Just in time for James Agee’s 98th birthday this week comes A Death In the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text, UT Professor Michael Lofaro’s long-awaited new edition of James Agee’s 50-year-old novel. Agee never completed his autobiographical Knoxville-based novel to his own satisfaction. At the time of his sudden death at 45, he left a pile of handwritten pages without direction of how or even whether to publish it.
Original editor David McDowell assembled his drafts of an autobiographical work of some sort into a novel-like whole, and published it. A Death In the Family won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s been in print ever since.
You’ve got to give Lofaro props for having the guts to say it’s all wrong. He makes a strong case that Agee would not have approved of much in McDowell’s version. But don’t expect this edition to replace the original. It’s almost 600 pages long, nearly half of that explanatory notes, carefully detailed but about as easy to read as the directions for rebuilding an F-16. You’re not going to see people reading this one during lunch break in the park.
The chapter headings alone, e.g., “‘This little boy you live in’: Perceptions, c. 1911-1912,” give it more the character of a scholarly study than a rejuvenated novel.
The first difference the reader will notice is that it doesn’t open with Agee’s famous prose poem, “Knoxville: Summer 1915.” There’s no reason to believe that Agee would have intended to open his autobiographical novel with his best-known piece of short prose.
Instead, Lofaro’s version opens with another perhaps non-fiction essay, a relation of a nightmare about dragging a dead man around downtown Knoxville. He may be John the Baptist, and he may be Dad. Setting the scene of what’s otherwise a family drama with such a bizarre image may well have been Agee’s intent, but McDowell is not the only editor who would have advised against it. Part of the power of A Death In the Family, the reason it has been in print for half a century, is that the feelings it relates are universal. The nightmare scene, however, isn’t universal; it’s the psychosexual obsession of one tormented genius. It’s very much about Agee, but not necessarily about us.
The layout of the new book is strictly chronological, without the damnable flashbacks that characterize the fragmentary structure of the 1957 publication. It’s less puzzling than the original, even if it doesn’t hold together quite like a novel.
The intro and the chronological layout of the book, which after the nightmare moves directly into the author’s earliest memories of lying quietly in his bedroom at approximately age 2, takes an interest in Agee’s biography for granted. The 1957 version, which opens with a lively conversation (Chapter 17 in Lofaro’s version) that immediately introduces the main characters and a bit of a central conflict, assumed that readers cared little about James Agee. They read on because it was an interesting family story.
The third and most welcome change is that Lofaro’s text includes passages the earlier editor passed over. His Chapter 11 is a fascinatingly vivid scene at Chilhowee Park which combines the innocence and depravity of a day at an amusement park in 1915. It’s a quotable classic.
In several media, Agee was a brilliant writer: a passionate poet, a journalist of rare insight and, in collaboration with others, a successful writer of book-adapted screenplays. He could write a lovely scene, and there are many of them in both versions of A Death In the Family. But he never mastered plot, and the long-fiction form.
The new version flows, it tells a story in an orderly fashion. Read it, though, and you may come to understand the thinking of the 1957 editors, who chose to draw the story in as a concentration of shards, like a jumbled memory of childhood. The new one lacks the dramatic tension of the better-known version. The fragmentation of the original published version of A Death In the Family, whether Agee would have allowed it to see print that way or not, may be part of its enduring strength.