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James Agee: Now More Than Ever

James Agee:  Now More Than Ever

Paul Sprecher, Trustee, The James Agee Trust

James Agee Celebration, April 15, 2005


W.H. Auden wrote the following letter of appreciation for James Agee’s film criticism in The Nation in 1944:

Dear Sirs:  In the good old days before pseudo-science and feminism ruined her, it was considered rude to congratulate one’s hostess on her meals, since praise would imply that they could have been bad, and by the same rule of courtesy it should be unnecessary to write grateful letters to editors.
     Astonishing excellence, however, is the exception, and James Agee’s film column seems to this reader, and to many others he has spoken with, just that.
     In my opinion, his column is the most remarkable regular event in American Journalism today.  What he says is of such profound interest, expressed with such extraordinary wit and felicity, and so transcends it ostensible – to me, rather unimportant – subject, that his articles belong in the very select class – the music critiques of Berlioz and Shaw are the only other members I know – of newspaper work which has permanent literary value.
     One foresees the sad day, indeed, when Agee on Films will be the subject of a Ph.D. thesis.(1) 


As it happens, Agee on Films is the subject of not one but two Ph.D.  theses so far.  There is a third, which is a comparison including Agee, a fourth specifically about his film scripts, and a fifth just now being completed by Jeff Couchman on “Night of the Hunter.”  There is also an M.A. thesis specifically on Agee’s criticism in The Nation.  In fact, there are 79 Ph.D. dissertations which include Agee in some form or other, of which 39 are exclusively about him.

Now, Agee called himself simply “a writer,” and of course he wrote in so many different categories that it has been difficult for people to pin him down in any convenient category.  Of those 39 dissertations about Agee, nineteen are general, critical, biographical, or bibliographic; seven are about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; six about his fiction, five about his film criticism and film scripts, and two about his poetry and fiction.  A few years ago I was working up a bibliography of everything ever written by and about Agee and found some 275 major secondary reviews of Agee in the critical literature, not including all kinds of minor references, reviews and the like.  He was indeed a writer of extremes and of extreme diversity. 

However, I didn’t come here today to do statistics with you.  I’m here as Trustee of the James Agee Trust.  You might say that I married into the job, since my wife, Deedee Agee, is James Agee’s oldest daughter.  I first encountered Agee at Harvard, when my class of 1972 put out a commemorative edition of the Harvard Advocate 40 years after Agee graduated in 1932.  It’s a fairly well-known edition of the Advocate.  Robert Coles wrote about his encounter with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book he discovered when he was serving a term in the armed forces in New Orleans where he saw the first day of elementary school integration there, an experience which ultimately led to the research and writing of his Children of Crisis series.  Michael Sragow, movie critic for the Baltimore Sun and editor of the Library of America’s forthcoming James Agee:  Film Writing and Selected Journalism, wrote an appreciation of Agee on film, among a number of other memoirs and appreciations.  That was perhaps a high point in the admiration of Agee at Harvard.

The Trust itself was started the year after James Agee’s death in 1955.  The original intention was to gather funds from friends and admirers of Agee to help support his family.  David McDowell set up the Trust and solicited contributions; he got a lead contribution from Charlie Chaplin of $1,000 and in all collected some $1,800, according to McDowell’s records of the Trust, which now reside at the Special Collections Library here in Knoxville.  However, the money was quite inadequate relative to the needs of the family, which had no life insurance, no reserves, and no source of income aside from what Mia Agee earned as a researcher at Fortune.  As it happened, the secondary purpose of the Trust – to “promote the literary reputation of James Agee” – proved to be a much more fruitful means of generating funds than soliciting donations. 

McDowell himself confessed in a letter that he sometimes found these two purposes contradictory; he said that it occasionally made him almost schizophrenic to try to balance these two objectives – to earn money for the family, but also to try to enhance Agee’s literary reputation.  But for all that sense of inner conflict, McDowell did quite a brilliant job in accomplishing both of those purposes.  He created A Death in the Family late in 1957 and steered it to a Pulitzer Prize in 1958.  It was the first time that the Prize had been granted posthumously for a work of fiction and the first time that the Prize was given to a brand new publishing house – McDowell-Obolensky, set up specifically to publish the novel.  The novel was adapted as the Broadway play All the Way Home, winner of the 1961 Tony award for best play, and then as the (somewhat less successful) movie starring Robert Preston and Jean Simmons.  The play has continued to be a source of royalties to the Trust right down to the present, including the performance being given as part of the James Agee Celebration here in Knoxville.

Agee’s film criticism for Time and The Nation was collected into Agee on Film in 1958 and five of his film scripts were issued as the second volume of Agee on Film in 1960.  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was reissued in 1960 and promptly sold more copies in that year than it had sold in the prior 20 years – not difficult in light of the fact that only about 600 copies of the 1940 edition were ever sold.  In 1960 it caught fire because it spoke to the mood of the country, by then much more concerned about Civil Rights and the South in general.  Coles recalls in his Advocate article how he himself and those around him came to understand the South through the lens that Agee provided in that book.  The Letters to Father Flye in 1962 opened a window on Agee’s inner life, speaking privately to Father Flye.  The Morning Watch was reissued in 1966 and finally in 1968 Agee’s Collected Short Prose and Collected Poetry (including Permit Me Voyage) were published under the editorship of Robert Fitzgerald, who also contributed a memoir by way of introduction to Agee’s prose.  Considering that everything Agee had published was out of print when he died, this record of posthumous publication was a striking achievement for McDowell.

I used the term “created” in referring to A Death in the Family advisedly because, as Michael Lofaro points out in his work, McDowell created a book which – while extraordinarily successful when first published in 1957 – may well have been more a reflection of McDowell’s vision than Agee’s for the book.  Nevertheless, McDowell did a very effective job of catering to the culture of the time and was able, for example, to get the novel selected for the Book of the Month Club.  I suspect that the new version Michael Lofaro has reconstructed from Agee’s true intentions would not have been chosen by the Club in 1958.

Later in his life, McDowell became increasingly inattentive to the affairs of the Trust; he lived out of his car for a period; he lost some the Trust’s papers in a fire in his apartment; and ultimately he died in 1985 in a campground near St. Andrews.  It was ironic that he died near where he had originally met Agee almost fifty years before when Agee stopped in to visit Father Flye on his way down to Hale County on the assignment for Fortune Magazine which ultimately became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 

The year before McDowell’s death was marred by what the family viewed as a complete catastrophe for Agee’s literary reputation, the publication of Lawrence Bergreen’s James Agee:  A Life, a biography which is to this the day the most comprehensive account of Agee’s life, but one which is deeply problematic in its overall evaluation of its subject.  One of the problems is that Bergreen used Agee’s fiction as a way of reconstructing his life; as he puts it in his acknowledgments,

     Rarely has there been a more autobiographical writer than Agee.  He was, if anything, even more objective and factual in his “fiction” than in his journalism and made little or no attempt to disguise events about which he wrote.  Both his letters and my interviews with those who knew him have confirmed the accuracy of his novels and stories, which I have treated accordingly. (2)

While Agee did indeed draw much of his fiction from his own life and while his novels may quite properly be referred to as “autobiographical fiction,” they nonetheless remain fiction; and the assumption that anything in particular in his writing may be taken as factual is a perilous undertaking.  More than that, Bergreen also psychologized and subtly denounced Agee, generally choosing the less favorable interpretation when several were available, to create a kind of counter-myth of Agee.  As it happens, he too was a member of the class of 1972 at Harvard, and we might say that this was the darker side of the admiration of Agee.  There was perhaps a desire in our class of 1972 to tear down all myths, even those about people like Agee who in their rebelliousness resembled us in so many ways.  The impression that Bergreen left was that Agee was not a very nice man who lived not a very good life.

One of the reviewers, Ronald Weber of the Virginia Quarterly Review, notes that

     What his friends found in Agee was a touch of genius, an intense and original personality, and an unusual capacity for empathy.  “It was impossible,” [Dwight] Macdonald remarked, “to dislike James Agee.”  Bergreen’s biography offers a dissenting view, one no doubt inevitable given the Agee legend of the morally earnest and uncompromising artist in pursuit (in an enduring line from his most enduring work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) of “the cruel radiance of what is.”  His Agee is that of a … lament [by T.S. Matthews, his editor at Time magazine]:  “Why didn’t he get his teeth fixed, and smoke and drink less; did he want his life cut short?”  It is not (though he quotes it) the Agee of Matthews’ moving conclusion:

