What James Agee Achieved
Some failures make a bigger impression than most triumphs. The failures that marked the career of James Agee (1909-1955) assured him a legendary status in his own lifetime that he could never have attained had he been merely a good writer—or perhaps even had he been merely a great one. He published only three books before he died: Permit Me Voyage (1934), a slender volume of poetry; Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a long meditation on the lives of Alabama sharecroppers during the Depression; and The Morning Watch (1951), a novella about youthful religious infatuation and its abrupt extinction.
Agee’s sixteen years of service to Henry Luce, turning out anonymous pieces on such things as orchids and steel rails for Fortune, and movie reviews and political features for Time, earned him consideration as a sort of sharecropper himself. Some people thought these and other freelance pieces of his were brilliant—W.H. Auden praised Agee’s movie column in the Nation as “the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today”—but deplored his having to do them at all. Such wider fame as he enjoyed came from screenplays (including one for John Huston’s The African Queen), yet even that was modest. As for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which Lionel Trilling called “the most realistic and most important moral effort of our American generation,” it sold 600 copies before being remaindered.
About the Author
Algis Valiunas writes on culture and politics for COMMENTARY and other magazines. His "Goethe’s Magnificent Self" appeared in January.