A Death in the Family
A Death in the Family
James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family is a classic American story, chronicling just a few days in 1915 during which a husband and father is called out of town to be with his own father, who has had a heart attack, and while returning is killed in a car accident. Agee patterned the story closely after his own life, focusing on a boy who is the same age that he was when his father died. The narrative shifts from one perspective to another, including the young widow and her two children and her atheistic father and the dead man’s alcoholic brother, to name just a few, in an attempt to capture the ways in which one person’s loss immediately and powerfully affects everyone around.
The book was published in 1957 by McDowell, Obolensky, two years after Agee’s death from heart failure at the age of 46, and was awarded the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Although Agee had worked on it for almost a decade, he had not produced a definitive final draft, and so his publishers had to put the book together in a way that they believed would make the most sense. They have indicated places where they added materials that come from outside of the flow of the story, such as the opening section “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” which was first published in the 1940s. Critics agree that the end product is a consistent novel, one of the most moving works ever written about one of the most traumatic experiences a child could ever face.
James Rufus Agee was born on November 27, 1909, in Knoxville, Tennessee. As a boy, he was always called by his middle name, the name given to the main character in A Death in the Family. When he was six, Agee’s father died in an automobile accident. Agee was sent to boarding school in his childhood, then to Philips Exeter Academy, which was to become a strong influence throughout his life. He then went to Harvard University, where he received an associate’s degree in 1932. He married the first of his three wives the following year and went to work at Fortune, one of the country’s preeminent business magazines. Though Agee’s left-leaning politics disagreed with the magazine’s focus on finance, his work there gave him the opportunity to work on his poetry.
In 1936, Fortune sent Agee and photographer Walker Evans to Alabama to report on the lives of tenant farmers. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and the suffering and dignity that Evans and Agee saw in their poor uneducated subjects impressed them so much that, when the magazine rejected their subsequent article, they expanded it to book length. The book, titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), was ignored by a reading public that was focused on America’s coming involvement in World War II. Today, the book is considered to be one of the most important and moving documents available of that time.
While still working on the book, Agee branched out into another field of writing, that of movie reviewing. His reviews for Time and later for the Nation would in themselves have secured his place in the country’s literary heritage, bringing an intellectual approach to reviewing just as film was gaining respect as an art form. His reviews, collected after his death in the two-volume collection Agee on Film, are as enjoyable as they are instructive.
In 1951, Agee published The Morning Watch, which gained only lukewarm critical response. He then combined his storytelling skills with his understanding of film and began writing screenplays. His first script was for The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. It won Academy Award nominations for Agee and its director, John Huston. That same year, Agee suffered his first heart attack. Over the next few years, as he worked on A Death in the Family and his screenplay for the film Night of the Hunter, he suffered a series of heart attacks, eventually dying of heart failure on May 16, 1955.
Knoxville: Summer, 1915
The segment titled “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” was originally published independently of A Death in the Family. In it, the speaker identifies himself as a grownup looking back on his childhood. He does not mention the characters who appear in the book: still, the quiet neighborhood evenings that Agee remembers in this section resemble ones experienced by young Rufus in the story that follows it.
The first chapter focuses on the perspective of Rufus Follett, a six-year-old boy in Knoxville, Tennessee. Rufus and his father go to a Charlie Chaplin motion picture. On the way home, the father stops at a tavern, bragging about his son to the other people there. He tells Rufus to not tell his mother they stopped. In bed and falling asleep, Rufus hears his parents talking in the next room, vaguely understanding that his father is going somewhere.
Jay Follet, the father of Rufus, receives a call late, around two in the morning, from his younger brother, Ralph. Ralph is drunk and explains, unclearly, that their father has had a heart attack. Jay is not able to tell just how serious it is but agrees to drive miles to the town where they live immediately.
He tells his wife, Mary, to stay in bed, that he can stop at a diner for something to eat, but she insists on making him a breakfast before his journey. In exchange, he makes the bed, as a surprise for her after he is gone. He tells her to think about something that she wants for her birthday that is coming up, and they share a happy, loving moment as he leaves into the darkness in the middle of the night.
