“I feel, in general, as if I were dying,” James Agee wrote in his final letter to Father Harold Flye on May 11, 1955. Five days later, just before the anniversary of his father’s death, which set into motion Agee’s robust correspondence with the Episcopal priest that’s collected in Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, Agee died of a heart attack in the back of a taxi cab. He was 45 years old.
“Most writers leave letters, but only a those of a fairly small number can be read, as Agee’s can, by people not necessarily interested in the writer’s other works,” writes Robert Phelps in the foreword to the latest edition of the collection, part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, and the publisher’s follow-up to publishing the formerly lost manuscript Cotton Tenants. The publisher seems to be on a mission to seek out those people who might not be “necessarily interested” in one of the most important writers of the 20th century and convert them. I hope they find those nonbelievers, although I think it’s sad that they even exist. On their own, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, screenplays for iconic films like The Night of the Hunter and The African Queen, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family (which was published posthumously) all would provide sufficient evidence of Agee’s lasting influence and importance. While I’ve read few collections of letters that give greater insight into how the mind of an author of great works, Phelps is right to suggest that Agee’s letters could be the best gateway to the rest of his writing. This is a necessary read to better know Agee.
Agee is, in many ways, the 20th-century version of his current publisher’s namesake. Like Herman Melville, his greatest fame came after his death, and some of his best-known works survey the American condition without directly commenting on it. While Melville may have been more abstract with his fiction, Agee’s reportage at times reads like postmodern non-fiction, long before the New Journalism of Didion, Mailer, and Wolfe incited a literary revolution.
He was ahead of his time, and as we see in Agee’s letters, he suffered from the same self-doubt that any writer — or person, for that matter — feels at times. Writing about his most famous book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee says he’s been “lonely, rather than satisfied in the work,” and that his writing is in “bad shape” and “completely sterile.” It’s admissions like these that show just how important a friend or confidant can be to a writer’s process, as though the confessions to Father Flye played a huge part in enabling Agee to write. That, and reading along as Agee gives the narrative of his life to a single person, is what makes the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye so fulfilling.