October 28, 2013
Was James Agee related to Walt Whitman?
by Claire Kelley
In the November 7 issue of The New York Review of Books, Ian Frazier’s review of James Agee’s Cotton Tenants, includes an intriguing parenthetical remark as he describes Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
Literary momentum surges behing his breathless sentences, with his Joycean compound coinages (“love lighting skin,” “slowdrawling talks”), romantic windy cadences like Thomas Wolfe‘s and long biblical anaphoras. The device of describing his human subjects in the condition of being asleep, so as to render them more sympathetic and kindred to the reader, recalls a similar nighttime passage in Whitman‘s “Song of Myself.” (Agee’s mother was said to be related to Whitman.)
When I read that, I stopped and wondered: Could it possibly be true that James Agee was in fact related to Walt Whitman?
A letter in the University of Tennessee Library’s Special Collections seems to support that claim. The letter is written by Laura Wright (Laura Whitman Tyler Agee) on May 27, 1955, shortly after the death of her son, James Agee, who died on May 16, 1955. The abstract describes it as a letter to David and Madeline McDowell in Rutherford, New York, who were good friends of the Agee family. A biographical and historical note elaborates:
Agee, Laura Tyler [Wright] (1885-1966) Laura Tyler was the twin sister of Hugh Claverly Tyler (the artist, BS 1905) and daughter of Emma and Joel Tyler. Her mother was one of the first female graduates of the University of Michigan and a descendant of Walt Whitman.
Her first husband, Hugh, James Agee’s father, died in a car accident in 1916, and she later married Episcopalian Father Erskine Wright in 1924, which explains her last names.
In Agee’s poem “Dedication,” a long litany to those who inspired him, Agee mentions the bearded bard, but not the possibility of familial ties.
To Mark Twin; to Walt Whitman; Ring Lardner; to Hart Crane; to Abraham Lincoln; and to my land and to the squatters upon it and to their ways and words in love; and to my country in indifference.
In the book The Village: 400 Years of Beats, Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues, John Strausbaugh writes, “According to family lore [Agee's family] was related to Walt Whitman, whose writing Agee would later dismiss as ‘generally half-assed.’”
Laurence Bergreen, James Agee’s biographer repeats the claim in James Agee: A Life. I emailed him to find out if he ever found any proof of an actual family connection, and he replied:
I did a reasonably through genealogy for the Agee family when I was researching the book, and Walt Whitman didn’t turn up. I’m not sure how I’d go about finding out if there’s a connection. It’s possible his mother was referring to a spiritual rather than literal kinship.
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.