To cross the Powell river in his overnight car ride, Jay has to waken a man asleep at a ferry crossing. The man has Jay drive onto his boat, warning him that he will have to pay double fare to cover the boat’s round-trip voyage, even though Jay himself is only going one way. When they reach the other side, though, they find a family in a horsedrawn wagon, waiting to take their produce to market. The ferryman says that he cannot fairly charge Jay the nighttime rate for a “dark crossing” since there is someone to pay for the boat’s return trip.
Before rising that morning, Mary lies in bed and thinks about her relationship with Jay. Though they have had difficult times, and his family has not been good to her, she prays to God that their future together will be peaceful.
Mary explains to her children, Rufus and Catherine, that their father was called away and that he hopes to be home by the time they go to bed. In telling them that their grandfather might be dying, she discusses God and God’s mysterious ways with them.
Jay arrives at the family’s house in LaFollette and finds that his father is not really in mortal danger. The narrative describes the events of the evening before from Ralph’s point of view. Their father had suffered a worse heart attack than any he had suffered before, and the handyman called family and friends together. Distraught, Ralph had brought a bottle of liquor to the house with him and, as he drank through the night, had become increasingly angry and paranoid. He phoned Jay to make himself feel important.
- A Death in the Family was adapted to the stage as the play All the Way Home in 1960; a film version of the play was made in 1963.
- On March 25, 2002, PBS broadcast an adaptation of A Death in the Family directed by Gil Cates and starring Annabeth Gish and James Cromwell, as part of its Masterpiece Theatre series. It was written by Robert W. Lenski. The series was later released on VHS from Public Broadcasting System.
While Rufus’s father is away, Hannah Lynch, Mary’s aunt, stops by to take the boy shopping. They have a strong relationship and enjoy shopping together. At the end of the expedition, Aunt Hannah buys him a cap, which is something that he wanted but his parents refused him.
Chapter 7 finishes Part I of the book with an extended scene, from the young boy’s point of view, of being frightened in the darkness of night and of being comforted by his father with songs and with a stuffed doll that he had lost when he was younger. He then remembers the mystery surrounding his mother’s pregnancy with his sister and the process of finding out about it.
Part II starts with Mary receiving a phone call saying that Jay has been in an accident. She calls her brother Andrew, who has his friend Walter Starr drive him to the site. While they are gone, Mary discusses her fears with Aunt Hannah, as she tries to hope that it might not be a very bad accident, although each passing minute makes it clear that something is terribly wrong.
Mary’s parents, Catherine and Joel, who stayed home when Andrew received the call, wait for word about Jay.
Andrew returns and confirms Mary’s fear that Jay is dead. In shock, Mary asks for all of the details, but he leaves them until their parents can arrive.
With Mary’s parents in the house, Andrew gives the details of how Jay died: a cotter pin fell out, and he was unable to control the car, hitting his chin on the steering wheel and dying instantly.
All of the people in the house feel a strange presence, and they become convinced that it is Jay’s spirit, come home one last time. Only Joel Lynch, Mary’s father, is skeptical about whether they have experienced a true supernatural event. In the end, Andrew takes his parents home, leaving Aunt Hannah to stay with Mary and to care for the children when they awake.
Mary’s parents and brother walk home, and Mary and Hannah go to bed. The focus shifts to Rufus’s memories. This section begins with his encounters with the older boys on the block who took interest in him, having him dance and sing, though he could tell that they were laughing at him. It ends with a long story about a trip that the family once took out into the country to visit the oldest Follet, Rufus’s great-great grandmother, who was born in 1802. Though she could hardly talk, she recognized people and hugged Rufus.
Rufus and Catherine wake in the morning, and their mother tells them that their father will not be coming home.
Aunt Hannah tries to explain death to Rufus and Catherine, telling them that it is God’s will. Catherine still asks when their father is coming home.
