Better With Agee: "A Death in the Family" Five Decades Later

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 14 2009 1:31 PM

Better With Agee: "A Death in the Family" Five Decades Later

Next month would have been James Agee's 100 th birthday, and although he came nowhere close to seeing it, he might have liked the peace and retrospection old age brought. Agee was a Deep Southern romantic tempered by the harder climes of New York literary life; he was also self-destructive, manic, and overwrought, dying in a taxi from his second heart attack at 45. To commemorate his anniversary, Penguin recently reissued his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Death in the Family , first published posthumously in 1957. Set in the mid-1910s, Death follows the family of Rufus Follett, a 6-year-old in Knoxville, Tenn., through the crisis of his father's fatal car accident. But the book's real achievement is to give voice to subtler relationships among the people left behind.

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When people speak of Agee, they tend to speak first about the prose, and with good reason. Reading an Agee sentence is like settling into a water bed: The language comes in waves, throbbing and doubling back till you feel weightless and a little tight around the stomach—

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These realizations moved clearly through the senses, the memory, the feelings, the mere feeling of the place they paused at, about a quarter of a mile from home, on a rock under a stray tree that had grown in the city, their feet on undomesticated clay, facing north through the night over the Southern Railway tracks and over North Knoxville, towards the deeply folded small mountains and the Powell River Valley, and above them, the trembling lanterns of the universe, seeming so near, so intimate, that when the air stirred the leaves and their hair, it seemed to be the breathing, the whispering of the stars.

But churning virtuosity only goes so far. Death is a masterpiece because of its unidealized portrait of the Folletts' behavior under pressure. Agee inhabits the consciousness of every major character—Rufus' 3-year-old sister and drunkard uncle alike—to build a narrative mosaic of family manners and miscommunication. Within hours of his fathers' death, Rufus' grown-up relatives fall into passive-aggressive discussion about what should go on the gravestone. His mother struggles with the politics of who should manage what. His grandfather and uncle despair for the religious "hocus-pocus" that she turns to for support. Piece by piece, Agee teases out the weave of affection, self-interest, and petty judgment that holds the family together.

The novel's authenticity was forged out of experience. Agee went by "Rufus" in childhood, and his father, also eponymous in the book, indeed died in a car accident en route to Knoxville. The loss changed Agee's trajectory, setting into motion the events that led him to New England, then Harvard, then New York. It may have made a writer of him, too. Whether in Death or in the 1938 prose poem that serves as its prologue (set to music by Samuel Barber as the exquisite Knoxville: Summer of 1915 ), Agee kept returning in fiction to the childhood landscape he'd lost in life. "[N]ostalgia for much that I remembered very accurately," he called it. More than half a century after his death, that accuracy still shines through on the page.

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.