Perhaps he was torn apart by all the different things he was or might have been:  an intellectual, a poet, a cineaste, a revolutionary, God’s fool.  A wild yearning violence beat in his blood, certainly, and just as certainly the steadier pulse of a saint.  He wanted to destroy with his own hands everything in the world, including himself, that was shoddy, false, and despicable; and to worship God, who made all things. (3)

1985, in turn, was a year of great losses for the Trust and the Agee family.  In April, David McDowell passed away and was succeeded as Trustee by Mary Newman, a close friend of the family.  On Independence Day of that same year, Mia Agee also died, nursed to the end by Mary with the same care Mary had shown in her life-long career as a copy editor.  In the same year, Father Flye, who was then 100, also died.  At that point, Mary Newman became, in her view, the one person responsible for the legacy of James Agee.  Deedee recalls Mary as a fond “aunt” who would take the girls to the Nutcracker Suite at Christmas and buy them books and music lessons.  She was very dear to the family, and especially to Mia.  However, she lacked McDowell’s contacts, his skills in publishing and editing, and his experience; all in all, she was quite uncomfortable with the burden which had been passed to her. 

Mary Newman read the charter of the Trust somewhat differently than McDowell had, feeling that since Agee’s children were now all grown, the key issue was to protect the literary reputation of James Agee.  As a result, the fourteen years of her trusteeship were a kind of closing down of opportunities.  There were to be no representations of Agee on stage, for example, because Mia couldn’t tolerate the actor in one particular performance that they had seen together.  Hence, R.B. Morris’ representation of Agee in The Man Who Lives Here is Loony earlier during the James Agee Celebration would have been forbidden.  She discouraged any further publication of Agee’s work.  She believed that anything not already in print was not in fact anything that Agee would have wanted to see in print, despite the posthumous publication of A Death in the Family, Letters to Father Flye, and some parts of the Collected Poetry and Prose.  She took books out of print, including The Morning Watch, Collected Short Prose and Collected Poetry, and secured the reversion of rights to the Trust, including most of the foreign rights, because she wanted to have material in hand in order to promote publication of an authorized biography which was being written by a friend of the family but which has never been completed.

During her tenure there were several significant controversies and lawsuits over publication of archival materials by Agee and the acquisition by the University of Tennessee Special Collections Library of some papers which had come into the possession of McDowell’s son and were believed by Mary to belong to the Trust, a position ultimately vindicated by the courts.

Let me say a word here for Mary Newman.  By her lights, she persevered, she preserved, she supported the legacy, and she supported the children; I believe she met the responsibility that was entrusted to her under rather trying circumstances.  Burdened by illness and in pain from 1995 on, she became less and less responsive to inquiries and finally died in 1999.  I know there were some hard feelings around Knoxville as a result of her unwillingness to allow even very positive work on Agee; I know there was a prize in fiction which was proposed to be named after James Agee; and I know that in some instances she simply didn’t respond to inquiries.  On behalf of the Trust, I’d like to apologize to the extent that feelings were hurt.  To a large extent, I believe those actions and failures to act resulted from her own deteriorating health, as well as from her discomfort in taking on some of the burdens that the Trusteeship required.

I became the substitute Trustee of the Trust with the consent of the heirs in April of 2002; I was not in the stated line of succession of the Trust.  Actually, I was six when the Trust was founded, and I was completely unknown to the Agee family at that time.  My first task was to review all of Mary’s files and to try to revive contacts she had not followed up on and overtures she had rejected.  I can well remember about three years ago while Deedee and I were driving down to Knoxville going over the files like detectives, saying “Oh, I see how this relates to that!” and “Well, isn’t this interesting!  Maybe we should pursue this one!”  I found, for example, a request from Si Hilensky, who requested approval for a pageant for a commemorative down here in Knoxville using words from Famous Men and Letters to Father Flye.  That was turned down with rather acid words.  In 1988 John Wranovics requested permission to use the treatment Agee wrote for Chaplin which was then referred to as “Scientists and Tramps,” a piece which has finally been published for the first time in his new book, Chaplin and Agee.  Finally, there was a letter from Michael Lofaro in the file, requesting permission to make use of some of the materials acquired by the Special Collections Library in Knoxville; some of that material has just been published in James Agee Rediscovered; other parts will be included in the new version of A Death In the Family edited by Michael Lofaro.

