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Postscript: James Agee’s A Death in the Family

If you’ve been following my series Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002, you’ll know that in the wake of 9/11, I began reading James Agee’s novel, A Death In The Family, only to find it too painful to complete.  Last week — ten years later — I decided, with some trepidation, to give it another try.  This time, it was a joy to read. Agee’s work, published posthumously, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1958, and it’s no wonder. The novel is tender, exquisitely written, and at times almost prayerful in its evocation of a broken family and a lost world.

The story’s set in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1915, when Jay Follet, husband and father of two, is called out in the middle of the night for what may be a last visit to his dying father. The visit turns out to be a false alarm, but on the way home, Jay has a driving accident and is killed instantly.  He leaves behind his wife Mary and two children — six-year-old Rufus and four-year-old Catherine, as well as their grandparents, an aunt and an uncle and many other relatives and friends.

Agee tells the story through multiple points of view, allowing us many vantage-points from which to understand the dead man, his relationship to his family, and his past drinking problem; we are then left to puzzle over the fatal accident which left almost no visible wound. Yet Agee’s real subject is an enormous grief as ancient as humankind and as random as a meteorite as it crashes into the Follet household.  He gives us a remarkable portrait of shock and incomprehension; in one scene, Mary’s brother is trying to explain the circumstances of the accident to their almost-deaf mother. Every grim detail has to be repeated twice for her benefit until it becomes almost unbearable for the reader. It’s a stunning reconstruction of human reality: shocking news can’t be borne, won’t sink in, needs repeating over and over until we get it straight. The woman’s deafness is our own.

Likewise, Agee dramatizes indifference and empathy by juxtaposing the visits of the aloof Father Jackson and the kindhearted family friend Walter. Young Rufus lets us know that he doesn’t like the priest and his admonishments. Not long afterwards, Walter’s presence warms the chill space and his heartfelt emotion draws the children close to him. No comment from Rufus;  that’s more like it, says his silence.

For modern readers, the death in this novel goes beyond Jay Follet and includes the death of the simpler, yet problematic world of 1915. Almost a century later, we’re still close enough in time to recognize the artifacts of daily life (the telephone, the primitive auto), yet distant enough to understand how constrained the lives of women were (not to mention African-Americans). Mary Follet’s self-effacement and her sometimes cloying piety create sparks of drama with the skeptics in the family. In one of the book’s most moving dialogues, her father tells her she’ll need to have “gumption” in the face of suffering. “You’ve got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged;” he says. “The axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice.” His words leap across the century and into our time.

Faith and doubt and mystery thread their way through the language of this novel; the introductory prose-poem, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” bears reading out loud, along with many other passages, including Uncle Andrew’s beautiful meditation at nightfall. “Upon their faces the air was so marvelously pure, aloof and tender; and the silence of the late night in the city, and the stars, were secret and majestic beyond the wonder of the deepest country.” This book is worthy of such poetic language.

I would add that I haven’t read the “updated” edition by Michael A. Lofaro (A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text) which subtracts the preface and adds some ten chapters to a novel left unfinished when the author died. I’m happy enough to have read the old edition which sat on my shelf for ten long years until I was ready to receive what it had to offer: a work of art that’s wondrous and alive.

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