The critic Dwight Macdonald, a friend and fellow Exeter alumnus who had helped Agee land the job at Fortune, later wrote that “for a writer to be given the run of Time [was] like a collector of sculpture being offered his pick of wax figures from Madame Tussaud’s Museum.”
No wonder Agee was “always looking for a way out”: Guggenheim grants (he was turned down twice), leaves of absence, freelance arrangements. But he stayed at Time Inc., writing for Fortune and Time and Life, until after the Second World War—as it turned out, the majority of his adult life. Of course, working for Time was hardly a creative death sentence to all writers. Archibald MacLeish, LL.B. ’19, Litt.D. ’55, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for his long poem “Conquistador” while working as Fortune’s star writer. But while MacLeish helped Agee publish his own poems, he could not teach the younger writer the secret of balancing art and commerce so resiliently. Nor, on the other hand, did Agee have the resolve to quit, as the radical Macdonald did when he got fed up with Luce’s conservative politics. Looking back, Macdonald decided that while Agee had been terribly grateful for his help getting a job on Fortune, “I didn’t do him a favor, really.”
Quite an old-boys network, actually.