James Agee, the father
I’ll start with a blanket statement: Most, if not all, writers are SOBs (including women authors). Take William Faulkner, for example, whose drinking bouts were legendary and whose daughter, on the occasion of her tenth birthday, begged Faulkner to stop drinking for just one day. To which Faulkner allegedly replied, “Honey, nobody remembers Shakespeare’s daughter.”
Then there’s Ernest Hemingway, pugilist, deep sea fisherman, and big game hunter whose lascivious eye for women drove him from mistress to mistress and marriage to marriage. Anyone who’s read Hemingway’s masterful story “Hills Like White Elephants” can easily infer that the autobiographical protagonist and the woman with him in the bar are discussing in the most indirect way whether the woman should have an abortion. For all his genius, the legacy of America’s literary heavyweight has been handed down at a cost – suicide, depression, and alcoholism down to the fourth generation of family. James Agee, too, proves no exception to fulfilling his role as the archetypal bad boy. Poet James Dickey (himself an SOB) wrote that Agee’s was “a life of high genius and self-doom” given the excesses he chose to indulge.
Easily the benchmark event of Agee’s life was the death of his father in a car accident when Agee was only eight. Shortly thereafter, his mother, a cold, distant, and sometimes cruel person, moved the family from Knoxville to Sewanee, Tennessee, where Agee enrolled in the Episcopal Saint Andrews Academy. Later, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy before proceeding to Harvard University.
According to Agee’s biographer, Laurence Bergreen, the writer’s extreme behaviors, coupled with spiritual distortions, began at Saint Andrews:
Nor did he limit himself to self-punishment; he displayed a sadistic streak as well. He resumed hunting small animals in an effort to prove his masculinity. He knocked baby robins out of their nests and stoned them while their mothers screamed. After killing the birds disgust overwhelmed him and he vomited. He forced himself to eat worms and, unsuccessfully, to taste his own excrement. (p. 27)
However, Agee’s self-imposed penitential rites became even more bizarre:
In a penitent mood he sought God’s forgiveness by kneeling for unnecessarily long periods of time on the hard floor of the chapel, where he meditated on the ultimate justification for his self-inflicted suffering, the Crucifixion. At first he thought he was merely imitating Jesus; later he imagined himself taking Jesus’ place on the cross, “a solemn and rewarding moment,” he dared to feel, “but almost within the next breath he recognized that he had no such cause or right as Jesus to die upon the Cross.” Nonetheless, he considered the likelihood of building one in the school’s manual training shop. His inflamed imagination gave rise to a bizarre fantasy in which he hung, crucified, on the grounds of St. Andrew’s. People would come from all around to gaze at the strange sight, a photographer would snap his photograph, and a newspaper would run an article with this headline:
STRANGE RITES AT MOUNTAIN SCHOOL (p. 28)
Agee’s behavior moderated somewhat at Exeter, where he pushed himself to write poetry and movie reviews for the school’s several literary publications, actions he would continue at Harvard until eventually becoming editor of the Harvard Criterion. He wrote in a frenzy, the now omnipresent Chesterfield cigarettes staining his fingers, usually getting no more than three or three and a half hours of sleep a night before bounding off to early morning classes. He drank excessively. He was beginning to lead a life of profligacy that would later have an impact on his career and marriages.
After college, Agee’s work took him to New York where he wrote stories for Fortune and movie reviews for Time and The Nation – some regarded as the best reviews of all time. Through mutual acquaintances he met and married Via Saunders in 1933. Agee was ambivalent about the marriage from the beginning. He thought the wedding vows would be transformative, but in their early days together, neither Agee nor Via saw any oceanic changes in themselves or each other. Both were sadly miserable. Following the marriage ceremony, the wedding party moved to the home of Agee’s in-laws who’d arranged an informal concert. Bergreen describes what occurred next:
As it happened, one of the guests was a talented young violist with lovely dark hair and striking green eyes. The daughter of a Utica jeweler, she was one of Dr. Saunders’ newest musical protégées. As soon as she set eyes on the bridegroom, she was taken with his good looks and gentle manner, but she supposed that in the midst of his excitement he hardly knew she was alive. Her name was Alma Mailman. (p. 130)
Agee and Via argued, often over his solicitous flirtations with other women. Agee could now add “womanizer” to his profligate descriptions. He soon confessed his love for Via’s musician friend Alma, stating he’d rather have a child with her than with his wife. The death knell for the marriage sounded when Via confessed she’d taken a lover. Now Agee was free to pursue Alma, a woman he believed to be Avant Garde and unconventional. However, trouble in paradise came sooner than later, as Bergreen explains:
His relationship with Alma entered a vicious cycle. As she focused ever more intently on the impending birth of their child, he felt unjustly ignored and consequently kept his distance. His remoteness made Alma insecure, contentious, and demanding. Yet Agee felt the need of some feminine companionship, and if Alma would not suffice, he was prepared to look elsewhere. It was at this time that he met the woman who was to become his third wife, Mia Fritsch. (P. 245)
Alma and Mia were polar opposites, as Bergreen again attests:
She could not have been more different from Alma. Mia was tall and intellectual, an Austrian Catholic émigrée who had lately landed a job at Fortune as a researcher. As it happened, she was working on an article with one of Agee’s friends, Christopher “Goofy” Gerould. The two men were having lunch at a local restaurant, when Mia appeared on the scene. Agee struck up a conversation with the woman with the swept-back hair, pronounced German accent, and sparkling blue eyes. Further meetings, both spontaneous and arranged, ensued. Agee learned that she had been born in Vienna, the cradle of psychoanalysis, a science of considerable interest to her. Rebelling against a proper bourgeois upbringing, she felt drawn to the bohemian life, especially as it was practiced in that capital of Western decadence. Her parents had divorced years before, and eventually the whole family emigrated to the United States, where she set her sights on a medical career. In Chicago she found a job assisting two psychiatrists and lived in an apartment near the university. But the job lasted eighteen hours a day, taxing her formidable energies, and she was unable to save enough money to put herself through medical school. (p. 245)
Alma would not go away at first. She’d borne Agee a son, Joel. Yet, she knew Agee was incapable of giving up Mia and he would never cease having casual flings, what the writer termed “mere lapses of marital fidelity.” Fed up with her husband’s philandering and what she perceived as his cruelty, Alma moved with her son to Mexico.
