A Death in the Family

Paperback | September 29, 2009

byJames AgeeIntroduction bySteve Earle

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The classic American novel, re-published for the 100th anniversary of James Agee's birth

Published in 1957, two years after its author's death at the age of forty-five, A Death in the Family remains a near-perfect work of art, an autobiographical novel that contains one of the most evocative depictions of loss and grief ever written. As Jay Follet hurries back to his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, he is killed in a car accident—a tragedy that destroys not only a life, but also the domestic happiness and contentment of a young family. A novel of great courage, lyric force, and powerful emotion, A Death in the Family is a masterpiece of American literature.

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The classic American novel, re-published for the 100th anniversary of James Agee's birth Published in 1957, two years after its author's death at the age of forty-five, A Death in the Family remains a near-perfect work of art, an autobiographical novel that contains one of the most evocative depictions of loss and grief ever written. A...

James Agee (1909­–1955) is the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the renowned study of Alabama sharecroppers during the Depression. Born in Tennessee, he died two years before the publication of A Death in the Family, his most famous work.   Steve Earle (introducer) is an American singer-songwriter, political activist, and author...

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:320 pages, 7.7 × 5 × 0.6 inPublished:September 29, 2009Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:014310571X

ISBN - 13:9780143105718

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Chapter 1AT SUPPER THAT NIGHT, as many times before, his father said, “Well, spose we go to the picture show.”“Oh, Jay!” his mother said. “That horrid little man!”“What’s wrong with him?” his father asked, not because he didn’t know what she would say, but so she would say it.“He’s so nasty!” she said, as she always did. “So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!”His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always the laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father.They walked downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic, and found their way to seats by the light of the screen, in the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers, while the piano played fast music and galloping horses raised a grandiose flag of dust. And there was William S. Hart with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip, and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world. Then he made a bashful face at a girl and his horse raised its upper lip and everybody laughed, and then the screen was filled with a city and with the sidewalk of a side street of a city, a long line of palms and there was Charlie; everyone laughed the minute they saw him squattily walking with his toes out and his knees wide apart, as if he were chafed; Rufus’ father laughed, and Rufus laughed too. This time Charlie stole a whole bag of eggs and when a cop came along he hid them in the seat of his pants. Then he caught sight of a pretty woman and he began to squat and twirl his cane and make silly faces. She tossed her head and walked away with her chin up high and her dark mouth as small as she could make it and he followed her very busily, doing all sorts of things with his cane that made everybody laugh, but she paid no attention. Finally she stopped at a corner to wait for a streetcar, turning her back to him, and pretending he wasn’t even there, and after trying to get her attention for a while, and not succeeding, he looked out at the audience, shrugged his shoulders, and acted as if she wasn’t there. But after tapping his foot for a little, pretending he didn’t care, he became interested again, and with a charming smile, tipped his derby; but she only stiffened, and tossed her head again, and everybody laughed. Then he walked back and forth behind her, looking at her and squatting a little while he walked very quietly, and everybody laughed again; then he flicked hold of the straight end of his cane and, with the crooked end, hooked up her skirt to the knee, in exactly the way that disgusted Mama, looking very eagerly at her legs, and everybody laughed loudly; but she pretended she had not noticed. Then he twirled his cane and suddenly squatted, bending the cane and hitching up his pants, and again hooked up her skirt so that you could see the panties she wore, ruffled almost like the edges of curtains, and everybody whooped with laughter, and she suddenly turned in rage and gave him a shove in the chest, and he sat down straight-legged, hard enough to hurt, and everybody whooped again; and she walked haughtily away up the street, forgetting about the streetcar, “mad as a hornet!” as his father exclaimed in delight; and there was Charlie, flat on his bottom on the sidewalk, and the way he looked, kind of sickly and disgusted, you could see that he suddenly remembered those eggs, and suddenly you remembered them too. The way his face looked, with the lip wrinkled off the teeth and the sickly little smile, it made you feel just the way those broken eggs must feel against your seat, as queer and awful as that time in the white pekay suit, when it ran down out of the pants-legs and showed all over your stockings and you had to walk home that way with people looking; and Rufus’ father nearly tore his head off laughing and so did everybody else, and Rufus was sorry for Charlie, having been so recently in a similar predicament, but the contagion of laughter was too much for him, and he laughed too. And then it was even funnier when Charlie very carefully got himself up from the sidewalk, with that sickly look even worse on his face, and put his cane under one arm, and began to pick up his pants, front and back, very carefully, with his little fingers crooked, as if it were too dirty to touch, picking the sticky cloth away from his skin. Then he reached behind him and took out the wet bag of broken eggs and opened it and peered in; and took out a broken egg and pulled the shell disgustedly apart, letting the elastic yolk slump from one half shell into the other, and dropped it, shuddering. Then he peered in again and fished out a whole egg, all slimy with broken yolk, and polished it off carefully on his sleeve, and looked at it, and wrapped it in his dirty handkerchief, and put it carefully into the vest pocket of his little coat. Then he whipped out his cane from under his armpit and took command of it again, and with a final look at everybody, still sickly but at the same time cheerful, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back and scraped backward with his big shoes at the broken shells and the slimy bag, just like a dog, and looked back at the mess (everybody laughed again at that) and started to walk away, bending his cane deep with every shuffle, and squatting