James Agee died of a heart attack, at 45, in the back of a New York taxi, on the way to see his doctor, on May 17, 1955; the life gone, the legend born. Depending on your bias, you might have taken all his agonizing self-doubt, all those mad depressions and violent tendencies, the alcohol and tobacco, the utter exquisite hugeness of his feelings, not just for people or cast-off dogs but for old boots and oil lamps and staircases and hairpins and the exact texture of a pair of overalls belonging to a one-mule half-cropper Depression Alabama farmer named George Gudger -- taken all that and concluded that:
a) He was a caricature of the Great American Writer, a kind of beautiful raving lunatic, with features -- as critic Alfred Kazin once wrote of Thomas Wolfe -- as smoothly heroic as Li'l Abner's, or
b) He was a 20th-century American artist who wrote some good books and fine poems and one beautiful screenplay and a mass of more-or-less deadline journalism, but who failed magnificently because he was mortal and heaven exceeded his grasp.
Time has its way of weaving ironies. So Hank Williams Jr. is out there now, on country airways, crooning to the ghostly mirror images of the daddy that went away before his son could know him. ("If I get stoned and sing all night long, it's just a family tradition," sings Williams in one of his songs.) So James Agee's sensitive son, Joel Agee, who also never knew his father, who lived on the other side of the ocean from him, behind the Iron Curtain, is now out there, too, with a just-published, eloquent first book, carrying on traditions, trying to be his own man and writer, not legend by proxy, not stand-in for Daddy, just a son with a similar name and a remarkable resembalance and, sometimes, the same gorgeously baroque prose. That last is Joel Agee's description of his father's work.
"I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I was 6 years old. My father was both a terrible inspiration and an inhibition. If I had been living with him, I may have had to kill him off, in the psychological sense, before I could have emerged on my own." As it was, the emergence took God's own sweet time. "It never really began any serious writing until I was over 30." And now, at 41, his first book, "Twelve Years," a memoir of an American boyhood in East Germany, is out. Reviewers around the country are saying it has been worth the wait. Christopher Isherwood thinks is is a book that would have stood James Agee proud. There are echoes of the father if you listen:
It was enough to sit in the above mentioned tunnel of leaves -- my hideaway -- with the rich smell of humus in my nostrils, my back resting against a smooth cold rock, my limbs and the open book bathed in the yellow-green light that streamed through the dense roof of whispering foliage. . .
Certainly there is something seductive about the way Joel Agee's father burnt himself out. Centainly his life seems to fit a kind of American type and time. "One wants to be doomed, AMERICA wants one to be doomed," fellow southern poet James Dickey once said, not of Agee particularly, neatly summing up a cult that ranges from James Dean to Bix Biederbecke to Marilyn Monroe to Janis Joplin to Jimi Hendrix to Elvis to, yes, Hank Williams, who, like Agee, died in the back of a car, this one a Caddy, with booze and pills, at just 29, on New Years Day 1953, the talent and unhappiness as one, rushing him onward, just as he might have gotten it all down in a country song.
But the difference between James Agee and Hank Williams, as well as the others, was that they were somebodies at their deaths; in fact, they were starring of success. When Agee died, the obit in The New York Times had to describe him as a writer "in many media," author of an obscure photo-text journalistic work about Alabama share-croppers called "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." His memorial service, in St Luke's Church in Greenwich Village, was a simple affair. His old friend and surrogate father, the Rev. James Flye, whom Agee had been writing letters to over a lifetime, read the burial service from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. Three years later Agee's unfinished novel, "A Death in the Family," would win the Pultizer Prize (the only man up to that time accorded the prize posthumously). Within a generation, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" would be pronounced a "classic," with a president of the United States pressing it on his friends. Agee would have savored the irony.
Joel Agee would like to know James Agee. "I'd like to write a piece about him," he says, a spoon held aloft over a bowl of oatmeal in the lobby court of the Sheraton Carlton Hotel. "Since I never knew him, I am curious to know him. There are things that irritate me. I think, for instance, there is a distortion in the basic image of my father. I think there's been a bias in the image-making toward his sweetness of character, his religiosity -- that and his self destructive tormented artist's sensibility. Actually I know for a fact he was quite earthy. And capable of violence. Alma has stories."
