Books: Captive Poet

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JAMES AGEE: A LIFE by Laurence Bergreen Dutton; 467 pages; $20

One May night in Tennessee, when James Rums Agee was six years old, his father drove off the Clinton Pike. One wheel of his Ford was still spinning in the air when the first witness arrived. Jay Agee lay face down about a foot from the car, his clothes scarcely mussed. The only sign of violence was a small cut on the chin.

James Agee spent the rest of his life trying to understand his father's absurd end, spinning his own wheels as he hurtled to an early death. But what Laurence Bergreen's solid, unassuming biography makes clear is how much Agee managed to accomplish during that ride. While he was drinking himself to the edge of alcoholism, while he was compulsively womanizing, while he was further wasting himself by lamenting this waste in allnight soliloquies, Agee was also producing.

From his days as critic for TIME and the Nation in the 1940s, Bergreen shows, Agee left a collection of brilliantly discursive film reviews that helped establish the standards for the art. He wrote two moving and complex novels. He composed at least five screenplays, including that shaggy Bogart-Hepburn classic, The African Queen. He turned out reams of verse, published and unpublished, and won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets award.

During his first stint for Time Inc., as a writer for FORTUNE, Agee was assigned a story that let him weld his overheated rhetoric to a social theme: the lives of '30s sharecroppers in the South, with photographs by Walker Evans. Agee later appraised his own work as "a sinful book at least in all degrees of 'falling short of the mark.' " The critical and popular response reflected his view: published as a book in 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men had sold only 600 copies by the end of the year. But Agee's collaboration with Evans refused to die. The years seemed to diminish the excesses—autobiographical discursions, adolescent stridence—and to ratify Critic Lionel Trilling's appraisal: "The most realistic and important moral effort of our generation."

Along the way, the "captive poet," as his editor at TIME called him, wrote hundreds of letters—to Father James Harold Flye, his high-church Episcopal mentor at St. Andrew's School in Tennessee, who remained his confidant from the time Agee was ten, to old classmates at Phillips Exeter and Harvard, to his three wives and countless lovers, to all the women who satisfied what he confessed was a "run-to-Mama" complex.

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