American Literature James Agee
Joseph Millichap
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0237


The life of James Agee (b. 1909–d. 1955) spanned the first half of the twentieth century, so that his profuse and varied works engaged international modernism in many ways that evolved as regional and national responses to it. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Agee’s childhood was suddenly altered at the age of six by the unexpected death of his father in 1916. His mother later moved her young family to Sewanee, Tennessee, where he was enrolled in an Anglican boarding school. After his mother remarried, Agee was sent north to Phillips Exeter Academy in 1925 to prepare for Harvard, where he was enrolled in 1928. Although Agee’s academic progress was unremarkable, his literary development thrived as editor of the Harvard Advocate. After graduation in 1932, Agee moved to New York and took a writing post at the newly launched Fortune magazine. The young writer’s first book was Permit Me Voyage (1934), a volume in the Yale Younger Poets Series. In 1936 an assignment at Fortune led him to the cotton belt of Alabama in the company of photographer Walker Evans, a sojourn that slowly evolved into their hybrid classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). The book evoked little response on publication, and Agee returned to journalism, mostly book and film reviewing at Time. He faced a number of personal and professional challenges during the war years and after, including health problems and two divorces, as well as career dead ends and frustrated literary ambitions. Over these decades, Agee’s sporadic counseling sessions led him into autobiographical fiction, one aspect of which was his short novel The Morning Watch (1951). In later life, Agee turned toward film writing, working on several screenplays, notably The African Queen (1951), and spending more time in California than New York. Years of self-neglect finally caught up with him, however, and Agee died of a heart attack in 1955. At his death, all three of his books were out of print, and he enjoyed only a modest reputation as a writer about film. Appreciation of his career and canon soon developed in the second half of the century, however, starting with the posthumous publication of his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Death in the Family (1957). A second edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men followed in 1960, and appreciation of Agee’s work grew with the publication of his collected works and innovative criticism. By his centennial in 2009, Agee was generally recognized as a significant figure in American letters during the first half of the twentieth century.

General Overviews

Many of the early overviews developed from the first dissertations on Agee, such as Ohlin 1966 and Barson 1972. Others were titles in critical series, and some of these initial efforts remain informative, including Larsen 1971 and Kramer 1975. The first theoretical studies of Agee’s literary achievements were Doty 1981 and Lowe 1994; both remain among the best introductions to the writer. The increasing recognition of Agee as a national figure evoked interesting overviews analyzing Agee’s works in relation to diverse American traditions, such as Spiegel 1998. These efforts were complemented by thoughtful rereadings from even more universal perspectives of international modernism, including Crank 2007, while Davis 2008 became the first of these overviews to take full advantage of the more recent textual and critical developments in Agee studies.

  • Barson, Alfred T. A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.

    One of the earliest overviews developed from one of the first doctoral dissertations on Agee. Views the writer’s artistic consciousness as a way of seeing, one essentially influenced by modernism, particularly by Joyce. Although a solid early effort to connect Agee’s life and work, it is limited by a narrow selection of influences and examples, an ongoing problem with much critical work on this writer’s multifaceted development and accomplishment.

  • Crank, James Andrew. “James Agee and the Wounded Body.” PhD diss., University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 2007.

    Although parts of Crank’s dissertation have been published, his entire effort is easily available as a PDF that provides one of the best overall readings of Agee’s life and work. Employs the wounded body both as an image of the writer’s fragmented career and canon and as metaphor within his best writing.

  • Davis, Hugh. The Making of James Agee. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008.

    Perhaps the most innovative overall work on Agee, a far-reaching overview that relocates the writer within a comprehensive reassessment of his best efforts, and that challenges the late modernist consensus of much earlier criticism. Instead of the usual suspects such as Joyce, develops Agee’s neglected relationships with European surrealism, international Marxism, and American popular culture—particularly in terms of photography and film.

  • Doty, Mark A. Tell Me Who I Am: James Agee’s Search for Selfhood. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

    Provocative overall study that is the first to consider closely the relation between Agee’s life and work, and the general direction of the most significant criticism since. It remains both readable and informative. Although it prefigures many later efforts, the approaches and conclusions remain limited in terms of both Agee’s life and literature, as this book from 1981 precedes both the standardized biographical works and the recent bibliographical developments.

  • Kramer, Victor A. James Agee. New York: Twayne, 1975.

    An early overview of James Agee that considers all of his canon then available. Analysis is limited in terms of more recent textual discoveries and critical developments, but sensible readings do reveal the general consensus of earlier Agee studies.

  • Larsen, Erling. James Agee. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971.

    Although this contribution to a very useful series of introductory pamphlets is necessarily brief and by now dated, it nonetheless provides a succinct and readable introduction to Agee’s major works then extant. Also offers a solid summation of the earlier critical approaches to the writer and his work.

  • Lowe, James W. The Creative Process of James Agee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

    Published a generation after Agee’s early death, this overview was the first to gather the writer’s disparate efforts in several genres under a governing thesis—in this case the tension of disparity and unity. In working out Agee’s creative process, provides not just a unifying principle but disparate examples from individual texts, in particular his finest creation in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

  • Ohlin, Peter H. Agee. New York: Oblemsky, 1966.

    A reading of Agee’s literary accomplishment that is a revision of an earlier dissertation, it remains interesting because of its engagement with the writer’s aesthetic developments across the disparate genres that make up his canon. In particular, Ohlin was one of the first of Agee’s critics to recognize the ongoing cinematic tendencies of his varied efforts in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

  • Spiegel, Alan. James Agee and the Legend of Himself: A Critical Study. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

    Psychoanalytic study that traces Agee’s self-conscious commitment throughout his diverse canon to a personal mythology drawn from his life within his birth family. Deft analyses combine biography and autobiography as well as legend and myth in one of the best overall studies of Agee’s life and work.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.