James Agee


Not every photograph ever snapped of James Agee caught him between pulls on a bottle or puffs on a cigarette. It only seems that way because the journalist/critic/novelist/screenwriter drank and smoked himself to death at 45, in 1955, at a time when postwar American culture conflated art with martyrdom and manhood with excess. Think of the poets lost to lithium, loony bins and suicide, the jazz musicians strung up and out on heroin, the abstract expressionists who slashed and burned themselves. Delmore Schwartz, Charlie Parker and Jackson Pollock pointed the way for Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Truman Capote, John Berryman, Elvis, Janis and Jimi. Like the Greek warrior Philoctetes, hadn’t they been allowed to play so brilliantly with their bows and arrows because they suffered suppurating wounds? So the iconic image, emblematic and self-destructive, was the Shadow Man – a Humphrey Bogart, a J. D. Salinger, an Edward R. Murrow, maybe even an Albert Camus. Agee, with his cold blue eyes, his thick dark hair and his handsome hillbilly Huguenot hatchet face, belonged on this wall of tragic-hero masks, at least till he inflated like a frog, from drinking alone in a Hollywood bungalow, and got kicked out of the 20th Century Fox studio commissary because he smelled so bad from never taking a bath.

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