The accidental journalist
While most influential journalists were those who spent their
careers looking for that "magic story" or crusading
against injustices that earned them celebrated recognition for
their efforts, there was one who would become regarded as one
of Southern Appalachias best writers and most noted journalists
the latter by accident. Although he would only serve
a short time as a journalist and only in his later years gain
a byline of his own, he would be long remembered as one of the
best and most creative in the profession.
This was an odd turn in the mans life because he never
sought a career in journalism and only took what he thought
would be a short-term job to help make ends meet while he sought
opportunities as a serious writer. In fact, the greatest contribution
he ever truly made to the profession was a dismal failure. At
least, that was how it seemed at first to him and his photographer
as well as the magazine that financed his special assignment.
While he would eventually realize his dreams as a man of letters
and of the pen, that one project would cause him to leave behind
a legacy as a writer that would influence the profession for
years to come one that would also earn him a place in
the annals of American journalism.
James Rufus Agee was born on Nov. 27, 1909 in Knoxville to Hugh
James and Laura Whitman Agee. His father was a Campbell County
native who had spent his young life farming in the mountain
backwoods and moved to Knoxville to take a job at a Knoxville
Machine Company, where he made a pretty good living.
Laura Agee was an educated woman who had studied art and a devout
Episcopalian. Her mother had been among the first women in history
to graduate from the University of Michigan and the family were
noted members of the Knoxville community. She was the daughter
of Joel C. Tyler and a twin sister of prominent Knoxville artist
Hugh C. Tyler.
The contradicting personalities of Agees parents had their
effect on the young boy. While his mother instilled in him the
religious teachings of the Episcopalians and did her best to
shelter him in every way possible, his father was the total
opposite, who would take him on backwoods adventures in the
mountains, let him see the movies of the day and take his son
to the local pubs afterwards, where the young boy would meet
a myriad of people. The obvious differences in personalities
of his parents led to the boy being a humble, but daring individual
who feared nothing and instilled a wisdom in him that made him
seem much older than his years.
In the summer of 1916, Hugh Agee was called to his parents
home in Campbell County with the news that one of his parents
had fallen seriously ill. After spending the day there and seeing
to the family emergency, he started home to Knoxville later
that night and became involved in an automobile accident, where
he died at the scene.
For the seven-year-old Rufus, who worshipped his father, it
was the end of the world. Although he was just a young boy when
tragedy struck his family, he felt like it had changed his life
forever. The mischievous little boy that everyone knew suddenly
became an individual of a serious nature; sometimes described
as dark and brooding by those who did not know him. Laura Agee,
however, found herself widowed and faced with raising both her
son and younger daughter Emma. She threw herself into her religion
and, from her involvement in the church and her familys
emotional support, drew the strength to carry on with her life
and see to her childrens upbringing. The Agees remained
at their Highland Avenue home for two years after Hugh Agees
After vacationing near Sewanee, TN in the summer of 1918, Laura
Agee decided to relocate there, where she could enroll her son
at St. Andrews a private Episcopalian boarding
school that would allow her son to be more in the company of
men and provide the religious education and training she felt
a young man should have. For the 10-year-old boy, however, he
saw it as a death sentence of sorts. His fathers death
had been a serious blow to him and now he felt as if he had
lost his mother as well. The period of adjustment was brutally
hard, but the boy soon found a life-long friend in Father James
Herold Flye, who became a surrogate father in the paternal sense
as well as a teacher that could challenge Agee to excel in his
studies. The Agees returned to Knoxville often on summer breaks
and holidays to visit with Laura Agees family and for
Rufus to visit the gravesite of his father.
Rufus Agee and the family moved back to Knoxville when he was
15 and the teenager attended Knoxville High School in the 1924-25
school year. It was around this time that Agee had to come to
grips with his mothers second marriage to an Episcopalian
priest named Father Erskine Wright, who was a former teacher
at St. Andrews school. Although he was only seven when
his father had been killed, Agees memories of his father
were still something he felt strongly about and, while he wanted
his mother to be happy, her remarriage had a profound effect
When the school year was over, however, Agee and Father Flye
traveled to Europe together where the Tennessean took the opportunity
to regroup his thoughts and think about his future and what
he wanted to do with his life. The men spent their time visiting
the sites in England and France and there it was decided that
Agee, who had developed an excellent academic record in school,
would try to continue his studies at the nations most
prestigious prep schools and universities.
