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Agee at 100

Centennial Essays on the Works of James Agee

Edited by Michael A. Lofaro

Publication Year: 2012

Drawn mainly from the centennial anniversary symposium on James Agee held at the University of Tennessee in the fall of 2009, the essays of Agee at 100 are as diverse in topic and purpose as is Agee’s work itself. Often devalued during his life by those who thought his breadth a hindrance to greatness, Agee’s achievements as a poet, novelist, journalist, essayist, critic, documentarian, and screenwriter are now more fully recognized. With its use of previously unknown and recently recovered materials as well as established works, this groundbreaking new collection is a timely contribution to the resurgence of interest in Agee’s significance. The essays in this collection range from the scholarly to the personal, and all offer insight into Agee’s writing, his cultural influence, and ultimately Agee himself. Dwight Garner opens with his reflective essay on “Why Agee Matters.” Several essays present almost entirely new material on Agee. Paul Ashdown writes on Agee’s book reviews, which, unlike Agee’s film criticism, have received scant attention. With evidence from two largely unstudied manuscripts, Jeffrey Couchman sets the record straight on Agee’s contribution to the screenplay for The African Queen and delves as well into his television “miniseries” screenplay Mr. Lincoln. John Wranovics treats Agee’s lesser-known films--the documentaries In the Street and The Quiet One and the Filipino epic Genghis Khan. Jeffrey J. Folks wrestles with Agee’s “culture of repudiation” while James A. Crank investigates his perplexing treatment of race in his prose. Jesse Graves and Andrew Crooke provide new analyses of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Michael A. Lofaro and Philip Stogdon both discuss Lofaro’s recently restored text of A Death in the Family. David Madden closes the collection with his short story “Seeing Agee in Lincoln,” an imagined letter from Agee to his longtime confidante Father Flye.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Table of Contents

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pp. viii-ix


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pp. x-xi

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pp. xii-xv

James Agee’s Shakespearean sonnet from his book of poems, Permit Me Voyage (1934), presents ample ambiguity for the reader. As always with the autobiographically inclined Agee, it is tempting to seek parallels to and echoes of his personal life in his work, yet such an inaccurate approach is at best far too limiting and tamps down the power of his verse....

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pp. xvi-xvii

I wish to thank all those who helped bring the James Agee Centennial Celebration to fruition and directly and indirectly gave impetus to the creation of this volume. In addition to the authors/speakers noted in the preface, David Auburn, C. Randall DeFord, R. B. Morris, Jack Neely, Joshua Robbins, Jeff L. Rosenheim, Ross Spears, and Bradley Reeves and Louisa ...

A James Agee Chronology

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pp. xviii-xxiii

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Why Agee Matters

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pp. 1-10

There’s a big part of James Rufus Agee, born one hundred years ago this month, that would have detested this warm and appreciative gathering in his honor. “When the historians get to work on anything,” he wrote in The Nation in 1946, “arteries begin to harden, in the subject and in the people interested.”1 He would have commiserated with the poet W. H. Auden, who in 1944 foresaw the “sad day, indeed,” when Agee’s collected film ...

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Agee on Books

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pp. 11-36

In the fall of 1939, James Agee nearly had completed the writing of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men but was running low on money. Having severed his ties with Fortune, he needed work. His friend Robert Fitzgerald, who was reviewing books for Time, arranged a meeting between Agee and T. S. Matthews. If they had not met formally, Agee and Matthews knew each ...

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James Agee and the Culture of Repudiation

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pp. 37-52

One of James Agee’s greatest heroes and one upon whom he seems to have modeled something of his own artistic persona was Ludwig van Beethoven. As Isaiah Berlin pointed out in Freedom and Its Betrayal, Beethoven was the epitome of the new conception of the romantic artist: “Beethoven is visualised as a man in a garret, poor, unkempt, neglected, rough, ugly; he has thrown away the world, he will have none of its ...

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Racial Violence, Receding Bodies: James Agee's Anatomy of Guilt

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pp. 53-74

Though his championing of the poor, uneducated white southerner is well documented throughout James Agee’s complicated Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a reader might rightly question his lack of engagement with the poor, black sharecropper living in the Jim Crow South. While Agee endlessly sympathizes with the white southern tenant farmers in Hale County, Alabama, he spends little time discussing the African American...

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A Continous Center: Centripetal and Centrifugal Tendencies in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

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pp. 75-92

In an early draft of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee recalled the rush of excitement—“like the release of a spring or the opening of a sluice”—he experienced in June 1936 when Fortune magazine assigned him to write a piece on cotton tenantry in the American South: “I was within a few seconds as shifted in state of mind as I might have been if I had ...

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A Blind Work of Nature: The Ethics of Representing Beauty in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

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pp. 93-106

Almost midway through his remarkable book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, in a brief and tormented consideration of intention in art, James Agee extends a philosophical question: “Are things beautiful which are not intended as such, but which are created as in convergences of chance, need, innocence or ignorance, or entirely irrelevant...

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James Agee's A Death in the Family: Personal Indentity and Conflict in an Emerging Appalachia

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pp. 107-142

While James Agee’s declaration may be explained by his being in the throes of his revisions of what would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, it also likely refers to “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” one of his first and best-known meditations on his childhood, which appeared in the August–September 1938 issue of the ...

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Maximum Simple: The Restored Text of A Death in the Family

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pp. 143-166

“This book,” turning on the death of Agee’s father in a car accident when Agee was six, was nearly completed at the time of his death in 1955. A book, published in 1957, was the result of the compiling and editing of material by Agee’s friend David McDowell, who, in “A Note on This Book,” wrote that the “novel . . . is presented here exactly as [Agee] wrote it.”1 McDowell acknowledges that the writing which begins his edition ..

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Writing The African Queen: Variations on a Classic Film

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pp. 167-200

For James Agee, working with John Huston on the screenplay for The African Queen was the culmination of a long campaign to breach the walls of Hollywood. With sad irony, the work also contributed to his near-fatal heart attack. Although Agee shared screen credit equally with Huston, accounts of Agee’s contribution to the film invariably suggest that he had...

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The Makers of In the Street and The Quiet One

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pp. 201-228

Blame it on the Leica. For it was the invention in 1925, by the E. Leitz Company of the compact, portable 35-mm Leica camera that first made it practical for stealth-minded photographers to deploy a pocketable instrument, one far less likely to distract and influence their subject’s attention than did the larger, boxy cameras that preceded it. In the introduction...

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James Agee's Experimentally Traditional Mr. Lincoln

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pp. 229-252

In 1945, James Agee referred to television as a “ghastly gelatinous nirvana.” 1 Whatever that meant, it was no compliment. Six years later, he accepted a job writing for television. His assignment was to create five half-hour episodes on the early life of Abraham Lincoln for a new series to be called ...

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Agee and the Filipino Epic Genghis Khan: A Personal Journey

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pp. 253-264

Not the least pleasure of attempting deep research on the film career of a writer like James Agee is the hunt for those little known marginal movies, the arcane work long out of print and distribution, that live in the low shoulders of familiar peaks like The African Queen and Night of the Hunter. Even in this wired world there are some films that have fallen so deeply ...

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Seeing Agee in Action: A Short Story

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pp. 265-278

Dear Father,
Too long, so long, much too long since my last letter to you, you above all, above all my friends and even my family, yet another letter to add to the vast store of them over the years, since my first, which must have been about 1927, when I was 18 or so—enough to make a book really— ...


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pp. 279-282


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pp. 283-298

Back cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781572338906
E-ISBN-10: 1572338903
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572338531
Print-ISBN-10: 1572338539

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 12 halftones
Publication Year: 2012