September 10, 1984 12:00 PM

By Laurence Bergreen

As a writer and a man, James Agee was a mass of contradictions, a bundle of energy and ambition packed with self-destructive habits ranging from alcoholism to adultery. Agee died in 1955, at 45, of a heart attack in a New York City cab, and this carefully researched and written book is the first serious biography about him. Without diminishing Agee, Bergreen (Look Now, Pay Later: The Rise of Network Broadcasting) demystifies and deromanticizes the man who wrote A Death in the Family and the screenplay for The African Queen, among many other works. The critical experience of Agee’s life occurred at age 6, when his affectionate but none-too-prosperous father drove off a road near their home in Knoxville, Tenn. and was killed. Agee’s mother was a cold and stern church-woman, and all his life he felt the tug of his parents’ natures within him. A literary star at Exeter and Harvard, Agee later worked for FORTUNE and TIME. He continually tormented himself over his inability to live up to his artistic ideals which, as he stated them, might have cowed even his heroes: Beethoven, Shakespeare, Dante, Blake and Dostoyevski. Agee was a Roman candle of ideas—as Bergreen notes, “The very idea of ideas inspired him”—but executing them was one continuous fit of hand-wringing and self-abnegation. Still, Agee produced. His mammoth-scale portrait of Depression sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, was described by Lionel Trilling in 1942 as “the most realistic and the most moral effort of our generation.” One figure who fascinated Agee the film reviewer was director Preston Sturges. Agee might have been speaking of himself when he criticized Sturges for “his singular mercurialism and resourcefulness, which come especially natural to some miserably unhappy children.” Yet Bergreen’s book proves, as James Dickey writes on the jacket, that Agee’s “brilliance and helpless inability to conserve energy would not have been possible without each other.” (Dutton, $20)

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