A Death in the Family by James Agee

Published two years after the author’s sudden death, A Death in the Family is considered an autobiography and was subjected to posthumous editing before its release and subsequent Pulitzer Prize.  It will never be known what Agee would have approved as the final version and how much of it could truly be considered his own.  Whether I was unduly influenced by the introductory note, I cannot be sure, but I felt some of the work was not his voice, especially in Part Three and specifically with regards to the child’s voice.

The story is set in the early 1900’s in the Knoxville, Tennessee area and recalls the very sudden death of 36-year-old Jay Follett and his family’s dealings with the tragedy.  Seen from the eyes of various characters,  Agee’s keen sense of perspective is abundantly evident.  What is most striking is his ability to capture the child’s view without resorting to cutely misspelled words and insinuations of inferiority.

The young son of the deceased, Rufus, is dealing with the death of his father as appropriate for his age.  This character personifies the author, James Agee, who lost his own father at age six.  Rufus flashes back to recall treasured moments spent with his father and it is quite obvious how much he adored him.  Not quite comprehending the reality of death, he announces it to the neighborhood children in an attempt to gain some respect and quell the teasing he’s been subjected to.

Jay’s wife, Mary, is a very religious woman who turns to her faith for strength and comfort even knowing her brother and father have mostly disdain for her beliefs.  She allows herself only a short time to grieve and then prepares for her life as a widow.  A woman who truly loved a husband her own family seemed unsure of, possibly due to his drinking, she is a loving mother and women of self assurance.

Ralph Follett, Jay’s undertaker brother has little self assurance and self medicates with alcohol.  It is insinuated that he telephoned his brother and exaggerated their father’s health setting off the chain of events that led to a fatal accident.  Ralph envies his brother and feels he is the lesser loved second fiddle so turns to the bottle for comfort even with the knowing eyes of his family upon him.

Hannah Lynch, Mary’s aunt is a no nonsense woman who seems harsh, yet is very perceptive about those around her.  She tries to do what she believes her family needs and is usually dead on with her attempts.  She takes Rufus shopping for a cap and seems to know  exactly the right store for him and knows how to comfort Mary without many words.


She looked straight into his eyes and her eyes and her face never changed, a look as if she were gazing at some small point at a great distance, with complete but idle intensity, as if what she was watching was no concern of hers.  His father leaned forward again and gently kissed her on the mouth, and drew back again where she could see him well, and smiled a little anxiously.  Her face restored itself from his kiss like grass that has been lightly stepped on; her eyes did not alter.

Would I love to chat with Mr. Agee?  You betcha.  His writing ability is quite evident and how he was able to capture the essence of both sexes and various ages is quite remarkable.  I’d suggest a stroll and then a return to the library where we’d sip a little whiskey and discuss all things literary.

My rating for A Death in the Family is a 9 out of 10.

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Next up, Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour by J. D. Salinger…


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