• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

"They did. Luce himself had been interested in Agee as one of his most naturally gifted writers and, of course, his way of showing that was to try to enroll him in a business school. That's true. When he was at Fortune. And of course Time then had a whole slew of good writers during the Depression."

"I always thought it was so weird, his hanging out with Whittaker Chambers."

"Apparently he liked characters, and Whittaker Chambers certainly was that. We laugh now at the middlebrow aspect of Time, or, people used to laugh at what used to be called 'middlebrow,' for trying to bring culture to the masses. But there was a truly higher aspiration than what they have now.

"So they did know what they had. It was unfortunate that he spent so much of his energy there. The unfortunate part of all that he wrote at Time is that when Time-Life books were still around, they surely should have published an illustrated history of '40s movies and used Agee's reviews as the spine of it.

"It's interesting to go through that stuff. I thought it was important to show how Agee knew about all parts of movies. He knew as much about acting as anybody. Also he was a real World War II home-front writer. Much of what he wrote was about the documentaries that were coming out then. He lavished great attention on them. He was always talking about the importance of capturing the real experience of battle and of the cost of battle. It made you realize that the 24-hour news that we get of contemporary warfare almost devalues its impact. Whereas, if you were in the dark theater [during World War II and soon after] seeing films of battles and the European or the Pacific fronts, it was much more momentous. Agee's writing on those films is a great record of what that was like."

"Why was Agee such a womanizer?"

"I'm not his biographer, and I just don't know. I hope there's a good biography of Agee to come out."

"The first biography --- James Agee: A Life by Laurence Bergreen -- wasn't much."

"It's tough to do first biographies of anybody, but Bergreen did such obvious and bad things -- two of the short stories included in Volume I, which Agee wrote for The Advocate, are cited as if they were diary entries. They're not even labeled as short stories in the index.

"I was reading through it and I saw these passages from these short stories. They were just used as if Agee was saying what happened to him on his summer vacation one year from Harvard. It breaks every rule of biography, or literature for that matter.

"But as to the womanizing, obviously women found Agee very attractive. He was extraordinarily eloquent, he had a great presence. You look at the photos of him and he was obviously a terrifically rugged kind of guy. Now, what he found in each of these relationships with the women...I would like to read more about that from someone who was less automatically appalled by his behavior.

"In his own bohemian way he worked at these relationships. He took various steps to try to save each of his three marriages. The final marriage was the lasting one, even if -- apparently -- he was still womanizing in the midst of it. It seems as if they had some understanding of each other that transcended that. He was out of a bohemian time and lived in places like New York in Greenwich Village, where people were making these statements by living their life that way. It's hard to take it out of context and get very moralistic about it. Everything troubled him morally."

Three years after Agee's father's death in 1916, Agee was enrolled in St. Andrew's School, a boarding school for boys established by the Episcopal Church's Order of the Holy Cross near Sewanee, Tennessee. Agee grew close to Father Flye and his wife. The two corresponded for the remainder of Agee's life. These letters were published in 1961. I asked the professor why he decided not to include the letters in his two volumes.

"Every work that we published we wanted to publish complete, and at that point it was a question of space. Had we had a third volume, that certainly would have been one of the things we would have looked at. I love the letters to Father Flye.

"I felt it was important to get out all of his major fiction. Including the The Morning Watch, which after all was the only major work of fiction he saw to the end. And then the short stories, which are two of the best things he ever wrote, and "The Mother's Tale", which is an amazing parable. And obviously influenced by World War II and the Holocaust and yet not in any stupid simple way. Once you did that, it became, 'Well, there are his other great contributions.' His other great contributions are the film criticism -- his manner of writing film criticism influenced all of the best criticism, that, for instance, of Pauline Kael. He had too a relatively unsung influence on the journalists who followed him and the New Journalism.

"It's funny, one interesting thing about the background to the collection is that it started when I had lunch with Max Rudin, the publisher of the Library of America. He and I went to the same high school. He was the charter member of the cinema club that I'd founded with a great English teacher who was a huge fan of James Agee's. I had lunch with Max and he said, 'You should do Agee for Library of America, and I could edit it for you.'

"We're ripe for the appreciation of Agee. The individual was important to him. Even when he was writing about the mass culture, the individual soul was treasured."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader

Comments

Sign in to comment

Join our
newsletter list

Enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe

Each newsletter subscription
means another chance to win!

Close