Good biography seems so rare these days that when a book on a major American cult figure like James Agee is published, one is tempted at once to ignore the publication completely on the grounds that too much has already been written on his life and his work. True, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed the publication of a number of works and specialized theses, dissertations, and articles on Agee culminating in Genevieve Moreau's 1977 biography. However, the latter work is not detailed enough on specific and important aspects of Agee's life, particularly his intense, almost frantic, life-long obsession with the death image; neither does her work explore specifically the relationship, among his life, his artistic effort in a number of genres, and his ubiquity in relentlessly pursuing his own identity, his selfhood, so to speak, the passion to find life everywhere, even in his own introspection. Mark Doty (1981), J. A. Ward (1983), and Alfred Barson (1972) have all explored the Agee mystique, focusing on his background in Tennessee, [End Page 273] his education, his literary and personal influences, his passion for sexual experiences, and his struggle with the death concept, all thematic components of his prose and poetry.
Now, ten years after the Moreau biography, Laurence Bergreen, a New York-based journalist, has written an extremely objective life of Agee that is detailed, comprehensive, and sensitive, a work that strips the man of his cult status and attempts to place his writing beside the work of the other major writers of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Bergreen's major objectives, beside shattering the mystique, is to portray a man caught up in the social milieu of his time, relishing life and passion to the fullest, and developing his own style in poem and prose. Agee's work is autobiographical all the time and all the way. Bergreen himself recognizes Agee's passionate concern to find out who he is and how he used his artistic ability to reflect life. The first chapter of the biography is aptly entitled "A Death in the Family," a fitting tribute to Agee's early life, the tragic death of his father, and, of course, his best piece of fiction. Subsequendy, Bergreen draws a carefully detailed picture of Agee's life at St. Andrew's School in Tennessee, Phillips Exeter Academy, and Harvard University; his first jobs in New York City with the Luce publications; a host of projects to start but not to finish; his infatuation with Hollywood and the film industry; three marriages and two divorces; and long bouts with tobacco, alcohol, and depression. Ironically, his best nonfiction work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, first published in 1941, an artistic and financial disaster then, is now considered a minor classic on the life and people of the Appalachia area in the 1930s; A Death in the Family was published in 1957, two years after Agee's death in 1955, and won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize.
Bergreen's work is well organized, and he uses many sources that have not been utilized or published before. His integrated use of Agee's correspondence to friends, especially to Father James Flye, reveals a man of charm, wit, reverence, and even weakness; he is at once both a hero and antihero, a symbol of unique writing in a sometimes baffling era in American literature.
Walker Percy's life is similar to Agee's in several respects. Both were born in the South—Percy in Alabama, Agee in Tennessee—and both lost parents in tragic automobile accidents. The resemblance ends there with education, profession, and religion. Percy graduated from Columbia University in 1941 with a medical degree, spent three years fighting tuberculosis, converted to Catholicism in 1947, an event that colors...