A! Magazine for the Arts

Hill and Graves are transcribing and chronologically ordering the manuscripts of Agee’s poetry.

Hill and Graves are transcribing and chronologically ordering the manuscripts of Agee’s poetry.

Dr. Jesse Graves compiling, editing ‘Complete Poems of James Agee

April 25, 2018

A professor in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Literature and Language is compiling and editing the poetry of the late Tennessee writer James Agee as part of a multivolume work.

This new “Collected Poems of James Agee” replaces previous versions and contains dozens of pages of previously unpublished material, according to Dr. Jesse Graves, ETSU associate professor of English and poet-in-residence. It will be one of several volumes in the ongoing series, “The Collected Works of James Agee.”

Agee (1909-1955) was not only a poet, but also a screenwriter, novelist, film critic, magazine writer and more. His first published book was an award-winning collection of poetry, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiographical novel, “A Death in the Family.”

Graves says he first got involved in this project several years ago when he was working on his doctorate and serving as a research assistant to Dr. Michael Lofaro, a professor of English at UT who is editing the series and co-editing the poetry volume with Graves.

“He was just starting to go through boxes of material, most of which hadn’t been seen before,” said Graves, who, with the help of grant funding from ETSU’s Research Development Committee, is being aided in his work by research assistant Jonathan Hill. Hill hails from Nashville and studied Agee under Graves while doing his graduate work.

Graves points out that an earlier volume of Agee’s collected poems, edited by Robert Fitzgerald, came out in 1968 and was about 180 pages. He estimates that this new volume will be more than 400 pages, with a significant amount of material that has never been published before.

Graves and Hill are transcribing and chronologically ordering the manuscripts of Agee’s poetry, many of which are handwritten and often undated. Once the transcriptions are edited and collated, Graves will provide footnotes and references for the material, and he and Lofaro will collaborate on the introduction.

“It’s a big job,” Graves said, “and part of the excitement really has been the knowledge that Agee is probably as well-known now as he’s ever been, but his poetry is maybe not as well-known as a some of his other work. Knowing that a lot of these poems will be seen by the public for the first time is pretty gratifying.

“Agee didn’t publish a lot of poetry but channeled that poetic energy into his prose articles and books. He’s thought of as a lyrical prose writer, but I think that his poetry background is the basis for that. Agee was a real innovator, too - kind of an experimental writer in his own way. Some of the poems that we have been transcribing are almost like automatic writing, which is a technique popular with William Butler Yeats and some of the Modernist poets, where they were really trying to tap into the subconscious mind. So some of it’s really kind of dreamlike and almost surrealistic at times.”

This effort has allowed Graves to return to the project he began as a graduate student, immersing himself in the writings of a multifaceted author whose works he has admired since childhood, when his mother had a copy of “A Death in the Family” and he wasn’t quite sure how to pronounce “Agee.”

“I grew up just north of Knoxville, and James Agee was sort of my hometown literary hero,” he said. “His father’s family, the Agees, were based out of Lafollette, which is just across Norris Lake - you could take a ferry from my little community of Sharps Chapel to Lafollette. Not only did Agee grow up in Knoxville, he writes a bit about visiting his grandparents up in the country north of Knoxville, which is my home base. I have a deep connection to Agee in that way.

“When I was just starting to write my own poems, and starting to imagine that I might do my own creative work, James Agee was, in some ways, a model for a writer from East Tennessee. Plus, his writing is very beautiful, and it was easy to fall in love with his work, especially ‘A Death in the Family’ and some of his lyrical prose.”