James Agee , (born November 27, 1909, Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.—died May 16, 1955, New York, New York), American poet, novelist, and writer for and about motion pictures. One of the most influential American film critics in the 1930s and ’40s, he applied rigorous intellectual and aesthetic standards to his reviews, which appeared anonymously in Time and signed in The Nation.
Agee grew up in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountain area, attended Harvard University, and wrote for Fortune and Time after he graduated in 1932. Permit Me Voyage, a volume of poems, appeared in 1934. For a proposed article in Fortune, Agee and the photographer Walker Evans lived for about six weeks among sharecroppers in Alabama in 1936. The article never appeared, but the material they gathered became a book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), illustrated by Evans and accompanied by lyrical prose in which Agee dealt with both the plight of the people and his subjective reaction to it.
Although his film criticism is not well-known, Agee’s lively intelligence and discerning wit make his reviews as pleasureable to read as any writing with more serious intent. Like the best critics, he wrote as a fellow viewer rather than as an insider with superior opinions. Among his enthusiasms were his deep appreciation for the artistry of older filmmakers such as Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Jean Vigo, and D.W. Griffith. Agee was exceptionally sentient on the films of John Huston, and most authorities believe that he single-handedly resurrected the silent comedies of actors such as Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Of the latter he wrote:
His lucid, well-crafted prose was peppered with judicious and keen wit. Reviewing the musical You Were Meant for Me (1948), he wrote the single sentence “That’s what you think.”
From 1948 until his death, Agee worked mainly as a film scriptwriter, notably for The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). His novel A Death in the Family (1957), which is about the effect of a man’s sudden death on his