After breakfast, Rufus wanders outside, amazed that he does not have to go to school. He encounters the children who have bullied him. Some mock his father, calling him a drunk, or the car for being cheap, but most are sympathetic and a little in awe of Rufus.
Father Jackson comes to the house. He is stern with the children, lecturing them about manners. The children are visited by Walter Starr, who treats them well and expresses his respect for Jay.
They go to the house of Mary’s parents, where the body is laid out for viewing, and see Jay’s corpse.
Walter takes the children away, but he breaks the family’s wishes and lets them watch the funeral procession from a hidden place because he thinks it is important for them.
They return to their grandparents’ house that evening. Feeling ignored, Catherine hides under the bed. Mary’s brother Andrew takes Rufus for a walk and tells him an uplifting story about a butterfly that landed on the casket as it was lowered in the grave. His spiritual amazement gives way, however, to anger at Father Jackson, who has refused to give the full funeral prayer because Jay was never baptized. Rufus assumes that this antireligious stance means that his uncle hates Mary.
George Bailey is the husband of Jay’s sister Jessie.
Jessie Bailey is the sister of Jay and Ralph.
When he is traveling to LaFollette in the middle of the night, Jay Follet has to wake a Ferryman, whose job is to ride cars across the river on his flat ferryboat. The Ferryman is prepared to charge Jay a double rate but, finding a horse-drawn wagon of people going toward town and paying for the boat’s return trip, can only fairly charge the single rate.
The young daughter of the Follet family, Catherine is frequently unaware of what is going on around her. She does not understand the full implications of her father’s death and expects him to return to the family later. In the last chapter, as she moves around the house unnoticed, Catherine begins to understand the seriousness of what has happened.
See Jay Follet
Jay, also known as James Follet, is the man who dies in the novel. He is stable and reliable. He is shown to have been a favorite of his mother and his great-grandmother. Walter Starr, a family friend, is near tears as he tries to express to Jay’s children his great admiration for Jay, who worked himself up from humble roots.
There are indications that Jay has not always been stable and reliable. After he leaves for his parents’ house, his wife Mary reflects on the difficult times they have had as a couple, and on a “gulf” between them. His great aunt Sadie mentions sending a postcard to Jay and Mary in Panama, indicating that Jay has been a wanderer. Agee hints that Jay has had problems with alcohol in the past. Near the end of the first section, recalling his childhood, Rufus remembers fights between his parents concerning whiskey, an idea supported by the facts that Jay asks Rufus to keep their visit to a tavern a secret and that the neighbor children assume that he died from driving drunk.
Mary is the wife of Jay, and the mother of Rufus and Catherine. She is a devout Catholic, praying for her husband’s safety when he leaves the house in the middle of the night to go to his ailing father, praying even more that God’s will is merciful when she hears that he has been in an accident, and relying most heavily on her faith when she hears that he has died. Throughout the night of her sudden widowhood, Mary drinks more whiskey than she ever would have thought possible, feeling no effect from it. She is constantly surprised that she is able to cope with the whole ordeal as well as she is, though, when it comes time to leave for the funeral, her legs give out under her.
Ralph, Jay’s brother, is an undertaker. He lives near his parents’ house and is summoned over when his father has a heart attack. While relatives wait for the doctor to determine just how serious the danger is, Ralph, an alcoholic, sneaks outside to drink. His weak attempt to hide the fact that he is drinking fails, especially when he hits his head on the door, pretending to go to the outhouse, and returns bleeding. He is alternately humiliated and self-righteous, and both moods drive him to drink more. When he calls in the middle of the night, Jay can tell he is drunk, and his trouble obtaining reliable information is the reason he leaves Knoxville to drive to the family house. Ralph’s alcoholism is so well-known that Mary refuses to talk to him when the news comes out that Jay is dead; her brother Andrew, who has had to tell Ralph that they are using an in-town undertaker, comes away explaining “Talking to that fool is like trying to put socks on an octopus.”