Alma is Joel Agee's mother, James Agee's second wife (of three), still living, and the son speaks of his mother simply as Alma as he speaks of his father as Jim. Some of the stories Alma apparently has are about a man who thrashed his head against a wall in frustration during a flight with his wife, a man who pulled his wife through the streets by her hair in a fit of anger, a man who banged his fist through the glass door of a bus that had been so thoughtless as to close on him. Once Jim Agee was pounding a piano wildly in the middle of the night. A neighbor hollored for it to stop. "I despise people who try to make a virtue of their nine-to-five jobs," Agee said. (Later he was remorseful.)
According to the son, Alma loved James Agee deeply. The marriage must have had an awful beauty, one you couldn't live up to, and pretty soon Jim was shuttling back and forth between his wife and infant son and his mistress, consumed with guilt and unable or unwilling to stop. The family lived then in a little place called East Frenchtown, N.J., and Jim was on the staff of Time, Inc. Eventually Alma took infant Joel and went to Mexico, where she fell in love with another crazed writer, this one is German Communist named Bobo Uhse, going off to live with him in a place called Gross Glienicke, 20 kilometers from Berlin. Bobo Uhse is the father -- stepfather -- that impinges on the pages of "Twelve Years."
But profilists and book reviewers and editors and cultists don't wish to know so much about a late Communist novelist named Bobo Uhse. They want to know about James Agee. And his living look-alike link can laugh about how People magazine would probably sstick him in a doorway somewhere, tell him to shove a paw in his khaki pocket and look out with that same hooded soulful intensity, that idsheveled torment his father always got into his photographs. In fact, Joel Agee has some of this on his own. He sat yesterday in the Sheraton, in a chocolate cord jacket and a bulky burgundy sweater, spooning his oatmeal, forking a soft-looking hand through his graying beard, not quite looking like the ghost of James Agee. All around him were bureaucrats and businessmen and excessively polite waiters with names like Fidel.
"In a literary town like New York, it happens all the time -- projections of James Agee fantasies onto me. I'm used to it. I can sense immediately when the projection is coming."
Josl Agee sailed for the Iron Curtain in 1948 with his Communist stepfather and atheist mother and half-brother Stefan. His real father was back in the states, writing movie reviews, getting involved with Hollywood people (Agee, among other credits, wrote the screen play in 1951 for "The African Queen" and became a great brief friend of John Houston). The father and son exchanged some letters. They are lost.
"I don't have them. I don't know if anybody does. I remember feeling they were very distant letters. I never felt like answering any of them. Here was somebody telling me he loved me, sincerely, I think, but it was all just so remote."
James Agee once invited his son to come to America to live with him, and he said they could discuss it in detail when Agee came to Europe to work on a screenplay for "Moby Dick." But somebody else got the screenwriting job, the father never came, the son didn't go to America for another decade. Trying to find his place amid "Free German Youth" amounted to a painful adolescence. He was too dreamy for the State. He was in and out of schools, trying to write, not finding his voice. When he did come back, he swam headlong into the '60s. In 1970, strung out on LSD and other drugs, he had a breakdown. "Breakdown doesn't really describe it, but I don't know another word."
About a year ago he became an editor at Harper's magazine, in charge of fiction. He is married (to a paralegal for the Municipal Workers Union), lives in Brooklyn, has a 13-year-old daughter, Gina, about to graduate from eight grade. Yesterday, as the father talked, mother and daughter were looking for a graduation dress. There is the sense, he says, that his own life is stabling out.
At 41, James Agee's life was making a beeline for the drain. "I take birthdays hard," he wrote on his 41st in late 1950. "Mainly a kind of melancholy about my life, a sort of personal Day of Atonement. And through the melancholy, a very deep sense of loneliness."