Tennessee-born writer James Agee died suddenly in 1955, leaving his wife, three young children, and about $450. Oh, and the manuscript of an autobiographical novel. This dealt with the loss of his father, who died in an auto accident when Agee was 6 years old. Editor David McDowell, a family friend and the Agee trustee, wished to help Agee's children, and so he assembled the manuscript for publication. Quite effectively, it turned out. A Death in the Family — the title McDowell provided — won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. In the novel's preface, McDowell wrote that it appeared "exactly as [Agee] wrote it."
Nearly 50 years later, the James Agee Trust opened its archives to scholarly inspection. There Michael A. Lofaro, a University of Tennessee professor of English, discovered substantial portions of A Death in the Family that didn't make McDowell's cut. With the blessing of the Agee Trust, Lofaro put together another version of Agee's classic, which hit the shelves last year.
In the preface to the restored edition, Lofaro contends that McDowell left more than 10 chapters out and disrupted Agee's planned sequence, transforming a straight narrative into a story with flashbacks and dream sequences. Lofaro insists that Agee intended a straight chronology, and provides the following excerpt of Agee's notes on the book as evidence: "Maximum simple: Just the story of my relation with my father and, through that, as thorough as possible an image of him: winding into other things on the way but never dwelling on them." Another Agee snippet states: "[This book] Begins with my first remembrance; ends the evening of his burial." This says nothing of what Agee planned for the pages between the beginning and end, and the readers who bother with Lofaro's introduction will come away convinced only that academics shouldn't nitpick when there's beautiful art to look at.
The restoration project needs no justification, because more Agee is a wonderful gift. We should be grateful for Lofaro's excavation. Lofaro the editor presents the novel without academic interruption, saving his scholarly commentary for the 200 pages of appendices. The story flows along smoothly in chronological order. The reason to buy the restored text, though, is just that: the restored text. The 10 or so chapters that McDowell axed and the substantial amounts of material that he omitted from the chapters originally included enhance
A Death in the Family.
Agee writes about himself, "Rufus," as a young boy in East Tennessee. Agee's sharp details bring the reader practically into Rufus' brogans. You feel his dizzy joy aboard the merry-go-round in Knoxville's Chilhowee Park, his wounded disappointment at his father's praise of his intelligence (Rufus would prefer recognition for bravery, and understands that this would come first if it would at all), and you can smell the hickory and oak smoke that clings to the quilt pinned to his mama's shoulders on a cool evening.
But this is a story of and about death, and death hangs heavily over Rufus, and over Agee. The merry-go-round, Rufus' sporty new cap, and a ride in the new family car, written so sweetly, still tighten the knot in your throat, because you know, like Agee knew, that it's coming. We just don't know when.