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Letters of James Agee to Father Flye by…

Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962)

by James Agee

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I only recently learned of this book through reading another book, MEMORABLE DAYS, a collection of letters between James Salter and Robert Phelps, who wrote the Foreword to this book. Prior to this, the only Agee book I was familiar with was his Pulitzer-winning novel, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, which I read many years ago, but I can still remember what a profound effect it had on me, both its subject and its style. (It was also adapted into a fine film.)

These letters to Father Flye, an Episcopalian Priest who was Agee's teacher at St Andrew's in Tennessee, are very much a mixed bag. Written over a period of thirty years, from the 1920s into the 50s (Agee died in 1955), they are very revealing about Agee, first as an adolescent, at Philips Exeter Academy; then a young man at Harvard, and at work in NYC as a salaried writer for the Time syndicate; and finally a middle-aged man with a badly damaged heart. I enjoyed the earliest letters the most by far. The teenager's enthusiasm for books and writing was over-the-top contagious. I found myself making notes of the books he was reading and telling Father Flye about: the novels of Sinclair Lewis, Dos Passos, Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, Edith Wharton and H. Ryder Haggard; poetry by Whitman and Housman; Hemingway's first books; other authors nearly forgotten now, like Jim Tulley, Rose Macaulay, and Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Agee was obviously a young man drunk on the books and writers of his day.

The middle period of these letters, written by a man who felt tied down by the tedium of his writing assignments at Fortune and other magazines, began to show the signs of manic-depression. Some of these letters are rants. Others speak of suicidal thoughts. Indeed, as Agee grew older, he understood himself to be a "melancholic," but rejected getting professional help. His personal life too fluctuated. Married three times and father to four children, there are only very minimal mentions of wives or children. Agee seemed a man very centered on himself. In one letter from 1950 he tosses in a casual, "I can't remember for sure whether I've told you that we were expecting a baby; she was born late Monday evening ..." In fact there had been no mention of this third child in any previous letters; references to his children are extremely minimal throughout these years. His fourth child was born only months before Agee died, and is never mentioned at all. But by then, Agee has been plagued with multiple coronary episodes, sometimes 6-12 per day, controlled by sedatives and nitro pills. These last letters are pitiable in that Agee continued to make plans for further writing projects, for films, articles, etc., even though he had to have known he was dying.

Once again, some of these letters were fascinating, some mundane with multiple complaints about his work and musings about politics, world affairs and religion. Others were near unintelligible manic rants. But there are traces here too of the genius that flowered in Agee's great novel, A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, which was published two years after Agee's death.

It was interesting to learn of Agee's work as a screenwriter in Hollywood - THE AFRICAN QUEEN and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER - and his collaboration with Huston and friendship with Chaplin. I'm glad to have read these letters, which have left me with a strong urge to go back and re-read the aforementioned novel, and maybe his earlier novella, THE MORNING WATCH, a kind of prequel. I will recommend this book for Agee fans and students of American Lit. ( )
  TimBazzett | Jan 19, 2016 |
This is a beautiful, nearly lifelong self portrait of an artist and a genius whose struggles and doubts will feel very familiar to anyone who ever tried to create something using just their hands and their mind. There were parts that made me laugh, parts that filled me with respect and admiration and many parts that I related to on a deeply personal level. But I feel like this book would appeal to a wide range of personalities in that same subjective way, each for their own reasons. That was always Agee's power in his traditional prose, so it's no shock that it comes through so strongly in his letters. ( )
  Booktacular | Aug 16, 2014 |
Father Flye was an Episcopal priest who Agee met as a boy & remained in contact with all his life. Agee wrote to him about his work & life. In some letters Agee tried to define his politics against what appears to be Father Flye's conservative Southern views on Civil Rights, socialism, etc. It is lightly edited and may not be a good introduction to Agee, since I didn't know the works being referred to, nor did I know enough about his life to place the events.
  franoscar | Oct 7, 2007 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
James Ageeprimary authorall editionscalculated
Flye, James HaroldIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Phelps, RobertContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0395123410, Hardcover)

Letters Of James Agee To Father Flye, by Houghton Mifflin. 2nd ed.,1st ptg 8vo.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:49 -0400)

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