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James Agee (1909-1955)

James Agee

James Agee

Above all else, James Agee was a writer-from his modest early days in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he was born in 1909, to his final heart attack in a New York taxi cab in 1955, when he was forty-five years old.

His father, who came of sturdy farmer stock in the mountains of Tennessee, became a postal worker who died in an auto accident, leaving James in the care of his Anglo-Catholic, well-educated mother. He was a student at tiny nearby St. Andrew’s School, then at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and Harvard College, where he concentrated as editor and author of poetry published in the Harvard Advocate. Impressed by his achievement, Archibald MacLeish nominated him as an author in the Yale Series of Younger Poets and wrote the introduction.

While a college student, Agee published a satire of Time Magazine that led journalism’s Emperor Henry Luce to offer him a position in New York, where he wrote articles as well as book and film reviews for fourteen years. He also wrote cinema reports for The Nation and the script for an Omnibus television series celebrating Lincoln.

Taking a break, Agee joined with photographer Walker Evans to tell a long, illustrated story of the plight of three sharecropper families, published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Personal problems plagued Agee: endless smoking of cigarettes, plus an insatiable thirst for liquor and love, which damaged two of his three marriages and his children. His first heart attack came when he was strenuously countering John Huston in a hopeless tennis contest. Agee was then writing the script Houston requested for his movie, The African Queen. Here are two poems by James Agee. First, the title poem of his first book:


From the Third Voyage of Hart Crane

Take these who will as may be: I
Am careless now of what they fail:
My heart and mind discharted lie
And surely as the nerved nail

Appoints all quarters on the north
So now it designates him forth
My sovereign God my princely soul
Whereon my flesh is priestly stole:

Whence forth shall my heart and mind
To God through soul entirely bow,
Therein such strong increase to find
In truth as is my fate to know:

Small though that be great God I know
I know in this gigantic day
What God is ruined and I know
How labors with Godhead this day:

How from the porches of our sky
The crested glory is declined:
And hear with what translated cry
The stridden soul is overshined:

And how this world of wildness through
True poets shall walk who herald you:
Of whom God grant me of your grace
To be, that shall preserve this race.

Permit me voyage, Love, into your hands.

Next are lines not included in The Collected Poems edited by his Harvard friend, Robert Fitzgerald. They are a variant of lyrics Agee composed for Lillian Hellman’s Candide.

Reason, Magic, Skill and Love,
Frankly, I think poorly of.
Flesh and Figment, Brain and Breath.
All are parodies of Death.

Death alone can’t paint it true;
Only Death can say for sure;
Who but Death can sing to you?
Death my dearest, sparse and pure.

Life is but a sorrowing haze
Through which we grope; and our five senses,
Trammeling snares. In all our way
Artists put their subtle fences:

Telling us that Life is All;
Cheating us with hints of glory;
Charming us. We fail, we fall
Stupefied, and buy their story.

Click here to view supplemental reading to James Agee on Amazon.

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Categories: Cambridge & Harvard, Poetry, Prayers & Visual Arts