On the Other Side of Agee

Image Source:  James Agee Web at https://jamesagee.wordpress.com/fotos/

When I was about five years old (before we moved to the holler), my family and I lived in a little green house on a little paved street in Jacksboro, Tennessee. My younger brother and I often felt cramped in our small, grassy yard so we regularly wandered but never too far from our mom’s sight.

Sometimes, we ventured naughtily onto the street when ever-vigilant Ms. Agee, dressed in her muumuu, stood resolutely on her front porch and kindly scolded us until we turned and went home. As we approached the house with our heads down, our mother stood on our front porch and said a polite “thank you” to her. She lived across the street cattycorner to our house. I asked my mother once why Ms. Agee was so mean and yelled at us. Though I cannot remember the conversation verbatim, I can piece enough together and tell you it went something like this:

“Hit’s dangerous. Ms. Agee was at one time a principal so she cares about kids. She ain’t yellin’ atchunz, she’s protectin’ ye.”

“She was a principal?” I remember being pretty flabbergasted because I longed to attend school but was still too young. Ms. Agee had just become highly esteemed in my eyes.

“Yes. She was. Ever since they come to Campbell County, the Agees’ve pretty much been teachers or business owners or served in a high office. Ms. Agee’s someway kin to James Agee. He was a famous writer but I don’t thank he liked his people too much. He didn’t write too kindly about us here.”

From that moment on, I made sure my little brother and I stayed clear of the road. Every time I passed by Ms. Agee’s house, I grinned and waved big. But these words lingered in my mind: James Agee . . . I don’t thank he liked his people too much. My little girl brain pondered on such heavy words. As an adult, I journeyed to find their truth.

In the Tennessee county of James Agee’s lineage, his name and accomplishments have rarely been recognized. He appears too distant, like a swinging rope too far to grasp. Why? The same presumptions about his attitude toward his paternal family or the mountainous region they settled might be a few reasons. Another reason might be that scholars have washed over the surname side of Agee – the mountain side, the “backward” people. As a result, they have surreptitiously claimed their own version of Agee, thereby making the Appalachian Agee a man in the distance. Perhaps the reason lies in the dichotomy between the misconceptions about mountain people being uneducated, lazy, or poor, and the product of the mountains that was the Exeter or Harvard Agee. Perhaps Poe’s 1840s assertion that “uncouth and fierce races of men” populate these Ragged Mountains has been standard all along.

It is so unfortunate that literary scholars have neglected the Agee lineage, particularly because the author himself spent most of his life focused on his father. Without diving into his surname, scholars provide an inadequate assessment of James Agee – as a man and as a writer. How is it possible when examining the pivotal point that altered and haunted Agee’s life – his father’s shocking and untimely death – so little scholarly research into the Agee cognomen exists? Is his father’s side nonessential? Are his mountain people considered too uncivilized or dimwitted? Certainly, these are rhetorical questions. But they bring issues to light which scholars have neglected about James Agee and other Appalachian authors and expose a wound. Appalachian writers should be recognized in their fullness, especially when you consider the contributions they and their ancestors bring to the region.

The Agees were originally a French Huguenot noble class, but, when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, they and other protestants were forced to flee. I could explore the story of the first Agee to arrive here (James Agee’s fifth paternal great-grandfather, Mathieu) and how he landed in the Colony of Virginia around 1700, obtained a substantial five-thousand acres, and became the forebear who spawned all the Agees in the U.S. (1) But that juicy information digresses from the more pressing need to edify his backwoods ancestors. I shall begin in the place where Agee’s ancestors and mine met, talked, and shared community – in Campbell County, Tennessee.

The first of James Rufus Agee’s ancestors to live in Tennessee was his third great-grandfather, Isaac Godwin Agee. He was said to be a Tennessee pioneer who married Mary Smith, a woman with family connections to Captain John Smith, distinguished husband of Pocahantas. (1) In 1813, Isaac Agee was a court appointed road overseer. (4) Men were needed to manage particular stretches of road. The Great Wagon Road was a heavily traveled thoroughfare for settlers and stretched from Pennsylvania to Maryland to Tennessee and the Cumberland Gap, to South Carolina.

Isaac’s son (Agee’s great-great grandfather), James Agee, also settled in Campbell County, Tennessee and worked as a farmer. (Many given names were James in Agee’s family.) He fought in the War of 1812, listed as a “Musician/U.S. Rifler,” (2) and, later served in the Tennessee Legislature in its infancy. (1)

This James Agee’s son, James Harris Agee, was arguably the most significant figure for Campbell County in the mid-1800s. He was an educated man who worked as a farmer while he simultaneously studied medicine. He became a doctor in 1853. (3) During the Civil War, James Harris moved with his family to Indiana and worked as a farmer and teacher until he joined the Union’s Indiana regiment “of which he was orderly sergeant, and served guard duty . . .” (3) After the war, he and his family returned to Campbell County, where he farmed (3) and practiced medicine. Not only was James Harris Agee a farmer, a doctor, and a war hero, he was also elected three times to the house of legislature to represent Campbell County. He was subsequently elected state senator to represent Campbell, Claiborne, Grainger, Scott, and Union counties. (3) After one senate term, he chose to work in the legal field and was appointed to the office of clerk and master of the chancery court of Campbell County. (3) He was “naturally aggressive” and “a wide-awake, public spirited man” (8) who was “of noble character and high standing,” (1) and whose public service was “characterized by ability, integrity and justice.” (3) The town, Agee, was named in honor of James Harris Agee, but has since been renamed and is known today as Grantsboro. James Harris’ son, James William, was elected sheriff of Campbell County and was also a U.S. Commissioner. (7) Another son, John, followed his father’s career choice and became a doctor. (7) Son, Joseph, worked for the county’s Board of Education. (9) Still another son, Henry Clay, was a farmer who became James Rufus Agee’s grandfather.