The book is focused on six-year-old Rufus, particularly during the autobiographical sections that the publishers have added at the end of Parts I and II. In these sections, which take place before the death of his father, Rufus is becoming aware of his place in society. He observes the social patterns of his neighborhood in Knoxville, five generations of his father’s family, and the behaviors of his peers. His family showers him with love and his father affords him protection from his childhood fears in these flashbacks. When dealing with other children, however, Rufus finds that he is for some reason ostracized. He believes their interest in them is honest, at first, but the suspicion that they are mocking him grows when he hears them repeating things he has said and laughing.
Before his father’s death, Rufus is anxious to grow up and be treated like an adult. He feels that his parents treat him like a child, and so he makes a point of giving orders to his sister Catherine, who is younger than he. The death pushes him into adulthood in ways that he could not anticipate.
Rufus’s response to his father’s death is less emotional than one might expect. He understands the idea of death and is blunt about stating it. He is saddened, but he also is mystified by the social customs surrounding death: the people coming to the house; the fact that he is kept home from school; the genuine interest and even respect of the children who had made fun of him.
At the end of the book, Rufus is just starting to show anger over the situation. When his uncle Andrew curses about the priest’s refusal to say certain prayers over Jay Follet, who was not baptized, Rufus does not agree with Andrew but instead silently accuses his uncle of hating his devout Christian mother, indicating that, in the future, Rufus might be less accepting, less curious, and more defensive.
Sally is Ralph’s wife. She is ashamed of Ralph’s drinking, a fact that he is well aware of. In his mind, Ralph accuses Sally of wanting other men but then remembers that he is unfaithful himself.
The grandmother of Jay’s father, Granmaw is roughly 103 years old when the family travels out into the unoccupied hills to visit her in a memory that Rufus has at the end of Part II. She does not seem to be aware of the people who have come before her, but she responds favorably when Rufus is sent forward to kiss her and talk to her.
Father Jackson is a Catholic priest who has come from Chattanooga to officiate at the funeral of Jay Follet. He is a stern man who, when left alone with the children, does not console them but instead corrects them on their manners. Hannah is resentful that Father Jackson does not leave the room when Mary is preparing for the funeral and her knees falter. Mary’s brother Andrew is livid with anger that Father Jackson refuses to read the complete funeral service for Jay because Jay was not baptized.
In the memory that Rufus has of staying with his father’s family when he was young, Aunt Kate and her husband, Uncle Ted, come from Michigan to visit. Aunt Kate is the daughter of Rufus’s grandmother’s half sister.
When a man from out of town phones Mary and asks her to send a male family member to the accident scene, she phones her brother Andrew. Andrew takes the situation in hand, making arrangements for the body when he finds Jay dead, instead of calling Mary. He holds the information about Jay’s death until he can show up and tell Mary about it in person.
For most of the novel, Andrew is on the periphery of the action, waiting for ways that he can be helpful to his sister. At the end he takes his nephew Rufus for a walk to talk with him individually. He tells him about a butterfly that landed on the casket as it was lowered into the grave, an event so spiritually uplifting that Andrew feels that Rufus ought to know about it. His wonderment is quickly followed, though, with hatred for Father Jackson, who has refused to read the full funeral service over Jay because he was not baptized. Andrew’s hatred for the Catholic church at that time makes Rufus assume that Andrew hates Mary, too.
Catherine, Mary’s mother, is hard of hearing. As a result, she and her husband Joel are asked to stay home while Mary waits for news of the crash in the middle of the night, because conversation with Catherine would mean shouting into the ear trumpet she uses to magnify sounds. When they do go to the house in the middle of the night, Catherine is often left out of conversations because family members are speaking in hushed tones. This isolation, though, supports the idea that Jay’s spirit has come through the house: while the fact that the others talk about it might be dismissed as just a collective mood, the fact that Catherine had the same sensation independently makes the experience much more real.