deeper, with his knees wider apart, than ever before, constantly picking at the seat of his pants with his left hand, and shaking one foot, then the other, and once gouging deep into his seat and then pausing and shaking his whole body, like a wet dog, and then walking on; while the screen shut over his small image a sudden circle of darkness: then the player-piano changed its tune, and the ads came in motionless color. They sat on into the William S. Hart feature to make sure why he had killed the man with the fancy vest—it was as they had expected by her frightened, pleased face after the killing; he had insulted a girl and cheated her father as well—and Rufus’ father said, “Well, reckon this is where we came in,” but they watched him kill the man all over again; then they walked out.It was full dark now, but still early; Gay Street was full of absorbed faces; many of the store windows were still alight. Plaster people, in ennobled postures, stiffly wore untouchably new clothes; there was even a little boy, with short, straight pants, bare knees and high socks, obviously a sissy: but he wore a cap, all the same, not a hat like a baby. Rufus’ whole insides lifted and sank as he looked at the cap and he looked up at his father; but his father did not notice; his face was wrapped in good humor, the memory of Charlie. Remembering his rebuff of a year ago, even though it had been his mother, Rufus was afraid to speak of it. His father wouldn’t mind, but she wouldn’t want him to have a cap, yet. If he asked his father now, his father would say no, Charlie Chaplin was enough. He watched the absorbed faces pushing past each other and the great bright letters of the signs: “Sterchi’s.” “George’s.” I can read them now, he reflected. I even know how to say “Sturkeys.” But he thought it best not to say so; he remembered how his father had said, “Don’t you brag,” and he had been puzzled and rather stupid in school for several days, because of the stern tone in his voice.What was bragging? It was bad.They turned aside into a darker street, where the fewer faces looked more secret, and came into the odd, shaky light of Market Square. It was almost empty at this hour, but here and there, along the pavement streaked with horse urine, a wagon stayed still, and low firelight shone through the white cloth shell stretched tightly on its hickory hoops. A dark-faced man leaned against the white brick wall, gnawing a turnip; he looked at them low, with sad, pale eyes. When Rufus’ father raised his hand in silent greeting, he raised his hand, but less, and Rufus, turning, saw how he looked sorrowfully, somehow dangerously, after them. They passed a wagon in which a lantern burned low orange; there lay a whole family, large and small, silent, asleep. In the tail of one wagon a woman sat, her face narrow beneath her flare of sunbonnet, her dark eyes in its shade, like smudges of soot. Rufus’ father averted his eyes and touched his straw hat lightly; and Rufus, looking back, saw how her dead eyes kept looking gently ahead of her.“Well,” his father said, “reckon I’ll hoist me a couple.”They turned through the swinging doors into a blast of odor and sound. There was no music: only the density of bodies and of the smell of a market bar, of beer, whiskey and country bodies, salt and leather; no clamor, only the thick quietude of crumpled talk. Rufus stood looking at the light on a damp spittoon and he heard his father ask for whiskey, and knew he was looking up and down the bar for men he might know. But they seldom came from so far away as the Powell River Valley; and Rufus soon realized that his father had found, tonight, no one he knew. He looked up his father’s length and watched him bend backwards tossing one off in one jolt in a lordly manner, and a moment later heard him say to the man next him, “That’s my boy”; and felt a warmth of love. Next moment he felt his father’s hands under his armpits, and he was lifted, high, and seated on the bar, looking into a long row of huge bristling and bearded red faces. The eyes of the men nearest him were interested, and kind; some of them smiled; further away, the eyes were impersonal and questioning, but now even some of these began to smile. Somewhat timidly, but feeling assured that his father was proud of him and that he was liked, and liked these men, he smiled back; and suddenly many of the men laughed. He was disconcerted by their laughter and lost his smile a moment; then, realizing it was friendly, smiled again; and again they laughed. His father smiled at him. “That’s my boy,” he said warmly. “Six years old, and he can already read like I couldn’t read when I was twice his age.”Rufus felt a sudden hollowness in his voice, and all along the bar, and in his own heart. But how does he fight, he thought. You don’t brag about smartness if your son is brave. He felt the anguish of shame, but his father did not seem to notice, except that as suddenly as he had lifted him up to the bar, he gently lifted him down again. “Reckon I’ll have another,” he said, and drank it more slowly; then, with a few good nights, they went out.His father proffered a Life Saver, courteously, man to man; he took it with a special sense of courtesy. It sealed their contract. Only once had his father felt it necessary to say to him, “I wouldn’t tell your mama, if I were you”; he had known, from then on, that he could trust Rufus; and Rufus had felt gratitude in this silent trust. They walked away from Market Square, along a dark and nearly empty street, sucking their Life Savers; and Rufus’ father reflected, without particular concern, that Life Savers were not quite life saver enough; he had better play very tired tonight, and turn away the minute they got in bed.The deaf and dumb asylum was deaf and dumb, his father observed very quietly, as if he were careful not to wake it, as he always did on these evenings; its windows showed black in its pale brick, as the nursing woman’s eyes, and it stood deep and silent among the light shadows of its trees. Ahead, Asylum Avenue lay bleak beneath its lamps. Latticed in pawnshop iron, an old saber caught the glint of a street lamp, a mandolin’s belly glowed. In a closed drug store stood Venus de Milo, her golden body laced in elastic straps. The stained glass of the L&N Depot smoldered like an exhausted butterfly, and at the middle of the viaduct they paused to inhale the burst of smoke from a switch engine which passed under; Rufus, lifted, the cinders stinging his face, was grateful no longer to feel fear at this suspension over the tracks and the powerful locomotives. Far down the yard, a red light flicked to green; a moment later, they heard the thrilling click. It was ten-seven by the depot clock. They went on, more idly than before.If I could fight, thought Rufus. If I were brave; he would never brag how I could read: Brag. Of course, “Don’t you brag.” That was it. What it meant. Don’t brag you’re smart if you’re not brave. You’ve got nothing to brag about. Don’t you brag.The young leaves of Forest Avenue wavered against street lamps and they approached their corner.

