James Agee
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Literature

By January 1939, the career of poet and journalist JAMES AGEE (1909–55) was at an impasse. He’d joined the staff of Henry Luce’s Fortune magazine fresh out of Harvard in 1932 and two years later, Yale published his Permit Me Voyage, a collection of verse including the lyric “Sun On This Shining Night,” one of two Agee texts — “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” being the other — from which Samuel Barber would compose redoubtable American art songs. Agee spent July 1936 with photographer Walker Evans in Alabama; their work on white tenant farmers there, rejected by Fortune, would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Before that book’s completion, however, Agee — now freelancing — took another Fortune assignment, this one on Brooklyn, where his friend, writer Wilder Hobson, arranged for Agee to live at his in-laws’ gabled brick rowhouse at 179 St. James Place, between Gates and Fulton, in Clinton Hill. (Notorious B.I.G. grew up just across the street, at 226 St. James.) Two months and 10,000 words later, Agee was finished — and this work also was rejected, set-aside, forgotten. Then, in the December 1968 issue of Esquire, there it was, “Brooklyn Is,” New Journalism progenitor. (Another Agee friend, poet and translator Robert Fitzgerald, had kept a finished draft). Was it worth the wait? Mostly, yes. Though capable of soft-headedness and weirdly oblivious to the multiple corruption scandals then convulsing Brooklyn’s justice system, Agee’s many particulars astound. My favorite: graffiti “on an iron door in Williamsburg: Dominick says he will fuck Fanny.”

***

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Bruce Lee and Kathryn Bigelow.

READ MORE about members of the Partisan Generation (1904-13).

Share

MORE POSTS by

Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.