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December 11, 2017

James Agee's Full, Short Life

On this day in 1909 James Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Agee was a poet (Permit Me Voyage), an influential film critic (collected as Agee on Film), a social documentarist (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, based on his six weeks with Alabama sharecroppers), and a screenwriter (The African Queen), but he is best remembered for his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family. The car crash which killed his father was probably caused by alcohol, but the family avoided saying so; this left young Rufus (James) alone with his unanswered questions and these final impressions:
    . . . after listening most intently, to be sure that nobody was near, he smelled of the chair, its deeply hollowed seat, the arms, the back. There was only a cold smell of tobacco and, high along the back, a faint smell of hair. He thought of the ash tray on its weighted strap on the arm; it was empty. He ran his finger inside it; there was only a dim smudge of ash. There was nothing like enough to keep in his pocket or wrap up in a paper. He looked at his finger for a moment and licked it; his tongue tasted of the darkness.
Agee's own fatal heart attack at the age of forty-five came with his novel not quite finished, and was anything but inexplicable. Told after a first attack four years earlier that his drinking, smoking and manic lifestyle would kill him, Agee had chosen to continue, though with doubts at the end: "At moments I wonder whether those who go, as I do, for a Full Life, don't get their exact reward, which is that The Full Life is full of crap."

A Death in the Family is introduced by "Knoxville, Summer of 1915," the nostalgic prose-poem which Agee had published previously, and which composer Samuel Barber famously adapted in 1949. Both words and music continue to be popular with all tastes: "You can smell the South in it," said Leontyne Price after recording Barber's version; Michael Stipe read the last two paragraphs to the crowd at a recent Knoxville R.E.M. concert:
    On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. . . . By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in the summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, no, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

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