James Agee was a commanding literary voice in mid-20th-century America: an extraordinarily versatile writer who in his lifetime won acclaim as a novelist, poet, and screenwriter. He is buried on a farm in Hillsdale.
That’s not big news. But we’ve also been told for years that he never actually lived in Hillsdale. That seemed odd. Why would a person who never lived in Hillsdale decide to be buried here?
We set out to see if we could verify that one way or another.
James Rufus Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1909. He adored his warm, nurturing, hard-drinking father, who was killed in an alcohol-fueled car crash when Agee was just 6. Raised by his emotionally distant, deeply religious mother, Agee was enrolled in 1919 at St. Andrew’s, an Episcopalian boarding school for boys on the remote Cumberland Plateau of south-central Tennessee. Although Agee was at best a middling student, it soon became evident to his teachers that he possessed an extraordinary aptitude for language and he was given the run of the school’s library, a rare privilege.
In 1925 Agee left Tennessee for Philips Exeter Academy. Despite his otherwise lackluster grades, Agee excelled in English, earning straight A’s. The strength of his writing was enough to win him a scholarship to Harvard College. At Harvard, Agee began smoking and drinking heavily, habits that became addictions he could never shake, and that would ultimately kill him. While placed on academic probation several times, he still managed to be named both class poet and president of the Advocate, Harvard’s literary journal.
After graduation Agee landed a position as a staff writer at the fledgling Fortune magazine. His poetic gifts and ambitions as a writer clashed with the conventions of business reporting and he lapsed into depression, flirting with thoughts of suicide. In search of a topic to match his literary ambitions, he arranged for a six-month leave of absence from Fortune to report on the lives of destitute sharecroppers in Alabama. He was paired with the photographer Walker Evans, whose work documenting the hard times of Depression-era farmers had made him one of the foremost chroniclers of the era.
During Agee’s long leave in Alabama, the political winds at Fortune shifted rather dramatically from pro-New Deal to conservative right. When the magazine declined to publish the essays it had commissioned, Agee assembled the drafts into the book he had long anticipated writing, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941. America, poised on the brink of war, was ill-prepared for such a demanding and provocative work, and it was a commercial and critical failure. It wasn’t until 1960 that critics hailed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as an American classic.
Agee left Fortune to join Time magazine as book reviewer and film critic. In 1942 he moved to The Nation where his film criticism found a growing circle of intellectual admirers, including W.H. Auden, who wrote “In my opinion, [Agee’s] column is the most remarkable regular event in American journalism today.” As a film reviewer, he brought a level of perceptiveness and curiosity to the analysis of cinema in the 1940s that championed everything from mainstream Hollywood hits to B horror movies to slapstick comedy and eccentric, auteur-driven masterpieces. His film criticism for Time and The Nation was collected posthumously in Agee on Film, which is studied by film students and scholars to this day.
Intent on earning money as a screenwriter, Agee used his status as a film critic to ingratiate himself with Hollywood directors he most admired, such as John Huston and Charlie Chaplin. He eventually wrote screenplays for (among others) The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, The Night of the Hunter and, most famously, The African Queen.
Agee lived at 172 Bleecker St. in Greenwich Village in the 1940’s and 50’s but in 1948, he and his third wife, Mia, purchased a 130-acre farm on Rodman Road in Hillsdale (the property is now listed as 19 acres). It was in dreadful condition: the roof leaked and the farmhouse had neither electricity nor running water. But to Agee the landscape was reminiscent of the hills of Tennessee, which he had always loved.
Agee did indeed spend time at the farm, beginning in the late summer of 1948 and for several months almost every summer until his death in 1955. During these stays Agee was usually battling deadlines and attempting to stop drinking. He worked furiously on many projects, including articles for Life magazine, two novels (including A Death in the Family, about his father’s demise, for which he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize) and a bizarre screenplay about nuclear war that he wrote for his good friend Charlie Chaplin, which never saw the light of day.
By 1955, Agee’s health had declined such that he discussed with Mia his wishes for a burial at the farm. He told Mia that he only wanted a simple stone, with an engraving of a bird, the Egyptian symbol of the afterlife.
Agee died of heart attack on May 16, 1955 in a taxi on his way to see his doctor in Manhattan. He was 45 years old. After his funeral in Manhattan three days later, a group of mourners drove to the farm in Hillsdale where the burial took place in the afternoon. The burial site, located a hundred yards behind the farmhouse, overlooks the rolling hills and is marked with a simple stone, which lacks the bird carving he had requested. May 19, 1955 was a beautiful spring day in Hillsdale. Agee’s favorite flower, the lilac, bloomed everywhere, filling the soft air with its sweet scent. His children snipped some of the lilacs and tossed them onto the coffin.
James Agee: A Life, Bergreen, Laurence, 1984, E.P. Dutton, New York
Remembering James Agee, Maddon, David, 1974, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA