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 fully 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 Relying heavily on family interviews, letters, Agee’s own notes and writings, and including previously unpublished photographs, Rufus stands as a definitive account of Agee in Tennessee.