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Collection Overview

Agee, James, 1909-1955
Princeton University. Library. Special Collections
James Agee Letters
Manuscripts Division
Permanent URL:
1 box and 0.2 linear feet
Storage Note:
  • ReCAP (scarcpxm): Box 1


Consists of selected letters by the American author, journalist, and screenwriter James Agee, addressed to his first wife, Olivia Saunders. Several of them date from the period Agee was in Alabama working on what would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

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.

Collection Creator Biography:

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).

Collection History


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.

Custodial History

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.


No appraisal information is available.

Processing Information

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.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. For instances beyond Fair Use, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

James Agee Letters; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Firestone Library
One Washington Road
Princeton, NJ 08544, USA
(609) 258-3184
Storage Note:
  • ReCAP (scarcpxm): Box 1