Hannah, Mary’s maiden aunt, makes herself available to help around the household during the crisis. She enters the novel before Jay Follet’s death, when he is just away to his parents’ house. She takes Rufus shopping, showing a bond with the boy when she buys him a cap that he has wanted but that his parents would not allow him to have. When news comes that Jay has been in an accident, Mary asks Aunt Hannah to come to her house and wait with her; after it has been determined that Jay is dead, she asks Hannah to stay the night. Hannah watches over the children while Mary is rendered incapable by grief.
Mary’s father Joel works with Jay, though the novel does not specify what their business is. When the family is gathered together on the night of Jay’s death and talking about spiritual matters, Joel is respectful, but he is open and honest about the fact that he cannot believe in God.
Oaks is a handyman on the grandparents’ ranch up in LaFollette.
Great Aunt Sadie
The sister of Jay’s grandfather, she lives in a house out in the hills and tends to her own mother, who is referred to as “Granmaw.” Sadie is an exacting woman, greatly angry with herself when she finds that she forgot Jay’s family had sent her a notice of their new address. She feels that, with her aged mother to look after, she cannot afford to have any slips in her memory.
Walter is a friend of the family who is glad to make himself available during the family’s time of need. He has a car, and drives Andrew out to the accident site in the middle of the night. Later, he takes the children to his house during the funeral, but he breaks the family’s wishes and lets them watch the funeral procession from a hidden place because he thinks it is important for them. He talks to them in a positive, uplifting way.
When he is left alone with the children at the funeral, Walter tells them of the tremendous respect that he had for their father: “Well, I thought the world of him, Rufus and Catherine. My own wife and son couldn’t mean more to me I think.” He goes on to describe himself as an ordinary man, noting that he thought Jay was one of the finest men who ever lived.
Rufus remembers Uncle Ted and his wife, Aunt Kate, visiting and going for a train ride into the Smoky Mountains with his family. Uncle Ted buys him a toy and is funny, but then he jokes that Rufus can make the cheese plate come to him by whistling for it. Rufus is too young to understand this as a joke, and his mother chastises Uncle Ted for taking advantage of the boy’s trusting nature.
Victoria is a midwife who helped Mary through her pregnancy with Rufus and, in Rufus’s memory, returns to help deliver his sister Catherine. She is the first black person that Rufus has ever met, and his parents insist that he treat her with respect, which is not a problem because he has a genuine fondness for her.
In a way, A Death in the Family stands as an extended meditation on human vulnerability. The story’s figure of strength is the father, Jay Follet, a man who, it is revealed, has lived a hard life, raised himself up from humble beginnings in a log cabin, overcome problems with alcohol and marital instability and come out better for them all. When they find out that he is dead, his children immediately wonder how anybody could hurt him. Jay’s death in a car accident could have been rendered as a bloody and violent, but Agee makes a point of noting frequently in the story that it actually takes very little to kill him: it is not the car careening up an embankment and flipping over on its back that does Jay in, but a mild little bump on the chin, causing a nearly imperceptible mark. Agee’s point seems to be that, despite the sturdiness of the human body and its capacity to withstand a lifetime of pain and suffering, life can be cut short by just about any unexpected action.
Topics for Further Study
- Research various funerary rites of different cultures and report on what each would have to offer the Follet family in a situation like the one presented in the book.
- The cabin that Rufus’s Great Great Grandmother and his Great Aunt Sadie live in is back in the woods, away from civilization. Write a narrative describing what you think a day in the lives of these old women might be like.
- In the first chapter, Mary Follet refers to the actor Charlie Chaplin as “that horrid little man.” Read a description of Chaplin from one of the film historians who think that he was one of the great geniuses of film comedy; then, watch a Chaplin silent movie from 1915 or before. Stage a debate between a Chaplin supporter and an opponent.
- Recall a death in your own family and describe how specific family members behaved; then, explain which members of the Follet or Lynch families you think those people you described were most like, and why.