Bookclub Guide

INTRODUCTIONOn a spring night in 1915 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Jay Follet, a gentle, well-intentioned but financially unsteady father of two, is awakened by a telephone call from his drunken brother Ralph. Their own father, he learns, is having serious heart trouble and may or may not pull through. Follet bids a lingering good-bye to his deeply pious wife, Mary, and drives off into the darkness, little imagining that the death that is soon to occur will be his own.In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel A Death in the Family, James Agee reconstructs through the lens of fiction the real-life car accident that claimed his father when James was not yet six years old. Leading us from the evening of the phone call that sets the tragedy in motion to the funeral that strives to bring the calamity to closure, Agee offers a plot that is simplicity itself, and the occurrences he describes are perhaps no different from those that would transpire within any family that has had a member suddenly stolen from its midst. Despite its seeming straightforwardness, however, A Death in the Family is a novel of surprising profundity and aching lyricism. With deft strokes of characterization, Agee brings vivid life to Mary, whose loss brings her both to rely upon and to question God as she has never done before. We also come to know Mary’s brother Andrew, whose contempt for religion both adds a sharp philosophical edge to the novel and stirs elemental conflicts among its characters. Deep pathos surrounds both Ralph Follet, the self-pitying alcoholic who struggles to come to terms with the dishonored place he fills in his family, and Mary’s aunt Hannah, whose capacities for indulgent kindness and stinging severity hover in a fitful, unsteady balance. In these characters, the lines between love and hate are finely drawn, and Agee develops their sometimes speechless passions with refinement and understanding.At the emotional center of Agee’s novel, however, stands his own remembered self, in the form of young Rufus Follet. Awkwardly self-conscious, comically trusting, Rufus has only recently begun to understand the depth of the attachment that can exist between father and son—only to have that connection violently destroyed overnight. His efforts to comprehend his loss exude an unforgettable poignancy, and his recollected moments of closeness to his father rise to a poetic grace seldom encountered in the American novel.A triumph of literary style and psychological acumen, A Death in the Family excels in its brilliant attention to the too-often overlooked nuances of thought, speech, and action that comprise the true fabric of being. One of the most intensely personal novels ever written, it also transcends its author’s subjectivity to shed clear light on the mysteries of life and death, of faith and unbelief, in which all of us inescapably share. ABOUT JAMES AGEEJames Rufus Agee, known to his family as Rufus, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1909. His father, Hugh James Agee, or Jay, worked at a variety of jobs, including construction work for his wife’s family business. When James was nearing six, his father struck an embankment while driving home from visiting his own ailing father. The car flipped over, and Jay was killed instantly. The accident and its aftermath were etched into Agee’s memory. As his teenage years approached, Agee formed a close attachment to an Episcopal priest, Father James Flye, who became his mentor and surrogate father. Agee graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1928 and moved on to Harvard, where he studied literature under the eminent critic I. A. Richards. After graduating, Agee began a productive but difficult tenure with Fortune magazine. In 1936, on assignment with Fortune, Agee traveled to Alabama with photographer Walker Evans to report on the struggles of poor tenant farmers. Although Fortune rejected Agee’s piece on the subject, his collaboration with Evans led to a groundbreaking, though initially unpopular work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941. While working on a variety of fiction manuscripts, Agee wrote film criticism for the Nation and a number of screenplays, including The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. Battling alcoholism and heart disease, Agee worked for years to complete his magnum opus, a novel about his father’s death called A Death in the Family. On May 16, 1955, two days before the thirty-ninth anniversary of his father’s fatal accident, James Agee died of a massive heart attack in a New York taxicab. Published posthumously in 1957, A Death in the Family was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958. DISCUSSION QUESTIONSJames Agee was an enthusiastic reader of Sigmund Freud. How, if at all, is this interest reflected in A Death in the Family?Although A Death