As it happens, we were on that very occasion driving down to visit the Special Collections Library.  Deedee had submitted a short story, “Momentum,” to DoubleTake magazine, which was founded by Robert Coles for the purpose of carrying forward the tradition of combining literary and photographic documentation that Famous Men so ably embodied.  Coles was excited by Deedee’s story and wanted to publish it, but wrote back to ask if she would be able to obtain permission to allow publication of an excerpt which has since become a part of one of the new chapters of A Death in the Family in DoubleTake, permission they had found curiously difficult to obtain.  We were able to provide that permission and look through the collection in the library, including three of Agee’s journals from the period around the writing of Famous Men.

That makes it about three years that Deedee and I been involved in this community; through the University we met her father’s cousin Dr. Oliver Agee and his children, as well as friends and colleagues here at the University and around Knoxville who have long been supporters of Agee’s work.

My own view of the appropriate policy for the Trust is that Agee’s reputation is best served by a full airing of who he was, recognizing that there was both light and dark in his character.  If you’re going to understand someone really and completely, the way he tried to understand people in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, you can’t hide any of the nuances, any of the dark spots, and highlight only the light spots.  Therefore, I’m essentially in favor of the view that says “whatever there is, there is.”  He wrote the record; let the record speak for itself.  The one thing I’ve turned down was a French film maker who proposed to make of The Morning Watch a film which proved Agee’s hatred of the Catholic (not Anglo-Catholic) religion, and made a mockery of the whole Easter celebration – quite bizarre!  I think it’s time to move beyond myths and counter-myths and try to get to the reality of what is and what was.

During the interregnum between Mary’s death and my appointment as Trustee, one important event was that the Met, which had acquired the Walker Evans Estate, had a major Evans Exhibit featuring photography spanning his entire career, highlighting especially the photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  In conjunction with that exhibit, a new version of the book was released in hardcover and paperback and saw substantial sales.  Agee On Film was reprinted in 2000 with the permission of the heirs as part of Martin Scorsese’s Modern Library series on The Movies.  Italian and French versions of Famous Men and a Spanish version of A Death in the Family were published during this period.  Masterpiece Theatre’s American Collection included a new adaptation of A Death in the Family in 2002 which included extensive aids for high school teachers and students in reading the book and understanding the author.  A film on Famous Men was made by a French film company in conjunction with the French publication and shown earlier as part of the James Agee Celebration here.  More recently, an excellent study of the Omnibus series on Abraham Lincoln written by Agee was completed by William Hughes, James Agee, Omnibus, and Mr. Lincoln: The Culture of Liberalism and the Challenge of Television 1952-1953.  We’re delighted that two additional books which I mentioned earlier, James Agee Rediscovered, edited by Michael Lofaro and Hugh Davis, and Chaplin and Agee, by John Wranovics, have come out just in time for this conference.

Looking to the future, this fall will see the publication of James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism by The Library of America, the first of two volumes canonizing Agee’s work in all of his many genres.  Paul Ashdown’s second edition of his collection of Agee’s Journalism will be out at the end of the year.  The University of Tennessee Press has committed to a proposed 10-volume Complete Works of James Agee to be published over the next few years, a project which we believe will help generate renewed interest in his work in the academy.  The most important volume of this series will be Michael Lofaro’s reconstruction of Agee’s version of A Death in the Family, a project which may well displace the version created by David McDowell almost fifty years ago.  Finally, in 2009, we look forward to a new biography.

I believe that this coming decade can be as productive of writings by and about Agee as any since the ten years just after his death.  I think that these new publications can stimulate graduate, undergraduate, secondary and popular interest.  The outreach done for this Agee Conference illustrates the possibilities in front of us.

Agee needs to find a place in the academy.  His work covers so many genres that it’s been difficult for any particular department to claim him.  Does he belong in the film department, in journalism, in American literature, in English, in sociology, or in political science?  I think one of the goals of the next decade will be to find a way to promote his relevance in all these areas and to adopt him and accept him as a key player during his era across the whole range of his writing.

There appears to be a hunger to hear Agee’s voice.  For example, one of the pieces just printed in James Agee Rediscovered, “American, Look at your Shame!” written in 1943 in response to the Detroit Race Riots in June of that year, was chosen by The Oxford American for the cover of their re-launch issue in January of 2003, reprinted by Harpers and again by The Sun, and finally included as one of Houghton Mifflin’s Best Essays of 2004.  For a previously unpublished essay more than sixty years old to have been chosen by four publishers in one year is somewhat remarkable. 

