James Agee

I know this is a bit of a departure from my work on Yates but I have only just discovered the incredible work of Mr James Agee, and in particular A Death in the Family. I have been struck by it as forcibly as I was struck six years ago by Revolutionary Road. It is a work of true genius with recognisable homage paid to Faulkner, Hardy and, I think, many of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century poets.

I am only two thirds of the way through my first reading but I am getting up early and staying awake late to keep reading. The prose is poetic without ever being overdone; the observations about human behaviour are so precise, so detailed and breathtakingly sharp; the shift in narrative view, and the gap between the inner and outer person, all carefully and dynamically conveyed. And then there’s the debate about Man and his beliefs threaded throughout, like an argument the author is having with himself, that strikes me as being so like Wallace Stevens’s work. It’s all a very different perspective on the family from the one Yates gives and makes for some interesting comparisons.

I want to know more about James Agee….Have any of you read any of his work, prose or poetry? Is there a biography? I only have the information that Wikipedia provides and it is’t much.

I have to thank my friend Mark for putting me on to this work and I look forward to finding time to read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

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3 Responses to “James Agee”

  1. I still cherish a similar reaction to DEATH IN THE FAMILY, especially to the lyrical sections from the child’s perspective. In memory, I love the psychological touch of having the boy boast about losing his fatherr; on the other hand I do not buy the appearance of the father’s ghost to the mother, and the mother herself seems something of a religious monster, a “grotesque” in Sherwood Anderson’s sense. Yates DEPISED this book as precious and sentimental, and thought Agee vastly overrated. Go figure.
    One of the surprises about Agee is his screenplay, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER.

  2. kateonyates Says:

    I so enjoyed your comments and laughed aloud at the one about Yates not liking him. Is there more to tell? The word ‘despised’ suggests a whole host of bar room expletives and I’d love to hear some of his comments if you can remember them. Was it the modernist style he hated as much as what he thought was sentimental?

    I agree with you about the lyricism of the child’s narrative passages – just beautifully done and convincingly NOT sentimentally done, I thought. Very Faulknerian in feel though not just because of the setting but the intensity, the narrative style and the family and home as the place where all drama starts and ends. It reminded me of ‘The Sound and the Fury’ though, from what you say, Yates would cringe at that. My supervisor,is a Faulkner specialist and although he hasn’t make the connection (to me) between the two writers, when I asked him about Agee’s book he called it ‘unambiguously wonderful’ – of course, that doesn’t mean he links the two in any way but it interested me nevertheless.

    I didn’t feel the mother was a ‘grotesque’ but I didn’t feel much connection with her; the aunt, on the other hand, is wonderfully characterized with her religious zeal and nervous tension and a back story barely hinted at and never explored. The triumph is, as you say, is Rufus’s perspective – on race, religion and family relationships.

  3. Sarah Nichols Says:

    James Agee was also a noted film critic, who wrote for The Nation and then for Time Magazine; some of his reviews can be found in the anthology American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now, and if memory serves, there is a book (or books) called Agee on Film.

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