in the Family is a work of fiction, it is highly faithful to the actual events surrounding the death of James Agee’s father. Why do you think Agee chose to present his memories in a fictional account instead of as a nonfiction memoir?James Agee died before the text of A Death in the Family could be finalized and it was his editors who decided on the placement of the italicized nonchronological passages that appear at the ends of Parts One and Two. How does the insertion of these passages change the way one reads and understands the novel? Do you think Agee would have approved?The first section of the novel’s published text, “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” was published separately in Partisan Review in 1938. It formed no part of Agee’s manuscript for A Death in the Family. Why do you think Agee’s editors chose to commence the novel with this section? How does its inclusion affect the reading of Agee’s novel as a whole?Although Rufus and his father exchange relatively few words in Chapter 1, one senses that they are communicating deeply on a nonverbal level. What are the nature and substance of this communication, and what techniques does Agee use to establish the father-son bond in the space of only a few pages?What is Jay’s opinion of Rufus? How well does he appear to know his son? How do his views of Rufus differ from how the reader perceives the boy?Why did Mary’s family object to her marrying Jay? What effects does their opposition seem to have had on their marriage? Were her family’s misgivings justifiable?Assess Jay’s strong and weak points as a husband and father. Is he someone you would like to have had in your family? Why or why not?Agee chooses to narrate Jay’s relatively uneventful trip to his ailing father’s house, but he opts not to directly narrate the fatal return trip, choosing instead to describe the crash only through the secondhand accounts of characters who did not witness it. What do you think of this choice, and why do you suppose Agee made it?A Death in the Family is a novel about the pre-Civil Rights-era South, written and published just as the civil rights movement was gathering force. How do issues of race influence the novel, especially as they relate to Rufus?When the stranger calls to report Jay’s accident, he specifies that his family should “send a man out here” (p. 103). This is just one of the instances in the novel where roles and behavior are strongly dictated by gender. What commentaries are implied in A Death in the Family, and to what extent do you think Agee was aware of making them?Much of the philosophical tension in the novel arises because of Mary’s deep religiosity and her conflicts with characters like Jay, her brother Andrew, and her father Joel, whom “God in a wheelbarrow” would not convince to abandon his atheism (p. 172). In general, which side gets the better of the argument in this novel, faith or unbelief?What are your thoughts about the scene in which Jay’s ghost is thought to appear (Chapter 12)? How do the characters’ reactions to the supposed apparition reveal aspects of their personalities?Agee takes great pains to give balanced portraits of his characters, enabling us both to sympathize with and criticize them and their views. With which of Agee’s characters did you find it most difficult to sympathize, and why?One of Mary’s hardest moments comes in Chapter 14, when she must explain Jay’s death to their children. Do you agree with the way in which she does this? How should a parent of children of differing ages and levels of comprehension go about explaining an event like this?16. Rufus struggles to understand whether his father died, as his mother would have it, “because God wanted him” or, as Aunt Hannah explains it, because of a mechanical malfunction with the car (pp. 227, 234–235). Which explanation seems more plausible to him, and does it seem more likely that Rufus will grow up believing or disbelieving in God?How does the scene where Rufus discusses Jay’s death with the other schoolchildren (Chapter 16) influence the way in which he comes to terms with the event?Analyze the character of Father Jackson. Is he as contemptible as Rufus, young Catherine, and Andrew consider him? If not, why not? What accounts for his inability to relate more positively to the Follet children?In Chapter 20, Andrew describes how a butterfly settled on Jay’s coffin just before it was lowered into the ground, a moment that he contrasts violently with Father Jackson’s prim refusal to perform the complete burial service over the unbaptized Jay. What argument does Agee appear to be making about natural versus institutionalized religion?At the end of the novel, Andrew’s anti-Catholic screed convinces Rufus that Andrew hates Rufus’s mother. Is Rufus correct about this? If not, what is a better way to describe the unstable cocktail of emotions that Andrew feels toward Mary?

