This Day In Literary History
On November 27th, 1909, the famous American writer and critic James Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. When he was six years old, his father was killed in a car accident. A year later, he and his younger sister Emma were sent to the first of several boarding schools.
James' favorite boarding school was the Saint Andrews School for Mountain Boys in Sewanee, Tennessee. At this school, run by Episcopal monks, Agee met Episcopal priest Father James Harold Flye, who would become a lifelong friend.
When he was sixteen, after spending the summer traveling through Europe with Father Flye, James Agee entered Phillips Exeter Academy prep school, where he became president of the Lantern Club and editor of the Monthly, where his first writings were published.
Although he barely passed most of his classes, Agee was admitted to Harvard after graduation, where he became editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate and delivered the class ode at commencement.
After graduating Harvard, Agee married his first wife, Via Saunders, and began writing for Fortune magazine. In 1934, his first and only poetry collection, Permit Me Voyage, was published, featuring a foreword by poet Archibald MacLeish.
While writing for Fortune, Agee spent eight weeks on assignment living with poor sharecroppers in Alabama, but left the magazine before completing his article.
He turned the material into a nonfiction book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). The book only sold 600 copies before it was remaindered. That year, Agee's second marriage broke up.
The next year, James Agee became the literary critic for Time magazine. At one point, he was reviewing up to six books a week. He left Time to become the film critic for the liberal news magazine The Nation.
By 1948, he had become a freelance writer. An assignment for Life magazine resulted in the publication of an acclaimed article about legendary silent film comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. The article is credited with reviving Keaton's career.
Many of Agee's freelance assignments were movie reviews or articles on films, most of which were later published as Agee On Film and Agee On Film II. He championed Charlie Chaplin's classic film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a controversial black comedy that was ahead of its time.
A commercial failure that raised the ire of conservative audiences and the clergy, the movie starred Chaplin as Henri Verdoux, a Parisian bank teller who loses his job to the global depression. So, he comes up with a unique means of supporting his crippled wife and their little son.
Verdoux becomes a professional bluebeard, marrying rich women for their money, then murdering them. The funniest scene finds Chaplin in a rowboat, trying in vain to drown his latest wife, superbly played by comedienne Martha Raye.
When Verdoux is finally captured, tried, and convicted of numerous murders, he gives this memorable speech with a defiant, malicious smile:
As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you ALL very soon. Very soon.
Just before his execution, a priest is sent to Verdoux's cell to counsel him. In a final act of defiant bravado, Verdoux tells the priest, "Who knows what sin is... who knows what mysterious destiny it serves? What would you be doing without sin?"
Monsieur Verdoux proved to be quite a shocker for postwar audiences and would be used against Charlie Chaplin a few years later by the infamous HUAC, (House Unamerican Activities Committee) which falsely accused Chaplin of being a communist. He was later banned from re-entering the United States.
In the 1950s, while continuing his work as a freelance writer, James Agee became a Hollywood screenwriter. Before his screenwriting career was derailed by his alcoholism, Agee would co-write the screenplays for two classic films, The African Queen (1951) and Night Of The Hunter (1955).
The African Queen, directed by John Huston, was an adaptation of C.S. Forester's classic novel about British missionary siblings (Robert Morely and Katharine Hepburn) in German East Africa during the outbreak of World War I.
Humphrey Bogart co-starred as Charlie Allnut, the grizzled Canadian boat captain who delivers their mail and supplies and later attempts to rescue Hepburn from the Germans after her brother dies.
Night Of The Hunter, a classic suspense thriller, was directed by Charles Laughton and based on a novel by Davis Grubb. Robert Mitchum starred as Reverend Harry Powell, a preacher and psychopathic killer with the words LOVE and HATE tattooed across his knuckles.
Powell tracks down the two small children of his former cellmate, hoping to get his hands on a fortune in stolen money, after which, he plans to kill the kids. The children find sanctuary with an elderly but tough woman (silent screen legend Lillian Gish) who sings hymns and packs a shotgun.
Despite Agee's success, the ravages of alcoholism and chain-smoking took their toll on his health. On May 16th, 1955, James Agee died of a heart attack (his third) while in a cab en route to a doctor's appointment. He was 45 years old.
In 1957, his first and only novel, an autobiographical novel titled A Death in the Family, was published posthumously. A year later, it won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Four years later, the novel was adapted as a Broadway play by Tad Mosel. Titled All the Way Home, the play also won a Pulitzer Prize and was itself adapted as a feature film in 1963 and as a PBS TV movie in 2002.
Quote Of The Day
"I'm very anxious not to fall into archaism or 'literary diction.' I want my vocabulary to have a very large range, but the words must be alive." - James Agee
Today's video features a complete reading of Cotton Tenants, a 30,000 word nonfiction work commissioned but never published by Fortune magazine on poor tenant farmers in the Deep South during the Great Depression. Written by James Agee in 1941 and thought long lost, it was rediscovered and published in 2013.