Similarly, the family organism is vulnerable to unexpected loss. At the moment when Jay is torn away, his relationship with Mary is on the verge of a new beginning that she finds surprising. Their relationship up to then had been colder: his thoughtfulness about her coming birthday and the sweet gesture of his preparing her bed come as pleasant surprises to Mary. By putting Jay’s death at a point where their love is growing, not fading or staying the same, Agee emphasizes the fact that life is fragile, and that not even love matters to death’s approach.
The most vulnerable character, though, is Rufus, who is six years old when his father dies. Several factors make this loss particularly powerful to him. His sister Catherine, though younger, cannot fully understand the situation the way Rufus can, as Agee shows clearly when their mother first tells them about the accident: Catherine still waits for her father to return, but Rufus cuts through the delicate language about God calling Jay home to ask, “Is daddy dead?” Another reason that Rufus is particularly vulnerable is that, as a son, he has had a strong bond with his male parent, which Agee stresses by opening the novel with father and son attending a movie and walking home together. Although the book looks at the situation from various perspectives, most readers and critics remember it as Rufus’s story, because he is the most vulnerable character, most sorely affected by Jay Follet’s death.
Consolation and Comfort
Although this story is about human vulnerability, it is also about the ways that humans bond together to help make that vulnerability bearable. Part II, in particular, focuses on Mary’s relatives coming together at her house on the night of the death, doing what they can to ease her suffering. For her brother Andrew and family friend Walter Starr, this means action: they are the ones who go to the scene of the accident, so that Mary will not have to face the gruesome details of Jay’s death. For Mary’s Aunt Hannah, the best way to comfort Mary, as she thinks several times throughout the night, is suppressing her own ideas, so that Mary can discover the things that she needs to experience about grief as she is ready for them. Her father waits until they are alone to quietly tell Mary that he will take care of the financial details so she need not bother herself with worldly concerns, and her mother, isolated by her own deafness, allows the conversation to go on around her, despite her frustration, rather than ask people to repeat things that Mary might find upsetting. Collectively, they bend their own values to the situation, as indicated by the fact that they allow Mary to drink too much if that is what she feels like doing, knowing that her comfort is more important than their own skepticism about alcohol.
In general, the adults in this story do little to comfort the children. Mary, when she is with them, tries to make their burden more bearable, but her own grief is so overwhelming that she is kept too busy just truing to convince herself that she is going to cope. When she does talk with them, it is in terms of abstract Catholic theology that is meaningless to them. Aunt Hannah, also, is too busy with practical considerations to be much consolation, despite the fact that Agee establishes a strong personal bond between her and Rufus. The figures most comforting to Rufus are the two male figures closest in age to his departed father, Walter Starr and Andrew. Walter, who is himself a father, speaks directly to Rufus and Catherine about what a good man Jay was, which is just the sort of thing they need to hear; later, he lets them view the funeral procession because he decides that it is what they need. Andrew takes Rufus into his confidence, conferring on him the adulthood that he has been struggling with. This has positive implications, when he talks of the butterfly at the gravesite and Rufus realizes that this is something Andrew would tell to no one but him, but it also brings the burden of responsibility when Andrew rails against religion, detracting from what might have been one possible source of consolation for the boy.
It would be difficult to discuss A Death in the Family without looking at the role religion and particularly Catholicism plays in this traumatic episode in the characters’ lives. There is no denying that the novel has a distinct spiritual vein, and that a belief in the supernatural helps to make Jay Follet’s death bearable. In Chapter 12, the assembled members of Mary’s family feel a presence that they cannot explain in any other way except to say that it is Jay’s spirit walking among them, and Andrew, in the end, observes a butterfly at the casket that he feels sure is a sign of Jay’s continuing on in the afterlife.
Agee is less clear in his portrayal of organized religion. On the one hand, it is shown to be a force for good, in that prayer gives Mary a way of coping with her life, which she feels is being torn apart by a “gulf” and a “widening” even before she suffers her devastating loss. On the other hand, Catholicism is represented in this novel by Father Jackson, a cold man who is shown first badgering the children at the time of their loss because of his focus on “manners” and then denying Mary the full prayer service because Jay, who was not baptized, is not strictly eligible. Father Jackson may carry the weight of the Catholic church, but he is clearly the least admirable character in the novel.
