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 Appalachia’s 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 man’s 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 Agee’s 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 parent’s 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 family’s emotional support, drew the strength to carry on with her life and see to her children’s upbringing. The Agees remained at their Highland Avenue home for two years after Hugh Agee’s death.
After vacationing near Sewanee, TN in the summer of 1918, Laura Agee decided to relocate there, where she could enroll her son at St. Andrew’s – 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 father’s 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 Agee’s 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 mother’s second marriage to an Episcopalian priest named Father Erskine Wright, who was a former teacher at St. Andrew’s school. Although he was only seven when his father had been killed, Agee’s 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 on him.
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 nation’s 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 poets.
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 father’s 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 with it.
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 forgotten.
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 struggling journalist.
As Agee’s 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 "Comedy’s 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 wasn’t 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 Agee’s 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 Agee’s 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 boy’s experiences on Good Friday morning while attending boarding school. It was a book that drew heavily on his own experiences at St. Andrew’s 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 wasn’t 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. Agee’s 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 Luke’s Chapel in the Village. The Tennessean was laid to rest at Agee’s place in the country a few miles from Hillsdale near New York City.
The legacy left behind by Agee wasn’t 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 put together.
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 of editing.
"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 Knoxville’s 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 soprano.
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 journalism’s 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 journalism’s 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 Agee’s life in Knoxville was, by comparison to his time in New York City, a short amount of time, his family’s influence, especially on his mother’s side, continued for many years. The Tennessee Historical Commission erected a marker at the site of the family’s 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 didn’t forget his time at St. Andrew’s 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.