Thoughts on James Agee’s A Death in the Family (by Bethany)

A Death in the Family cover image

A while ago, I posted about something called the Countdown to Concision challenge. For the first year and a half we had this blog, my posts typically ran in the 3500-4000-word range, and I wanted to coax myself to get to my points more quickly. That challenge never got off the ground the way I wanted it to, but I never stopped wanting to try it. There are 26 books involved in the challenge, all novels. I went through my book spreadsheet, sorted it by author’s last name, and then chose one book for each letter of the alphabet. The only other rule I followed is that each book had to be one that I had owned for a while and had a strong desire to read. In that sense, it’s like the Numbers challenge, except that for the Numbers challenge I chose classics and for the Countdown to Concision challenge I chose contemporary novels.

But then something funny happened: my posts started getting shorter on their own. Over the last few months my posts have shrunk on their own accord to about 1500 words. Recently a reader described one of my reviews as “succinct,” and at first I snorted at that, but then I reread the post and realized that it was succinct – and, at the same time, I realized that the review was complete as it was. I didn’t want to add anything else to it. This is unusual for me – I have always seemed to use more words than others to say what I want to say, and I’ve always felt a little embarrassed about that.

But the fact remains that I want to do the Countdown to Concision challenge. In some ways it will be even more interesting now that I am comfortably writing shorter reviews. The first book on the list is James Agee’s A Death in the Family, and I have wanted to read it for years. So I read it, and the thing is – I don’t think I could write 4000 words about this novel if I tried. I could include a lot of quotations, of course, but this is not a novel in which certain passages stand out, so I would be at a loss in terms of what to quote. So I’ve decided to write a regular (or perhaps even shorter than average) review of A Death in the Family and then add another book by an author whose last name starts with A, and that novel will be the one that gets a 4000-word review. I’ve chosen Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow. I’ve wanted to read this novel ever since it was published, and knowing Martin Amis I will have lots to say. Of course I will not be reading this novel right away, since I have the same huge on-deck circle of books that I always have. But time runs slowly in Purgatory; “soon” sometimes means six months or a year where reading is concerned. And when the time comes, I’ll tell you how it goes.


When will I stop taking the praise on book jackets seriously? In other areas of my life, I am a shrewd consumer. I assume out of hand that all TV commercials are full of lies, and when I see items on sale in the supermarket I scrutinize them for fishy smells and moldy spots. I rarely pay full price for clothes and would never dream of going anywhere near a mall on Black Friday – and don’t even get me started about the marketing of pharmaceuticals. But when it comes to books I am a supremely gullible consumer. For some reason I forget that bookselling is a consumer industry just like any other, and the words of praise plastered on the cover are just another iteration of the cute kids in TV cereal commercials. There are definitely some authors that I have permanently stricken from my list because of poor performance in their previous novels, but if an author is new to me or if I’ve rated his previous books at least somewhere above average, I can be very easily swayed by blurbs.

Now, A Death in the Family is as aggressively advertised as most other books, but it has something else going for it too: it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. I consider the Pulitzer to be one of the most reliable literary prizes. With the exceptions of Tinkers and The Goldfinch, I don’t think I’ve read a single Pulitzer winner that I didn’t think deserved the prize. Until now, that is.

This novel’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it is written in meticulous, minute detail and its plot is largely internal. The death referred to in the title is that of Jay Follet. Jay receives a call late at night from his drunken brother Ralph, who informs him that his father is dying. Jay gets dressed, promises his wife he will call in the morning, and sets off in his “tin Lizzie.” We last see him disembarking from a ferry. Later, his wife Mary gets a call from a stranger who reports that Jay has been involved in an accident. The stranger refuses to actually state that Jay is dead but asks Mary to send a male relative as soon as possible. Her brother Andrew agrees to go, and he returns with the information that Jay’s car overturned on a muddy road and that he died instantly, the only mark on his body being a small bruise on his chin. The irony of all this is that Jay ‘s father was not dying after all. Drunken Brother Ralph misread some signals and jumped the gun.