Agee’s own religious belief is reflected best in the skepticism of Mary’s father. When surrounded by the faith of others, Joel Lynch is respectful, and even a little jealous, because he cannot find within himself the faith that supports them. He is not opposed to faith—he says that it would not hurt him to have some, and in fact might do him some good—but he finds himself without any understanding of anything beyond the experience of his senses.
Point of View
Some novels maintain a consistent point of view, that is, they tell their story from the perspective of one character. In A Death in the Family, however, Agee has chosen to alternate points of view. The novel is told at different times from the perspectives of each of the members of the main family discussed (Rufus, Jay, Mary and Catherine), as well as from the viewpoints of such secondary characters as Aunt Hannah, Ralph, Andrew, and Mary’s mother and father. With this approach to the material, Agee is able to make this the story of a whole family, and not just the story of any one particular character.
In literature, a symbol is something that has both specific and general meaning: it fits into the story, but also indicates a meaning beyond its own place. Agee uses symbols in A Death in the Family that have personal, cultural, and spiritual meanings.
The cap that Rufus receives from his Aunt Hannah, for instance, has a symbolic meaning for him that other characters in the story do not recognize. To his parents, the cap is a foolish desire, a frivolous and unnecessary expense. To Rufus, though, the cap symbolizes a level of maturity that others do not yet see in him. Its symbolic meaning is so strong to him that he focuses on it throughout the night, anxious to show it to his father as a mark of achievement.
Readers might not think much of the Ferryman who carries Jay across the river in Chapter 3, unless they are aware of classical Greek literature. In Greek myth, the souls of the dead are ferried across the river Styx by Charon, the silent old boatman in charge of bringing new souls from the world of the living into Hades. While the Ferryman fits comfortably into the book, and would not be out of place in Tennessee in 1915, the use of a figure from antiquity foreshadows, for those familiar with the myth, the fact that Jay will never return from the far bank of the river.
The most poignant symbol, however, is the butterfly in the story that Andrew tells Rufus about his father’s burial. The reader does not need any outside understanding of what the butterfly symbolizes because Andrew explains its significance to his nephew, telling him that he thinks it is as much a miracle as anything he has ever seen. He makes the event miraculous for Rufus by sharing the story with Rufus when he would not share it with anyone else in the family. In this way, the meaning Andrew sees in the butterfly, Jay’s soul being released, becomes real precisely because he has found meaning in it.
One aspect of the novel that is notably different than the way life is in contemporary America is the closeness of extended families, with adult children frequently living with or near their parents. When Jay’s father is stricken with a heart attack, his son Ralph and daughter Jessie and their spouses are available to be at his bedside; when Jay dies, his wife’s brother, her aunt, and her parents are within walking distance; and Great Aunt Sadie, a woman who is herself in her eighties, has responsibility for the well-being of her mother. In rural societies, as Tennessee was in the early part of the twentieth century, it is more common to find extended families supporting each other than it is in urban areas. Traditionally, populations of rural areas have been determined by the need for help: before industrialization, parents on family farms tended to have more children based on their need for helping hands.
By the time the book was written, though, there had been several dramatic shifts in the American population that weakened the family structure. For one thing, the country became overwhelmingly city-oriented during the first half of the century. In 1910, there had been 46 million people counted as rural residents and only two thirds that, or 30 million, were rural. By 1950, the percentages were more than reversed: 54 million people were rural, and 96 million were urban. This population shift is seen even more dramatically when it is realized that, a decade later, the rural population had stayed constant at 54 million, but the urban population had jumped to 125 million. In part, this population shift was caused by younger people leaving rural areas and going to the cities in search of work, especially during the Great Depression, which spanned from the stock market crash of 1929 until America’s entry into World War II in 1941.