I think we need to hear more of Agee’s moral voice in meaning-making within our culture.  We need to hear more of his values.  Whatever his personal failures may have been, he had a very strong sense of what was right and what was wrong.  He was profoundly religious as well, transcending the Anglo-Catholic piety he was raised with.  His concern was with religion in the broader sense, as what binds us together as a people, as a nation, as a world.  He showed in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, for example, a profound respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every single human soul, no matter how humble or downtrodden.  He struggled as hard as he could to express that. 

That profound respect harks back to our Declaration of Independence, which called for “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”  In an age where it can be said that some people are outside of a consideration for that “decent respect,” in an age when our Attorney General can justify the torture of some people, I think that’s an important voice for us to hear.  In a time when the current administration is talking about expanding the use of atomic weapons under new circumstances in order to maintain American supremacy, and when depleted uranium is being used in Iraq today as it was during the first Gulf War, I think it might be relevant to go back to a piece that Agee wrote at the end of World War II.  This was the cover essay for Time magazine, August 20, 1945, entitled “Victory:  The Peace.”  He says,

     The greatest and most terrible of wars was ending, this week, in the echoes of an enormous event – an events so much more enormous that, relative to it, the war itself shrank to minor significance….
     With the controlled splitting of the atom, humanity, already profoundly perplexed and disunified, was brought inescapably into a new age in which all thoughts and things were split – and far from controlled.  As most men realized, the first atomic bomb was a merely pregnant threat, a merely infinitesimal promise….
     Man’s fate has forever been shaped between the hands of reason and spirit, now in collaboration, again in conflict.  Now reason and spirit meet on final ground.  If either or anything is to survive, they must find a way to create an indissoluble partnership. (4)

I doubt we’d see that searing moral message today in a cover essay for Time magazine. 

That’s a voice I think we need to hear more of, just as in 1960, with the surge of the Civil Rights Movement in the South, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was able to speak to a whole generation.  To that end, the Trust has loaned a collection of papers to the Special Collections Library in Knoxville in order to enable the broadest possible access to Agee and everything that can be known about him.

We can say at this point that Agee was, as he styled himself, a writer; indeed, a great writer.  This James Agee Celebration has offered us a wonderful opportunity to remind the world, particularly here in Knoxville and in academia in general, of that fact.

What’s needed going forward?  I think we need to accept the distance that fifty years since his death provide us to see him plain.  I trust that his new biographer will be able to capture both the quality of his writing and the quality of his life, hopefully fulfilling these hopes expressed in Ronald Weber’s review of Bergreen’s biography:

In time the two Agees may coalesce in some more balanced and complex assessment, one in which we see the elements of the life – the talent and seriousness and the magnetic, flawed character – and measure the work, as Robert Fitzgerald suggested, in light of Agee’s time and the achievement of others in similar forms. (5)

I hope that we can deal with both the positive and the negative myths.  I remember Arlo Guthrie saying at a concert once that “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in to.”  I think in understanding Agee we have to understand all of the many sides of his richly textured life.  I think we have to see him as a writer, and across all he wrote a great writer, so that when we gather here again in four years to celebrate the centennial of Agee’s birth in 1909, we’ll have a much more complete and accurate assessment of who he really was and what he really accomplished.

1.     James Agee, Agee on Film, New York:  Modern Library, 2000, xix-xx.

2.     Laurence Bergreen, James Agee:  A Life, New York:  E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1984, p. ix.

3.     Ronald Weber, "Through a Glass Darkly," Virginia Quarterly Review, 1985, pp. 364-365.

4.     Paul Ashdown, ed., James Agee:  Selected Journalism, Knoxville:  University of Tennessee Press, 1985, pp. 160-161.

5.     Ronald Weber, "Through a Glass Darkly," Virginia Quarterly Review, 1985, p. 365.




Paul Sprecher is the Trustee of the James Agee Trust.  He discovered Agee in college when his graduating class published a special issue of the Harvard Advocate commemorating the 40th anniversary of Agee’s graduation in 1932. He is married to Agee’s oldest daughter, Deedee, and was appointed successor trustee of James Agee’s Literary Trust in 2002.