As you have probably already guessed, there are all kinds of levels of unreliability going on here. The stranger doesn’t want Mary to get the news from a stranger when she is all alone, and Andrew wants to comfort her by assuring her that Jay died instantly and didn’t suffer. Mary’s family slowly assembles at her house in the early hours: her elderly parents, her sister Hannah, Andrew, and a family friend named Walter who drives Mary’s parents over. Asleep upstairs are Jay and Mary’s children, Rufus and Catherine. The novel is told in the omniscient point of view, and most of the characters I’ve already mentioned take one or more turns to tell the story from their perspectives, but young Rufus Follet gets the microphone for longer than the others. Rufus is about seven – old enough to understand what death is but not old enough to understand all the layers of euphemism and innuendo adults use to talk about death – and he is baffled most of the time. The novel also contains a few italicized interludes (I call them ‘interludes’ because they are not numbered as the other chapters are) that are told from Rufus’s point of view. The tone of these interludes is nostalgic, and it seems clear to me that in the italicized sections we are being spoken to by the adult Rufus who is looking back on his childhood. We aren’t really told that in so many words, although a few references are made to the fact that the Tennessee of this novel is a “vanished” world. The opening section, which is italicized and which struck me at first as a “prologue” of some kind (I didn’t know at the time that there would be more of these italicized sections), is a lyrical meditation on what it was like to walk around in the evenings and see all the men of the town watering their lawns, still in the suits they wore to work. This section – which reminded me of the nauseating sentimentality of the first chapter of Dandelion Wine; said nauseating sentimentality is the reason I have never read the second chapter of Dandelion Wine – is dated 1915, and of course the fact that World War I (which was underway in Europe by 1915 but wouldn’t impact the daily lives of Americans until 1917) represents an abrupt transition in the lives of ordinary people, and the first decade and a half of the twentieth century tend to be treated as some kind of idyllic utopia that was abruptly destroyed by the war (and then by the influenza, and then by the dissolution and drunkenness and organized crime of the Prohibition years, and then by the Depression, and then by the second world war, and then by the Cold War, and then by George W. Bush. I might have missed a few links in that chain, but you get the idea). In college I took a course on British literature of the 1930’s that spent at least 2/3 of its time on this idea; the torpor and apathy that defined the post-WWI years has been written about beautifully by Orwell, by Auden, by Virginia Woolf, by Hemingway, by Fitzgerald, and by many others, and A Death of the Family does not add anything new to this body of literature. Another reader might not mind the clichés so much, but I’ve read so widely in the literature of this era that I was annoyed to have to slog through such familiar ideas again.

I do think, though, that Agee intends us to see the death of Jay Follet as more than just the death of Jay Follet. The novel was published in 1958, and its audience knew about everything that would happen after Jay’s funeral. The influenza might have carried off the comically hard-of-hearing grandmother, for example, and the war might have taken Andrew. Rufus and Catherine will be young adults when the stock market crashes in 1929, and Rufus will be of draftable age when Pearl Harbor launches the United States into the Second World War. It’s a form of dramatic irony: taking advantage of the knowledge of history that the readers have but that the characters do not. While the “family” in the title refers primarily to the Follets, but it also refers to all of the people who lived a comfortable, idyllic middle-class life in the United States before the First World War. Like the men who protect Mary from knowing the truth about how her husband died (we learn the truth from a cruel schoolmate of Rufus’s: Jay was pinned under the car and stuck there for over an hour before he was found, still alive but just barely), Americans would find ways (patriotism, etc.) to whitewash and euphemize what they suffered between 1917 and 1945. The truth will come out in little ways, of course. The town bully is always right around the next corner, wanting to see the look on your face when you find out what really happened.

This novel is overwritten – which should be no surprise, since it is often compared to the work of Thomas Wolfe – and given to paragraphs of more than a page long: interminable passages of internal monologue and description. I won’t torture you with examples. The writing isn’t all bad – at times it is actually quite moving – but it’s too stagnant. The whole novel takes place in and around the Follet’s house and left me feeling claustrophobic. This was likely Agee’s intent, and if so he pulled the effect off well, but as a reader I did not enjoy it.

I’ve read that James Agee is a perfectionist, and I know that the written work of perfectionists is often overly worked-over, edited into sterility. This is certainly the case with this novel, and while the thoughts and feelings of these characters are well rendered and even moving at times, this novel is not enjoyable to read. It was a chore and a headache, in spite of the passages that I enjoyed. These were just too few and far between.

This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, James Agee, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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