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Agee (Not That One)

First edition book coverThis is a beautiful little novel. It is semi-autobiographical, a fact I did not know as I read it that lends added poignancy to it.

James Agee began writing A Death in the Family in 1948 and it was published posthumously in 1957, winning the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1958.

The edition I read includes supplementary material not used in the original publication. A related short story, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915″ opens this edition, and additional unnumbered chapters are placed after parts one and two. For me, the opening works, but the fragments used later in the novel are superfluous and, in fact, distracting.

Agee’s writing is spare and direct. In this novel he uses a wandering narrative point of view that reminds me a bit of Virginia Woolf’s writing in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse–two books I did not enjoy.[1] But where Woolf’s narrative is at times difficult for me to follow and to enjoy, Agee’s writing here is not. The shifting point of view–from mother, to children, to other family members each with distinct impressions–is never muddy or scattered.

At the center of the story is, of course, the death and the reaction to it by family members and in particular the young son (based on Agee) and daughter. Their mother’s Roman Catholic faith and her father’s atheism are juxtaposed.

After my recent reading of two stories about death from the perspective of the dying–Tolstoy’s The Death of the Ivan Ilyich and Philip Roth’s Everyman–it was interesting to read one from the other point of view (the left behind).

Tommy Agee baseball cardA Death in the Family was included on Time magazine’s “100 best novels 1923-2000″ but did not make Bachblog’s “113 Great 20th Century Novels” list.

For whatever reason, I have always pictured James Agee as an African-American writer and lumped him together with James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. I’m not entirely sure why, but it may be just that he shared a last name with the Miracle Mets’ centerfielder Tommie Agee. Yup, that is all it takes to confuse me.


  1. I griped about my inability to appreciate Virginia Woolf in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. [^]

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