RUFUS: JAMES AGEE IN TENNESSEE
Winner of the 2018 Tennessee History Book Award
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In a professional career that spanned roughly two decades, ending with his death in 1955, writer James Rufus Agee distinguished himself in multiple literary genres. As he worked primarily in New York and Hollywood, many readers view him as a particularly cosmopolitan writer. Others identify him as a southern writer, based on his Tennessee birth and the fact that his three major prose works—Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, The Morning Watch, and A Death in the Family—are set in the South. Agee is rarely promoted as a Tennessee writer, perhaps because all of his major achievements occurred elsewhere. In fact, he lived in Tennessee for almost a third of his life, began writing there, and published his first work there. But Tennessee receives little credit for influencing the writer’s artistic development and curating his posthumous legacy.
Rufus is the first literary biography of James Agee to explore his life and work in the context of his Tennessee heritage. Beginning with his ancestors, and the circumstances that brought his parents together, the book details the people, places, and events that shaped Agee’s experiences in Tennessee. A survey of his work reveals that, from his earliest writings to his posthumously-published novel, he continually drew upon memories of his home state. Relying heavily on family interviews, letters, Agee’s own notes and writings, and including previously unpublished photographs, Rufus stands as the definitive account of Agee in Tennessee.
"I know of no other work about any other writer that amasses as much contextual, historical detail as this book. That I am impressed derives from over fifty years of reading Agee's fiction and nonfiction, reading about him, and writing a book and five essays about his life and work."
—David Madden, Robert Penn Warren Professor Emeritus, Louisiana State University
"If we want to know James Agee, we first must see Rufus in situ. Paul Brown has rediscovered the boy Agee in his native Knoxville and East Tennessee before he imagined himself as the literary Rufus of A Death in the Family and Richard of The Morning Watch. Brown's Rufus enlarges our understanding of Agee as a novelist, journalist, poet, critic, and screenwriter by calling forth the mythic writer sought by countless pilgrims inspired by such works as Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men."
—Paul Ashdown, Professor Emeritus, University of Tennessee School of Journalism and Electronic Media
"I was immersed in the tale of this young boy [Rufus] and the culture in which he was raised. Author Paul F. Brown captures the Tennessee of the early 20th century beautifully, giving a fully rounded sense of history that is . . . superbly researched. . . . A thoughtful biography not to be missed."
"The author . . . provides outstanding context for understanding Rufus Agee's family, his father's people in LaFollette and Campbell County, Tennessee, St. Andrews School in Sewanee, and Knoxville early in the 20th century. . . . I found this to be one of the most fascinating books I've encountered in a long time. Bravo!"
—Appalachian Mountain Books
"A seminal work of simply outstanding and documented scholarship which is unreservedly recommended for personal reading lists, as well as college and university library collections, 'Rufus: James Agee in Tennessee' is an extraordinary and comprehensive contribution to understanding James Agee, his life and his work."
—Midwest Book Review
"I suspect Brown's UT Press book, clearly written and continually surprising, will forever be the standard source for Agee's early youth."
—Jack Neely, Executive Director, Knoxville History Project