Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Happy birthday, James Agee

James Agee
It is the birthday of writer James Agee (1909), whose autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1958. Agee was a journalist, film critic, screenwriter, and poet. He wrote his most well known book. Let us now Praise Famous Men (1941), as a magazine article but it wasn't published.

Agee and photographer Walker Evans spent two months at the height of the Great Depression during the summer of 1936 among sharecroppers in Alabama to do an article for Fortune magazine but editors decided not to run it. Agee and Evans turned their work into the book, Let us now Praise Famous Men. It contained 31 of Evans photographs.

The book was initially a miserable failure. Only 600 copies were sold. However, the book was republished in 1960 with the 62 photographs Evans originally intended. It found an enthusiastic audience and has been lauded by critics, who cited Agee's poetic writing and his unusual practice of inserting himself into the story as he agonizes about spying on the sharecropper families and exposing their private lives the the world. The title is from a biblical quotation in the Wisdom of Sirach: "Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us."

Agee wrote for Time and Fortune magazines as well as The Nation. He was considered a brilliant and perceptive film critic. He thought of film an art form. He lavished praise on Chaplin's hugely unpopular film Monsieur Verdoux (1947). It has since become viewed as a classic. His article for Life magazine about silent film stars Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton is credited with reviving Keaton's career. The two-volume Agee on Film (1958) collects his reviews from various magazines. It has been republished.

Agee wrote screenplays for The African Queen (1951), based on the E.M. Forester book, and for The Night of the Hunter (1955), based on the Davis Grubb novel. For The African Queen, Agee is credited along with two other writers and the director, John Huston. Agee's script for The Night of the Hunter was originally  293 pages. At director Charles Laughton's request, Agee cut it in half.

A Death in the Family is based on the sudden death in a car accident of Agee's father in 1915 when Agee was six years old. It is considered one of the best English-language novels in the 20th century. It was adapted as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, All the Way Home (1961) by Tad Mosel and later as a movie starring Robert Preston, Jean Simmons and Pat Hingle.

Agee died in 1955 at age 45 from a heart attack in a taxi on the way to a doctor's appointment. His publisher released A Death in the Family as a way to help support his widow and children.

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