Literary Criticism of James Agee

James Agee’s earliest published book, Permit Me Voyage (1934), was a collection of poems, his second a nonfiction account of Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression. He and photographer Walker Evans lived with their subjects for eight weeks in 1936 on a Fortune magazine assignment, with a number of critics hailing the resulting book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), as Agee’s masterpiece. From 1941 through 1948, Agee wrote film reviews and feature articles for Time and The Nation; thereafter, he worked on film scripts in Hollywood, his most notable screenplay being his 1952 adaptation of C. S. Forester’s novel The African Queen (1935). He also wrote an esteemed television script on Abraham Lincoln for the Omnibus series in 1952. Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962) contains his thirty-year correspondence with an Episcopalian priest who had been his teacher.


The prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets sponsored Agee’s first book, Archibald MacLeish contributing its introduction. Agee went on to gain an unusual degree of literary fame for a man who published only three books, two of them slim ones, in his lifetime. Sometimes accused of wasting his talent on magazine and film “hack” work, Agee lavished the same painstaking attention on film reviews as on his carefully crafted books. His film work was highly prized by director John Huston, and their collaboration on The African Queen resulted in a film classic. His greatest fame developed posthumously, however, when his novel A Death in the Family won a 1958 Pulitzer Prize. Three years later, Tad Mosel’s dramatization of the novel, All the Way Home (1960), earned another Pulitzer. The continued popularity of Agee’s work attests his vast human sympathy, his unusual lyrical gift, and his ability to evoke the tension and tenderness of family life in both fiction and nonfiction.


James Agee


Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 27, 1909, James Rufus Agee was the son of Hugh James Agee, from a Tennessee mountain family, and Laura Whitman Tyler, the well-educated and highly religious daughter of a businessman. His father sang mountain ballads to him, while his mother passed on to him her love of drama and music. Hugh Agee’s death in an automobile accident in the spring of 1916 profoundly influenced young Rufus, as he was called in the family.

Agee received a first-rate education at St. Andrew’s School, near Sewanee, Tennessee, where he developed a lifelong friendship with Father James Harold Flye; at Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire; and at Harvard College, where in his senior year he edited the Harvard Advocate. Upon his graduation in 1932, he went immediately to work for Fortune and later its sister publication, Time. Over a sixteen-year period, he did a variety of staff work, reviewing, and feature stories while living in the New York metropolitan area.

After 1950, Agee spent considerable time in California working mostly with John Huston, but his health deteriorated. Highly disciplined as a writer, Agee exerted less successful control over his living habits, with chronic insomnia and alcohol contributing to a succession of heart attacks beginning early in 1951. Agee married three times and had a son by his second wife and three more children by his third, Mia Fritsch, who survived him. He succumbed to a fatal heart attack in a New York taxicab on May 16, 1955, at the age of forty-five.


Neither James Agee’s novella The Morning Watch nor his novel A Death in the Family offers much in the way of plot. The former covers a few hours of a boy’s Good Friday morning at an Episcopalian boys’ school, the latter a few days encompassing the death and funeral of a young husband and father. His fiction develops a remarkable lyric intensity, however, and dramatizes with sensitivity the consciousness of children. He presents the minutiae of life as experienced by his characters at times of maximum awareness and thereby lifts them out of the category of mere realistic detail into the realm of spiritual discovery.

Even a cursory glance at the facts of Agee’s life reveals how autobiographically based his fiction is. There is no reason to doubt that St. Andrew’s, where he spent the years from ten to sixteen, supplies the framework for The Morning Watch, or that Agee’s own family, seen at the time of Hugh Agee’s fatal accident, furnishes the building blocks of the more ambitious A Death in the Family. At the same time, Agee permitted himself artistic freedom in selecting, altering, and arranging the facts of raw experience. It is clear that his literary appropriation of his childhood owes much to reflection and interpretation in the light of maturity.

Agee was a writer who stayed close to home in his work. His fiction displays no trace of the two-thirds of his life spent mainly in New England, New York, and California. As is so often the case with southern writers, Agee’s work is imbued with a sense of his origins, of folk traditions viewed in their own right and in competition with the emerging urban culture. The South, with its insistence on the primacy of personal and familial relationships, was in his bones. In keeping to his earliest and most vividly felt years, Agee created a convincing context in which experiences of universal significance can unfold.

