Finding work: James Agee in the office


JAMES AGEE MAY BE THE FIRST AMERICAN WRITER TO STAKE HIS literary career on making fun of his employer, and the form of his joke says much about the way a generation of American authors understand how literary writing relates to market- dependent definitions of writing as work. During his undergraduate years at Harvard College, Agee studied the work of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, took classes with I.A. Richards, and fashioned himself as a southern Romantic poet. He was well known among the campus literati; his first and only volume of verse, Permit Me Voyage (1934), was published in the Yale Series of Younger Poets and consisted mostly of work composed during college. In 1931, however, he was a college senior looking to land a job, and a career in corporate journalism promised more security than life as a professional poet. As the president of the Harvard Advocate, he dedicated six months to compiling an issue that parodied, in the words of his biographer, the "newest, flashiest, and most successful magazine around, Time" (Bergreen 103). His premise was simple: he imagined Time unhinging itself from contemporary cover- age and reporting on major historical events of the Western world. For instance, he wrote about "J.G. Caesar," who "scribbles a good deal; not for publication, just for the pure fun of the thing," and reviewed the first performance of Aeschylus's Electra, the playwright's "latest nerve- shatterer," a play "well worth a trip to the new State Theater" (105-06).

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