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James Agee

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 forty-four years.

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 Pulitzer Prize the following year.  Agee's most popular work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), reflects the author's growing sense of civil awareness and 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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