A Death in the Family

James Agee

I was around the corner from my usual library branch when I finished The Stranger’s Child and felt that I should get another book in my hands promptly. Since reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men last year, I’d never officially added this to my reading list, but it was on the right shelf at the right time.

Agee died of a heart attack while writing this book, so Agee’s protégé David McDowell edited together pieces of manuscript into a novel and published the novel posthumously. About three years ago English scholar Michael A. Lofaro published a new version aiming to more accurately represent Agee’s intentions — largely by making the story chronological. This seems kind of funny since the original version is considered by many to be a masterpiece and won the Pulitzer Prize, but then there is a lot of going back and forth in time that can confuse events. The lost chapters were also published in Harper’s in 2007.

The book is based on Agee’s childhood and the original version starts with an elegiac meditation on dusk falling on the neighborhood titled “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” which was originally published separately (and Lofaro says wasn’t intended to be part of the novel). The parts that constitute the narrative of the actual familial death are interspersed with a couple of similar in-depth, experiential reveries which take place at some point before the tragedy occurs. These flashbacks appear to be what Agee actually remembered being aware of as a child, contrasted with the rest of the story, much of which he must have learned or imagined as he grew up, specifically the often difficult politics at play between the adults in the family. This version ends on more of a political than emotional note, which does feel rather disappointing for what is overall a poetic lament.