Invisible Giants: Fifty Americans Who Shaped the Nation but Missed the History Books

By Mark Carnes | Go to book overview

James Agee
[27 NOVEMBER 1909–16 MAY 1955]

I selected James Agee less for his literary contribution, which was distinctive and important, than for what he stands for. On the vast spectrum of the American sensibility, that conjectural abstraction that shows us who we, collectively, are, and which ranges from John Wayne and General Patton on one end to Emily Dickinson on the other, James Agee represents, in his writing and his person, our conflicted and susceptible romantic nature. In considering this writer, we contemplate a tender, empathetic soul—sometimes violent in its stresses and longings—which expressed itself either in pure distilled lyricism, in the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Death in the Family , or in a far more complex way in the epoch-making documentary he made with photographer Walker Evans. Reading And Let Us Now Praise Famous Men , we feel an engaged, powerfully emotional man trying to rein in his affective nature in the interest of a more objective presentation. His bid finally fails—James Agee cannot stop being James Agee—but the result is all the more moving. We confront the precision, the sharp registrations of his descriptions and his portraits of tenant farmers and their families, but at the same time we detect the self-restraining impulses of a suffering witness just behind. Agee's early death—he was in his midforties—robbed us of an authentic American dreamer.

SVEN BIRKERTS

James Rufus Agee, writer, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the son of Hugh James Agee, a construction company employee, and Laura Whitman Tyler. The father's family were poorly educated mountain farmers, while the mother's were solidly middle class. Agee was profoundly affected by his father's death in a car accident in 1916. He idealized his absent father and struggled against his mother and

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