Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Death in the Family, by James Agee

Fairly often when I read a classic--and I admit to the fault being entirely my own--I think, "Wow, literary styles have changed" or, still worse, "Hunh" or even "Hunh?" But then there are those times when I read a classic and think, "This book is truly timeless." That was the case with A Death in the Family, by James Agee.

The book begins with a prologue, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," which describes an evening's events in a Knoxville neighborhood, as seen through the eyes of a young boy. That boy is Rufus Follet, whose father Jay is killed driving home from a visit to his ailing father. Jay was a loving and much-loved father and husband, although he and his wife Mary, a devout Catholic, had experienced serious differences about Jay's drinking and disdain for religion. The book presents events leading up to Jay's death and responses to his death through the eyes of numerous characters--Jay, his hard-drinking and feckless brother, Mary, her nonbelieving father (who immediately gives his daughter a pep talk about having gumption), her pious aunt Hannah, and most particularly Rufus. The responses of the adults are believable and wrenching--the scene in which Mary and Hannah are waiting for Mary's brother Andrew to return from the crash site--they do not know if Jay is dead or merely injured--is excruciating (religion, while called upon frequently, provides little comfort). But it is the way in which Agee describes Rufus's observations and responses as well as the way others respond to him that is truly heartbreaking.

That A Death in the Family is autobiographical makes it all the more powerful. Agee's father died when Agee was a young boy and thus the reader knows at a fundamental level that he gets Rufus's experience right. Agee uses language beautifully--in many places the text is poetic even while describing terrible pain and that language helps the reader comprehend the characters' pain.

Interestingly, Agee died before the book was completed; his literary executor, David McDowell, put the book together skillfully enough for it to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1957. Fifty years later, however, a scholar named Michael Lofaro released a new version of the book, reconstructed based on years of research and differing significantly from the original edition--organized differently and including new material.  Chapters from Rufus's perspective that are presented as "flashbacks" in the McDowell version are evidently presented in chronological order. Having read the McDowell version, it's hard to imagine the book in another form, but I liked the novel enough and am curious enough that I may read the more recent version as well.

Highly recommended.

Favorite passages:
By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hope of their taking away.  [Rufus]

How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it's good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life. And what's it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what's it all for?

Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it's almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember. [Jay]

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