James Agee: Vistas of Perfection

James Agee: Vistas of Perfection

The Self-Dissatisfied Life and Art of James Agee

James Agee has become a kind of legend for his tormented life and early death, no less than for his great books, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family. If Agee had been able to exert greater control over his life and talent, he might have written more and lived longer; but he would not have written at the particular pitch of desperate sincerity and fearful compassion that has made him so beloved.

When he died at the age of 45 in 1955, Agee seemed to many of his admirers like a case of tragic unfulfillment, a victim of journalism, his not-quite-chosen profession, or of uncontrollable alcoholism, or of the sheer impossibility of being an artist in America. The critic John Leonard, writing about Agee in 1960, pointed out that the 1950s were “a time when postwar American culture conflated art with martyrdom and manhood with excess. Think of the poets lost to lithium, loony bins and suicide, the jazz musicians strung up and out on heroin, the abstract expressionists who slashed and burned themselves. Delmore Schwartz, Charlie Parker and Jackson Pollock pointed the way for Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Truman Capote, John Berryman, Elvis, Janis and Jimi.” Agee fit all too neatly into this tragic pantheon.

It did not take long after Agee’s death for him to find the literary fame that had largely eluded him in life. In 1957, his novel A Death in the Family was published posthumously, and won the Pulitzer Prize. In the 1960s, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with photography by Walker Evans), which had vanished without a trace when it first appeared in 1941, became enormously popular among a new generation of readers drawn to Agee’s concern with spirituality and social justice.

James Agee and Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Slide Show: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Photography by: Walker Evans

(Please Click Image to View Slide Show)

Read more about James Agee in the Harvard Magazine here.

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