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James Agee Letters


Held at: Princeton University Library: Manuscripts Division [Contact Us]

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Princeton University Library: Manuscripts Division. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

Agee, James, 1909-1955

James Rufus Agee was an American author, journalist, poet, screenwriter, and film critic. In the 1940's, he was one of the most influential film critics in the U.S. His autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), won the author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. After graduating from Harvard University, Agee wrote for Fortune and Time magazines, although he is better known for his later film criticism in The Nation. He married Olivia (Via) Saunders on January 28, 1933; they divorced in 1938. In 1934, he published his only volume of poetry, Permit Me Voyage. In the summer of 1936, Agee spent eight weeks on assignment for Fortune with photographer Walker Evans living among sharecroppers in Alabama. While Fortune did not publish his article, Agee turned the material into a book entitled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). It sold only 600 copies before being remaindered. Agee's career as a movie scriptwriter was curtailed by alcoholism, but he is nevertheless one of the credited screenwriters on two of the most respected films of the 1950's: The African Queen (1951) and The Night of the Hunter (1955).

The collection consists of selected letters of James Rufus Agee, the American poet, author, journalist, and film critic. There are sixteen letters which Agee wrote to Olivia Saunders whom he met as an undergraduate at Harvard University and married in 1933. These are love letters in which Agee is trying to persuade Saunders to marry him. They were written after Agee graduated from Harvard and became a reporter, then staff writer, for Fortune magazine. In 1936 Fortune commissioned him to do a major study of the rural South's agricultural life. However, he was not able to accomplish it. Instead, he devoted himself to a prolonged literary and documentary "study" of the three families he had come to know best, and the result was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). There are two letters to his wife (1936) from that period when he was in Alabama trying unsuccessfully to work on his "study." In these letters, he complains to his wife regarding his inability, but also asks her not to repeat any of that information. In addition, there is one letter to Olivia Saunders' mother, dated May 1932.

The collection was formed as a result of a Departmental practice of combining into one collection material of various accessions relating to a particular person, family, or subject.

The sixteen letters to Olivia Saunders and a letter to Olivia Saunders' mother were a gift of Mrs. Robert Wood on December 10, 1982.

The two letters to Olivia Saunders from 1936 were a gift of Mrs. Robert Wood on October 31, 1984. AM83-75, 83-75a, 85-41.

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This collection was processed by Dina Britain on May 11, 2009. Finding aid written by Elizabeth Mulvey on June 12, 2009. Folder Inventory added by Hilde Creager (2015) in 2012.

No appraisal information is available.

Manuscripts Division
Finding Aid Date
Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions

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Collection Inventory

16 Letters from James Agee to Olivia Saunders, 1932-1938. 1 folder.
Physical Description

1 folder

Letter with envelope from James Agee to Mrs. A.P. Saunders, 1932 May 5. 1 folder.
Physical Description

1 folder

2 Letters from James Agee to Olivia Saunders while working on the novel "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", 1936. 1 folder.
Physical Description

1 folder

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