Editorial Reviews

"[James Agee's words] are so indelibly etched someplace inside of me that I couldn't reach to rub them out even if I wanted to. And I never want to." —Steve Earle, from the Introduction  "The work of a writer whose power with English words can make you gasp." —Alfred Kazin, The New York Times Book Review "It is, in the full sense, poetry. . . . The language of the book, at once luminous and discreet . . . remains in the mind." —The New Republic "Wonderfully alive." —The New Yorker   “A Death in the Family remains one of the most beautifully written of all American novels. James Agee’s talent was both luxuriant and precise, and the opening sequence is still one of the finest prose poems in our language. He is one of those writers who cause other writers to shiver with pure pleasure.” —Pat Conroy   “People I know who read A Death in the Family forty years ago still talk about it. So do I. It is a great book, and I’m happy to see it done anew.” —Andre Dubus   “For as long as fiction is read, James Agee’s A Death in the Family stands as an American masterpiece. There is no stronger, more moving document in our literature than this account of a father’s sudden death in the early years of our century. Here are the full spectrum of emotion and resonance, the tensile, perfectly nuanced language, the prayerful inquiry into identity itself, and characters so perfectly rounded that they exist in every specificity of inquiry, acute awareness, dumb love, and sensual arrest. This book has been my Bible; may it bless new generations of readers.” —Jayne Anne Phillips