November 27 is the birthday of writer
Rufus James Agee. He
was born of Huguenot ancestry in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1909. His
father was a postal worker who was killed unexpectedly in an automobile
accident when his son was only 16. The death of Agee's father would remain with him the rest
of his life.
In 1916, Agee was enrolled in St. Andrews Seminary, an
Episcopal boarding school in the Appalachian Mountains. As with James
Joyce's experience with the Jesuits, Agee found the years spent in the
monastic environment difficult and lonely. Torn by his sense of
isolation and abandonment by his mother, he managed to find some solace in
the school's rigorous academic curriculum. He formed his closest and most
enduring friendship with his mentor, Father Flye, who became a surrogate
parent, confidant, and spiritual inspiration for the remainder of Agee's
Flye quickly recognized Agee's intellectual and creative
talents, introduced him to classical literature and music, and helped him win
a place at the prestigious Exeter Academy and at Harvard, from which he
was graduated in 1932. While working as a journalist for Fortune
Magazine in New York, he published his first and only volume of poetry,
Permit Me Voyage (1934).
In 1936, Agee set off with photographer Walker Evans on an
assignment for Fortune to document the lives of poor Southern
farmers. He and Evans traveled through Tennessee and Alabama,
sometimes living with their subjects and collecting the spoken and visual
histories that culminated first in their Fortune articles and later
in the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a milestone classic on
social injustice rampant in pre-war America. Agee's renewed contact with his Southern
roots led him to write The Morning Watch and Knoxville Summer 1915,
both sensitive depictions of life as a boy in Tennessee.
For two decades, Agee worked in his spare time on a
manuscript that tried to recreate, as he described it, "my childhood and my
father, exactly as I can remember and represent them."
He never finished the book, but it was published
posthumously in 1957 as the novel, A Death in the Family, and won the
the following year. Agee's most popular work, Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men (1941), reflects the author's growing sense of civil
is still regarded by most critics to be a literary masterpiece.
Agee was an obsessive person, an insatiable talker, and an
addict to cigarettes, alcohol, and Benzedrine. He died of a heart
attack while on his way to a doctor's appointment in a New York cab in 1955,
with no will, no insurance, and $450 in the bank. The date was the
anniversary of his own father's death.
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