Agee’s last years were spent with Mia. He despaired of ever finishing the “great story” he’d envisioned as a young writer. His “share cropper book,” Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, prepared in collaboration with photographer Walker Evans, received little notice on publication. Critics who did pay attention to it were harsh in their assessment, one pointing out that Agee had been “repugnantly self-indulgent” noticing the writer seemed more concerned with demonstrating his pristine, refined sensibility than documenting the hard scrabble lives of tenant farmers in Alabama. In the interim between writing assignments, Agee stayed afloat by writing screenplays and working on adaptations. Neither his drinking nor his dalliances abated. Agee enjoyed immensely collaborating with John Huston on The African Queen, later shot in Uganda and the Congo and starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. After working on the script, Agee and Huston drank late into the night:
As the talk continued late into the night over the dying embers of a campfire, Agee drank endlessly, but to Huston’s astonishment he never appeared drunk. “I wouldn’t call it self-destructiveness, but carelessness,” Huston said of Agee’s drinking. “Jim didn’t give his corporeal self any thought.” Repeatedly Huston urged him to fix his unsightly front teeth, but from the way Agee reacted, the director realized he was wasting words. (p. 340)
Years of abuse were taking a toll on the writer. Bergreen describes a tennis match between the two men:
Huston and Agee played as hard as they worked at San Ysidro. Sweating profusely, they spent hours smashing the ball around the tennis court under a hot sun. Huston was fit enough to withstand the exertion, but Agee was seriously out of shape. Alcohol had dulled his reflexes, cigarettes had diminished his wind, and he was overweight. Nevertheless, he felt an urgent need to keep up with Huston in tennis as well as in screenwriting.
While playing on the morning of the fifteenth, Agee felt slight discomfort in his left arm, but since he held the racquet with his right, he paid it no heed. Later in the day, Huston departed for San Francisco to inspect a collection of pre-Columbian art he was thinking of buying. That night Agee returned to his bungalow, where, as usual, he began working his way through a bottle of bourbon. To pass the idle hours he telephoned Pat. During the conversation he experienced what he later described as “a series of attacks of pain (keen aching) in my chest, teeth, and forearms.” (p. 348)
At age 41, Agee had suffered the first of two heart attacks, the second of which would kill him when he was just forty-six, having recently completed his novel A Death in the Family before his death.
Please visit Thursday for Part II of Edward Francisco’s “James and Joel Agee: A Coupling of Destinies,” featuring Joel Agee!
*Laurence Bergreen’s book is titled James Agee: A Life
**Featured image from Snappygoat
Thanks for this piece Eddie. If most writers are SOBs, I’m curious as to why you think that might be? Is it that you have to suffer to be a good writer, or at least, make everyone else suffer? I’ve had Let Us Now Praise Famous Men on my booklist, because I like Walker Evan’s photography, but I’ve been hesitant to buy it. Agee, based on what I’ve gleaned from your articles, seems like an odd choice to write the text. What is your opinion of his contribution to the book? I’m looking forward to part II.
Jimmy: Pardon me in responding so late. We’ve been recovering from COVID that roared through our family here in Charleston. As for Agee, he had an extraordinary sensitivity that served him well as a writer if not as a human being. Because writers have to believe they have something of value to say, they are susceptible to all sorts of distortions associated with hubris. Then there’s the question going back to Plato: Is madness akin to genius? Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins, argues that creative people are more likely to suffer from depression, bi-polar disorder, and suicidal ideation than the rest of the population. I’m not ready to conclude that writing is an illness, but my experience aligns with a number of Jamison’s conclusions. Students in my creative writing classes were always a little crazier than folks in my literature courses. For a good many, writing arose from a therapeutic impulse with their often saying that “writing saved my life.” However, I believe that being a writer doesn’t give a person license to behave badly. That’s why I have spent my adult life trying to write without being an asshole. If interested, check out Walker Percy’s insightful essay “Why Writers Drink.” I’m looking forward to a time when we can talk face-to-face.