In the 1880 census, Henry Clay Agee’s occupation was listed as a boot maker. (10) From 1890 onward, records show he was a farmer. He married Moss “Mossie” Agee and had eight children. Henry’s son, Alfred Franklin Agee lived in Campbell County’s town of LaFollette. He was postmaster and later served as city commissioner. (5) He was heavily involved in politics and election campaigns. (5) He was also a prominent business owner, establishing a furniture and undertaking business (an odd but popular combination in the old days). (5) Henry’s son, Hugh James “Jay” Agee was James Rufus Agee’s father.

Hugh James “Jay” Agee was born and raised in Campbell County, Tennessee. He continued his education and became a Postal Clerk. His postal service record says he resided at “Clinch Street” in Knoxville, Tennessee, at least in the earlier part of 1905. (6) He found a postal position in Panama and worked there from 1905-1908. He met and fell in love with a young girl who was originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan (11) named Laura Whitman Tyler. They married and had two children:  James Rufus Agee and Emma Ferrand Agee.

James Agee is slowly being resurrected in Tennessee and Appalachia. Scholars and biographers are changing somewhat. Paul F. Brown, in his recent book, Rufus: James Agee in Tennessee, presents a fantastic, well-researched account of James Agee’s Tennessee and Appalachian roots.

Some say the reason James Agee is rarely recognized as a local literary figure is due to several character portrayals in his posthumously awarded Pulitzer Prize Winning novel, A Death in the Family. Some of those depictions may be accurate; others may not. But, in my quest to find truth, I realized something. The fact that the characters are there, the fact that the book exists at all, tells me he thought often (and for decades) about his Agee side, and that he longed for just another portion of their goodness.


1) Manatee Chapter of Anna Maria Daughters of American Revolution. Agee Family 1670-1936. Miami: Florida Genealogical Records, 1954. Print.

2) “United States Registers of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939L-WNSF-Q?cc=1880762&wc=M61R-166%3A176711201 : 22 May 2014), 001, 1798-1815, A > image 79 of 253; citing NARA microfilm publication M233 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

3) Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 01 August 2019), memorial page for James Harris Agee (14 Feb 1827–9 Oct 1899), Find A Grave Memorial no. 9700251, citing Dugtown Cemetery, La Follette, Campbell County, Tennessee, USA ; Maintained by Larry & Edie Doepel (contributor 46583214) .

4) Ridenour, Dr. G. L. Land of the Lake: An Early History of Campbell County. Jacksboro: Action Printing, Ltd,1991. Print.

5) Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 01 August 2019), memorial page for Alfred Franklin Agee (7 Aug 1880–28 Jul 1940), Find A Grave Memorial no. 7179207, citing Woodlawn Cemetery, La Follette, Campbell County, Tennessee, USA ; Maintained by Helen L. Smith Hoke (contributor 46540075) .

6) “United States, Panama Canal Zone, Employment Records and Sailing lists, 1905-1937,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9XG-K86S?cc=2193241&wc=MVKS-PTL%3A1019016501 : 5 March 2015), Service record cards, box 01, 1904-1920 > image 291 of 1708; citing NARA record group 185, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

7) Chaniott, Sara Hollingsworth. Family Reunion: A Campbell County, Tennessee Family History Book Volume One. LaFollette: Campbell County Historical Society, 2005. Print.

8) Lemasters, Paul W. “Campbell County, Tennessee Obituaries, 1822-1959.” Copy. n.d. Print.

9) McDonald, Miller. “Jacksoboro’s Central High Replaced Academy in 1908.” McDonald, Miller. Campbell County Tennessee USA: A History of Places, Faces, Happenings, Traditions and Things Volume 1. LaFollette: County Services Syndicate, 1993. 71-72. Print.

10) “United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GYBJ-54M?cc=1417683&wc=QZ24-S8S%3A1589414125%2C1589398898%2C1589414854%2C1589394797 : 24 December 2015), Tennessee > Campbell > Craigs > ED 118 > image 1 of 26; citing NARA microfilm publication T9, (National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d.)

11) “Michigan Births, 1867-1902,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-XCHQ-4BY?cc=1459684&wc=3VRF-3TL%3A1041520901 : 30 April 2019), 004206331 > image 428 of 1147; citing Department of Vital Records, Lansing.


  1. Agee always interests me. He seems to have been a man that had more than a few demons…much like Thomas Wolfe. His writing takes me to a world long gone. Very good piece.

  2. Thank you, Allison. Agee certainly did have his demons – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And thank you for calling attention to Thomas Wolfe. The world lost both of these great writers too soon. But, how wonderful that we have their exceptional writings to love and celebrate.


  3. I loved your article! James Rufus Aggee and my grandfather Kyle were cousins. He and my aunt Mary were very upset at the way James Agee portrayed their grandmother in Death in the Family. They said she was very refined and very much a lady. She always helped others.
    Best Wishes,
    Carmen Agee Van Horn
    Great great great granddaughter of James Harris Agee

    1. Author

      Thank you, Carmen! I’m so glad you liked the article. It has always irked me that scholars dismissed the Agees. If they’d only taken the time to understand the Agees’ talents, inner strengths, and successes, they’d have a better view of James Rufus. I know the scene your uncle and aunt take issue with. I have no doubt in the world their grandmother was a refined lady. That scene upset me, too. Yet I think James Rufus’ only memories of the Agees were from a child’s perspective. From what I’ve researched, he was essentially kept away from them after his father died. It is such an honor to have an Agee descendant read my post and like it. I am thrilled! I take it you might’ve been raised where I was, or visited quite often. And that warms my heart.

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