The Morning Watch 

At the beginning of The Morning Watch, a preadolescent boy and several of his classmates are awakened in the wee hours of Good Friday morning to spend their assigned time in an overnight vigil in the school chapel as part of the Maundy Thursday-Good Friday devotions. Anyone who has experienced a period of religious scrupulosity in childhood will respond to Agee’s presentation of Richard. While his friends fumble and curse in the darkness, Richard prepares for adoration. After arriving in the chapel before the veiled monstrance, he strives to pray worthily despite the almost inevitable distractions of potentially sinful thoughts, the dangers of spiritual pride, and the torture of the hard kneeling board. Richard wonders whether he can make a virtue of his discomfort: To what extent is it proper for him to suffer along with the crucified Savior? Agee brings Richard intensely alive and conveys the power and the puzzlement of mighty spiritual claims at this stage of life.

The narrative also develops from the start Richard’s sense of his relationships with the other boys, most of whom, he realizes, lack his delicate spiritual antennae. After the stint in the chapel is over, he and two classmates do not return to the dormitory as expected but decide on an early morning swim. Their adventure is presented in a heavily symbolic way. Richard dives into deep water at their swimming hole, stays down so long that his friends begin to worry, and emerges before his lungs give out. The boys torture and kill a snake, with Richard (who, like Agee himself, cannot bear to kill) finishing off the job. He debates in his mind whether the snake is poisonous and whether to wash the slime from his hand, deciding finally in the negative. He carries back to the school a locust shell he has found on the way. The snake, which seemingly cannot be killed, suggests both ineradicable evil and, in its victimization, Christ; the locust shell, which he holds next to his heart, seems to represent suffering in a purer form. Richard’s dive into the water and subsequent resurfacing obviously symbolize his own “death” and “resurrection” in this Christian Holy Week.

Some critics have noted the influence of James Joyce on this novella. Certainly Richard resembles in certain ways the young protagonists of some of Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) stories as well as Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Attracted by religious mysteries and artifacts, Richard wishes to appropriate them for his own purposes. He senses the conflict of religion with the world, evinces distaste for the practices of the latter, and hopes to fashion a life that blends the best of both. Although Richard’s appropriation of religious rite and doctrine is less consciously the artist’s than is that of Stephen Dedalus, the reader senses that his individualistic spirituality will almost inevitably bring him into a Joycean conflict with conservative religious practice.

A Death in the Family 

Because The Morning Watch, despite its provocatively ambiguous conflict between the world and the spirit, is somewhat labored and precious, and because Agee’s short stories were few and insignificant, his reputation as an important American novelist rests primarily on one book that he did not quite complete before his early death, A Death in the Family. As he left it, the story begins at the supper table of the Follet household in Knoxville, Tennessee, in about 1915, and ends just after Jay Follet’s funeral on the third day following. Agee had written a short descriptive essay, “Knoxville: Summer 1915” (which makes an appropriate preface to the novel), and six additional sections, which together make up about one-fifth the length of the narrative.

Although all the six scenes (as they will be termed here) pertain to times prior to that of the main story, it remains unclear where Agee intended to place them, or whether he would have used stream-of-consciousness flashbacks, a story-within-a- Agee, James 3 story technique, or perhaps another method suggested by his cinematic experience to incorporate them. Surely he intended to use them, for they illuminate and enrich the death story despite the absence of any formal linkage among them or collectively to the narrative. The editorial decision to print three of them after each of the first two parts of the three-part narrative seems as logical as any other way under the circumstances.

The novel has no single protagonist. Jay Follet, strong, tall, and taciturn, is described most specifically, at one point being compared to President Abraham Lincoln, though apparently more handsome. Last seen alive one-third of the way through the narrative, he appears in five of the six scenes and remains the main object of the other characters’ thoughts in the last two parts of the narrative. At various stages, each important family member reflects on him: his wife Mary, son Rufus, brother Ralph, Mary’s parents, Joel and Catherine, Mary’s aunt Hannah and her brother Andrew, and even Jay’s and Mary’s three-year-old daughter, also named Catherine. Agee employs Rufus and Mary as a focus most frequently. No point of view outside the family circle intrudes, and, except on two occasions when the six-year-old Rufus interacts with neighborhood children outside, attention is focused on family members exclusively. Throughout the novel, Agee juxtaposes the tensions and tendernesses of domestic life. The reader is constantly made to feel not only how much the family members love one another but also how abrasive they can be. Recognizing that a family does not succeed automatically, Agee portrays a continual struggle against external divisive pressures and selfishness within.

Jay and Mary’s marriage has withstood a number of strains. First of all, their origins differ greatly. Mary’s people are the citified, well-educated Lynches; the Follets are Tennessee mountain folk. The couple’s ability to harmonize their differences is exemplified in the second of the six scenes. Rufus notes that when singing together, his father interprets music flexibly, “like a darky,” while his mother sings true and clear but according to the book. Rufus particularly admires his father’s sense of rhythm. Sometimes, the boy observes, his mother tries to sing Jay’s way and he hers, but they soon give up and return to what is natural.