When he returned stateside, he enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy
in New Hampshire where he began prepatory work for his admission
to Harvard. It was during his time at Exeter Academy that he
discovered a talent for writing and he experimented devoutly
with the talent. He wrote for the Exeter Monthly and among the
various writings wrote 12 short stories, nine poems, numerous
articles and reviews, and four plays each one showing
significant evolution in literary style and subject.
In 1928, James Agee, as he now liked to be called, was accepted
by Harvard and the Tennessean then committed himself to serious
literary study. His previous work at the Exeter Academy had
given him a "clip file" that quickly earned him a
position as a writer for the Harvard Lampoon, The Crimson, and
the Harvard Advocate, where he eventually rose to the position
of editor-in-chief. His writing ability continued to evolve
and develop into something special and he poured his energies
into his education at Harvard. In March 1931, Agee wrote a parody
of Time magazine that was widely acclaimed in and attracted
the attention of prominent publisher Henry Luce, who offered
the Tennessean a position writing for Fortune when he graduated.
Following his graduation in 1932, Agee moved to New York and
took the job at Fortune with the idea that his stint as a journalist
would be brief while he worked to achieve his goal as a serious
writer. Agee was constantly at odds with himself and the constraints
he said he felt at being limited by the demands of journalism.
In 1933, he met an fell in love with Olivia Saunders of Clinton,
NY, but the relationship was short-lived and the two later divorced.
He persisted at trying his hand at serious writing and authored
a book of poetry entitled "Permit Me Voyage," which
was published in 1934 as part of the Yale Series of Younger
In 1936, Fortune sent Agee and photographer Walker Evans on
assignment to Alabama to put together a story on tenant farmers.
Agee was able to draw upon the memories of his fathers
family and immersed himself into the lives of the share cropping
families. In 1939, he again married a lady from Utica, N.Y.
named Alma Mailman and the union produced a son named Joel.
As with his first marriage, however, troubles led to a second
divorce and the Tennessean threw himself into his work to deal
The Alabama tenant farmer feature, which Agee thought would
be a short-term project, ended up taking three years and was
finally published in 1941 under the title "Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men." At the time of its unveiling, it was a horrible
failure as a publication and one Agee hoped would be quickly
Prior to the publishing of "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men",
Agee had taken a position with Time magazine reviewing books.
It soon expanded into reviewing films and led to a weekly column
reviewing films for The Nation.
In 1945, Agee married for the third time to Mia Fritsch of Winona,
MN and finally found his true love. Their union would produce
three children two girls and a boy and bring the
writer the stability in his life he had so long sought as a
As Agees reputation as a writer grew, so did his influence
in American literary circles. He ceased writing his weekly columns
in 1948, but not before completing what would be him most praised
piece of criticism on the virtues and talents of the silent
film industry in a feature entitled "Comedys Greatest
Era " published in Life Magazine in 1949.
After 1948, however, the Tennessean devoted his career to writing
principally film scripts and fiction and fulfilling his life-long
career as a serious writer. It wasnt exactly as he envisioned
as career opportunities presented themselves both the broadcast
and film industries. A year later, however, he was a member
of the prestigious National Institute of Arts and Letters.
In 1950, Hollywood Director John Huston hired the Tennessean
to come work for him as a scenarist and co-writer on a new film
project with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn entitled
"The African Queen." The film was a huge success and
Agee spent two years in California where he became popular with
many celebrities, including the late Charlie Chaplin, who immediately
took a liking to the Tennessean. Agee made many friends in California
among the celebrities and developed working relationships with
many studio directors and writers. It would be Agees most
popular project and earned the Tennessean fame and recognition
as a writer. The "African Queen" was quickly regarded
as an American film classic and served as Agees formal
introduction to the world of film making, where he further developed
his skill and talent as a screenwriter.
While in California, however, he penned the autobiographical
novel "The Morning Watch" about a young boys
experiences on Good Friday morning while attending boarding
school. It was a book that drew heavily on his own experiences
at St. Andrews in Sewanee. The novel was met with moderate
acclaim from critics and led to him considering other autobiographical-like
projects. His career in California would be cut short when Agee
started developing cardiac problems and suffered two heart attacks.
