholicism deepened under the influence of a teacher, Father James Flye, who became a surrogate father, mentor and friend. Agee, an excellent student, enrolled in the Phillips Exeter Academy and later was admitted to Harvard. At some point early on he developed that high-minded, solemn, strutting rhetorical style that would be his calling card and his nemesis. His literary gods were Joyce and Faulkner, and like Faulkner his first love was poetry.
While still a senior at Harvard, Agee wrote a parody of Time that landed him, after graduation, a job at Fortune, the business magazine recently started by Henry Luce. It is significant that Agee’s entry into the Luce empire should have been by way of parody, because it epitomized his own troubled relationship to the journalistic teat. Sometimes he was Luce’s fair-haired boy, sometimes the independent Joycean who refused to compromise with the media’s expectations of clear copy. His journalistic bona fides gave him access to the larger world but also required him to feign an interest in business affairs. Sent to cover the Tennessee Valley Authority, he came back with crème de la crème descriptive prose that delighted his bosses. Agee, a fan of Pare Lorentz’s documentary The River, with the orotund poetry of its voiceover (“Down the Rock, the Illinois and the Kankakee, the Allegheny, the Monongahela, Kanawha, and Muskingum….”), began his own piece with “The Tennessee River system begins on the worn magnificent crests of the southern Appalachians, among the earth’s oldest mountains, and the Tennessee River shapes its valley into the form of a boomerang, bowing it to its sweep through seven states.” Fortune sent him out again, with the great photographer Walker Evans, to report on cotton tenant farmers in Alabama, and he returned with hunks of the impenetrable rock or uncut diamond that would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. His editors rejected it.