Agee: ‘let us now praise famous men’

Published 11:21 am Saturday, December 23, 2023

My childhood memories of holidays past – that magical week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day – and my mind returns to those precious hours cracking open a newly gifted book and eagerly devouring its contents.

Page one and the parallel world created from a master novelist transports my imagination to adventures that cannot wait. My being is consumed with the storyline until the reading of the last word on that last page is done. I sit there, letting my mind and spirit gently ease back to this world as I savor the ideas and ideals captured during my read.

I close the book in reverence to the author who, with only words, nudged me into distant lands where the imagination is boundless.

Words are powerful. They can heal; they can hurt; they can motivate or tear down the spirit. They make you dream; they make you sad and they inspire us to take up the battle to enrich, not destroy.

Near the top of my list of favorite authors is Knoxville-born James Rufus Agee. By the way, Agee recently earned top billing as the most-loved author by readers across the state of Tennessee, according to a 50-state survey conducted by StoicQuotes.com.

During his short life, Agee was an American novelist, journalist, poet, screenwriter, film critic and activist. He was one of the most influential film critics across the country during his stint in the 1940s with Time Magazine.

Agee’s Pulitzer Prize winning autobiographical book ‘A Death in the Family’ was honored posthumously in 1958 for its raw portrayal of a family in crisis. The novel vividly portrays Agee’s childhood as he took little literary license in fictionalizing the emotional intricacies of a Knoxville, Tennessee family during the early 20th century.

Among his numerous writing pursuits, Agee shared co-writing honors for the book ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.’ The title was a reworked quote from one of the Old Testament Apocrypha – “Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us.” Agee employed irony to convey the meaning of the title in that the book brings to the forefront the most socially rejected and unseen.

Conceived in 1936 in article form, Fortune Magazine published what would eventually become part of the full book which takes an uncompromising view of the impoverished tenant farmers during the Great Depression.

Agee used his massive writing abilities morphing novels into films as a gifted screenwriter. Two of several movies – ‘The African Queen’ and ‘The Night of the Hunter’ – became instant classics.

Born in November 1909, Agee was six-years-old when his father died in a car accident. A prolific writer, Agee went to boarding schools prior to earning an AB at Harvard University where he was the editor of its literary magazine ‘The Harvard Advocate.’

He died in May 1955 from a fatal heart attack in a New York City taxi cab while on his way to a doctor’s appointment.

He was 45 years old.