Jay’s father, who indirectly causes Jay’s death, is one point of difference. Mary’s antipathy to him is known to all the Follets, but even Jay realizes that his likable father is weak of character. When Jay’s brother calls and informs him that their father is very ill, Jay wastes no time in preparing to go to him, despite his suspicion that the unreliable Ralph has greatly exaggerated the danger. It is on his return trip, after learning that his father is all right, that a mechanical defect in Jay’s car causes the crash that kills him instantly.

Jay’s drinking problem, a Follet weakness, has also distressed his wife, and Jay has vowed to kill himself if he ever gets drunk again. In one of the scenes, Rufus, aware that whiskey is a sore point between his parents, accompanies his father when he stops at a tavern, and it appears that he has overcome his habit of excess, but his reputation has spread. Both the man who finds Jay’s body and the children who later taunt Rufus on the street corner attribute his accident to drunken driving, and Mary has to fight off the temptation to consider the possibility.

Religion is another divisive issue. Jay does not appear to be a denominational Christian, while Mary is, like Agee’s own mother, a fervent Episcopalian. The men on both sides of the family are either skeptics or thoroughgoing unbelievers. A devotee of Thomas Hardy’s fiction, Mary’s father, Joel, has little use for piety or what he calls “churchiness.” Although he originally disapproved of Mary’s marriage to Jay, he has 4 Notable American Novelists come to terms with Jay, whom he views as a counterweight to Mary’s religiosity. Mary’s brother Andrew carries on open warfare with the Christian God. When he first hears of Jay’s accident, Mary senses that he is mentally rehearsing a speech about the folly of belief in a benevolent deity. Even young Rufus is a budding skeptic. Told that God has let his father “go to sleep,” he ferrets out the details and concludes that the concussion he has heard about, “not God,” has put his father to sleep. When he hears that his father will wake up at the Final Judgment, he wonders what good that is. The women accept the inscrutable as God’s will, but the men take an agnostic stance and fear the influence of the Church. Father Jackson, the most unpleasant person in the novel, ministers to Mary in her bereavement. Rufus quickly decides that the priest’s power is malevolent and that, were his real father present, the false father would not be allowed into his home.

Some hours after the confirmation of Jay’s death, Mary feels his presence in the room, and though Andrew and Joel will not concede any kind of spiritual visitation,they acknowledge that they too felt “something.” Later, Andrew tells Rufus of an event he considers “miraculous”: the settling of a butterfly on Jay’s coffin in the grave and the creature’s subsequent flight, high into the sunlight. The men’s unbelief, then, is not positivistic; they recognize the possibility of a realm beyond the natural order, but they bitterly oppose the certified spiritual agent, Father Jackson, as too self-assured and quick to condemn.

To counter the estrangements brought on by cultural and religious conflicts in the family, reconciliations dot the narrative. Rufus senses periodic estrangements from his father and then joyful feelings of unity. Jay frequently feels lonely, even homesick. Crossing the river between Knoxville and his old home, he feels restored. To go home is impracticable, bound up with a vanished childhood. In one of the scenes, the family visits Rufus’s great-great-grandmother. It is a long, winding journey into the hills and into the past. It is apparent that none of the younger generations of Follets has gone to see the old woman in a long time. Rufus, who has never been there, comes home in a way impossible to his father. The old woman, more than one hundred years old, barely acknowledges any of her numerous offspring, but she clasps Rufus, the fifth-generation descendant, who is joyful to her. On other occasions, Jay, by imaginative identification with Rufus, can feel as if he is his “own self” again.

Mary also feels alternate waves of friendship with, and estrangement from, her father. He, in turn, has a wife with whom communication is difficult because of her deafness. When Catherine cannot hear her husband, she seldom asks him to repeat himself, as if fearful of exasperating him. In this way, she is insulated from his unbelief. Although they talk little, they communicate by gestures and physical closeness. Agee shows him taking her elbow to help her over a curb and carefully steering her up the street toward their home. Rufus and his father are usually silent on their walks; they communicate by sitting together on a favorite rock and watching passersby.

Much of the talk following Jay’s death is irritable and nerve-shattering. Andrew dwells thoughtlessly on the one-chance-in-a-million nature of Jay’s accident, for which his father rebukes him. Mary begs Andrew to have mercy and then hysterically begs his forgiveness, upon which her aunt censures her for unwarranted humility. Both Mary and Andrew are enduring crises, however, and are hardly responsible for what they say. She is resisting the temptation to despair of God’s mercy; he is trying to come to terms with a possibly meaningless universe. Andrew communicates best with services; throughout the hours of distress, he is unfailingly helpful.

The truest communication exists between Jay and Mary. When he is not silent, he can be sullen or wrathful. As he prepares to set forth on his journey to his father’s, Mary dreads the “fury and profanity” she can expect if, for example, the car will not start, but this sometimes harsh husband stops in the bedroom to recompose their bed so it will look comfortable and inviting when she returns to it. She disapproves of his drinking strong coffee, but she makes it very strong on this occasion because she knows he will appreciate it. By dozens of such unobtrusive deeds, Jay and Mary express their love, which prevails over the numerous adverse circumstances and personal weaknesses that threaten it.

Long before he began work on A Death in the Family, Agee expressed his intention to base a literary work on his father’s death. The eventual novel is thus deeply meditated and very personal. At the same time, it attains universality by means of its painstaking precision. In the Follets can be seen any family that has striven to harmonize potentially divisive differences or has answered courageously a sudden tragedy. As in loving families generally, the tensions do not disappear. At the end, Andrew, for the first time in his life, invites Rufus to walk with him. Sensing the negative feelings in his uncle, Rufus nevertheless is afraid to ask him about them.Walking home with this man who can never replicate his father but who will fill as much of the void as possible, Rufus comes to terms with his father’s death in the silence that in Agee’s fiction communicates beyond the power of words. In this reconstruction of his own most momentous childhood experience, Agee portrays the most difficult reconciliation of all.


Other major works
short fiction: “A Mother’s Tale,” 1952; Four Early Stories by James Agee, 1964; The Collected Short Prose of James Agee, 1968.
screenplays: The Red Badge of Courage, 1951 (based on Stephen Crane’s novel); The African Queen, 1952 (based on C. S. Forester’s novel); The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, 1952 (based on Crane’s short story); Noa Noa, 1953; White Mane, 1953; Green Magic, 1955; The Night of the Hunter, 1955; Agee on Film: Five Film Scripts, 1960.

Poetry: Permit Me Voyage, 1934; The Collected Poems of James Agee, 1968.

Nonfiction: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941; Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments, 1958; Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, 1962; James Agee: Selected Journalism, 1985; Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island, Travel Notes, 2005 (wr. 1939).

Barson, Alfred. A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972. A revisionist view of Agee, whose earliest critics thought that his talents were dissipated by his diverse interests but who judged him to have been improving at the time of his death. Barson inverts this thesis, stating that Agee’s finished work should not be so slighted and that his powers were declining when he died. Contains notes and an index. Should not be confused with A Way of Seeing: Photographs of New York, a collection of photographs by Helen Levitt with an essay by Agee.

Bergreen, Laurence. James Agee: A Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984. This is one of the best biographies of Agee, thorough and well researched. Its critical analyses are cogent and thoughtful. Bergreen’s writing style is appealing. Contains illustrations, notes, bibliography of Agee’s writings, bibliography of works about him, and index.

Hughes,William. James Agee, Omnibus, and Mr. Lincoln: The Culture of Liberalism and the Challenge of Television, 1952-1953. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. Study of Agee’s involvement in the early 1950’s television production of a drama on Abraham Lincoln.

Kramer, Victor A. Agee and Actuality: Artistic Vision in His Work. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1991. Kramer delves into the aesthetics of Agee’s writing. This study is valuable for identifying controlling themes that pervade the author’s writing.
____________. A Consciousness of Technique in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”: With Thirty-one Newly Selected Photographs. Albany, N.Y.: Whitston, 2001. A reconsideration of Agee’s nonfiction work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
____________. James Agee. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Although this well-written book is dated, it remains one of the more valuable sources available to the nonspecialist, useful for its analyses, its bibliography, and its chronology of the author’s life.

Lofaro, Michael A., ed. James Agee: Reconsiderations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee
Press, 1992. The nine essays in this slim volume are carefully considered. Mary Moss’s bibliography of secondary sources is especially well crafted and eminently useful, as are penetrating essays by Linda Wagner-Martin and Victor A. Kramer.

Madden, David, and Jeffrey J. Folks, eds. Remembering James Agee. 2d ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. The twenty-two essays in this book touch on every important aspect of Agee’s life and work. They range from the reminiscences of Father Flye to those of his third wife, Mia Agee. The interpretive essays on his fiction and films are particularly illuminating, as are the essays on his life as a reporter and writer for Fortune and Time.

Neuman, Alma. “Thoughts of Jim: A Memoir of Frenchtown and James Agee.” Shenandoah 33 (1981-1982). A perceptive family assessment by Agee’s second wife.

Spiegel, Alan. James Agee and the Legend of Himself. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998. In this critical study of Agee’s writing, Spiegel offers especially sound insights into the role that childhood reminiscence plays in the author’s fiction and into the uses that Agee makes of nostalgia. The hundred pages on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men represent one of the best interpretations of this important early work. Teachers will appreciate the section titled “Agee in the Classroom.”


Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press,Inc 2008.


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