In 1952, he and his family returned to New York, where he continued
with his writing career and started undergoing medical treatment.
Agee wrote several screenplays and one full-length original
script Noa-Noa, which he based upon the journals of famed artist
Paul Gauguin, but never saw it produced. In addition, he wrote
a television story on the life of President Lincoln, which did
air and started becoming a workaholic, taking on and beginning
numerous projects for television, print, and film.
It wasnt long before he decided to reopen some old wounds
and begin work on another autobiographical novel entitled "A
Death In The Family" that told of the experiences of a
young boy losing his father and the reactions of various family
members. Agee drew upon his own experiences and the memories
of the seven-year-old boy who had lost his father.
The Tennessean was able to get the book into final form when,
on May 16, 1955, Agee began feeling chest pains and summoned
a taxi to take him to his doctor. While making his way across
town in the taxi, a heart attack struck the Tennessean and he
died before he could receive proper medical attention.
His family was devastated by his death as were his numerous
colleagues and friends. Agees life-long friend and surrogate
parent Father Flye, who had served as a priest in Greenwich
Village for several summers, conducted the funeral service at
Lukes Chapel in the Village. The Tennessean was laid to
rest at Agees place in the country a few miles from Hillsdale
near New York City.
The legacy left behind by Agee wasnt truly known at first
as many works were left unfinished in his study, but those close
to him who knew the incredible creativity of the writer took
it upon themselves to study his papers and see what they could
The novel "A Death In The Family" was left in unedited
form as was the screenplay "The Tanglewood Story,"
but the novel was finished and ready for the final processes
"A Death in the Family" was published the year following
his death and, in 1958, the Tennessean was posthumously awarded
the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for the work making him
the only Knoxville native to ever receive the award. The autobiographical
novel was critically acclaimed by writers throughout the nation
and inspired Hollywood to produce the book in film under the
title "All the Way Home".
East Tennesseans were amazed as film crews unloaded into the
Tennessee Valley and began work on the project filming in Campbell
County, Knoxville, and the surrounding region. The movie held
its opening premier in Knoxvilles Tennessee Theater with
film stars and dignitaries from around the nation present at
the event. In addition, the introduction to the book provided
the inspiration for a musical tribute named Knoxville "Summer
of 1915" written by Samuel Barber for orchestra and lyric
The film met with decent reviews, but was not the box office
success many had hoped it would be.
The most ironic posthumous recognition that was to come to James
R. Agee was his publishing failure in 1941 of "Let Us Now
Praise Famous Men."
The year 1941 was one of war in America and attention was turned
towards matters of international importance and the publishing
failure of the project could have easily been forecasted by
those in the industry. As the years passed, however, the little-known
project on tenant farmers in Alabama began gaining prominence
as one of American journalisms greatest and most original
works. It became a reference source for many prominent journalists
and inspired later projects in print and broadcast that led
to momentous changes in the South. It was even cited by pioneer
news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow as an inspiration for his
"Harvest of Shame" broadcast, which documented the
plight of immigrant farm workers in America.
The photographs taken by Walker Evans of the share-cropping
families for the publication are also regarded as some of the
best ever taken. Since its debut, "Let Us Now Praise Famous
Men" has been dissected by some of journalisms greatest
minds and is today regarded as an original masterpiece and held
up as a standard by which all other similar projects are judged.
Although Agees life in Knoxville was, by comparison to
his time in New York City, a short amount of time, his familys
influence, especially on his mothers side, continued for
many years. The Tennessee Historical Commission erected a marker
at the site of the familys former home on Cumberland Avenue
to commemorate his life in the city.
The influence of James R. Agee in Tennessee stretched beyond
the state and touched millions across the nation. In Sewanee,
where he had spent much of his early academic life, Agee didnt
forget his time at St. Andrews School or the life-long
friendship with Father Flye. His personal papers and a complete
collection of his works are located there as well as numerous
personal artifacts recognizing one of their most famous
students and writers.
There are still many descendants of the Agee and Tyler family
still residing in Tennessee and New York. While he was a celebrity
of national stature in both film and journalism, information
about his life and times is literally scattered from one end
of the nation to the other and only now are biographers studying
his life and the impact he had on American journalism.