Compare & Contrast
- 1915: The Ford Model T, or “Tin Lizzy,” revolutionizes transportation by offering affordable, mass-produced transportation to middle-class families.
1950s: The automobile is an icon of the age, as materials and products that were unavailable during the Great Depression and World War II allow car makers to build their products bigger and faster.
Today: Many drivers insist on sport utility vehicles because they want to feel safe, while others find the big, fortress-like vehicles to be a waste of fossil fuels.
- 1915: It is not unusual for a family like the Follets to have a black nurse like Victoria, though southern states like Tennessee are strictly segregated.
1950s: The Civil Rights movement is on the rise to destroy institutional racism.
Today: Legal penalties are in place to punish racism, but blacks and whites in America still have vastly different outlooks and viewpoints.
- 1915: The “ear trumpet” used by Mary’s mother to augment her hearing is a relic, dating back to the 1800s. Electronic hearing aids are available, though not common.
1950s: Transistor technology has made possible hearing aids that are small enough to be carried in a shirt pocket.
Today: Hearing aids are powerful and small enough to be worn unnoticed within the ear canal.
- 1915: Funeral parlors are in existence, but are only popular in urban areas. In a relatively small town like Knoxville, it is still common to hold wakes and funerals in the house of the deceased or a loved one.
1950s: Americans are accustomed to their last viewing of deceased loved ones happening at a local funeral parlor owned by a member of the community.
Today: Like much else in society, the funeral business is increasingly run by corporations, while consumers have an expanding variety of methods of self-expression in funerary arrangements that have become commonly accepted.
- 1915: Long distance telephone service makes it possible to place a cross-continent call between New York and San Francisco.
1950s: Telephone usage is common—there are about 55 million phones in the United States—but still expensive. Long distance calls are often placed through an operator.
Today: Wireless phones have made it possible and affordable to call to anywhere, from anywhere.
City life was, almost by definition, less oriented around the family than the rural life that had dominated American culture in earlier centuries. Without the family structure to support them, millions of citizens, especially those who were older and less able to work, were faced with poverty. In 1935, during the height of the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, to provide financial support for citizens who otherwise would be destitute. The support that this Act gave to elderly citizens who were on their own made older relatives less dependent on their younger relatives for simple subsistence.
When Agee was working on this book in the 1950s, the family was also being weakened by the distractions that come from a leisure-oriented society. Television, in particular, became a massmedium in the fifties, bringing the outside world into homes more vividly than radio ever could. The world that Agee describes in “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” a world of families gathering together on front lawns, playing with each other and mingling with the neighbors, was fragmented, as television offered a reason to stay isolated. Family discussion, once a focal point in households, became viewed as a distraction. As the family drifted apart, the fifties bred a youth culture, with teenagers seeking to develop identities distinct from those of their parents and of earlier generations.
Assessments of A Death in the Family at the time of its publication indicate that reviewers were not just out to honor the memory of a good writer who had died, but that they saw the qualities of the novel that have made it an American classic. Dwight MacDonald, writing in The New Yorker, noted that even though Agee died before final editing, the book “reads like a finished work—brilliant, moving, and written with an objectivity and a control he had not achieved before.” Most reviews, like that written by Melvin Maddocks in The Christian Science Monitor, were generally pleased with the book while still recognizing its weaknesses. Examining how difficult it is to write convincingly from a child’s perspective, Maddocks notes that “James Agee’s posthumous novel is proof that the job can sometimes be managed accurately as well as fondly, vividly as well as indulgently.” Maddocks goes on to list faults: “It can be merely rhetorical as well as eloquent. The words that click and shuttle to weave a vivid sensory pattern can also produce cotton wool… . Furthermore, it is doubtful that the novel was as completely finished as its publishers indicate.” The fact that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is an indication of the esteem held for this novel by critics of its time.
As the years have passed, A Death in the Family has come to be seen as James Agee’s legacy, the lasting achievement of a writer who was mostly known in his day for his transitory magazine writing. Though it is uneven and very personal, the novel approaches one of life’s most moving experiences with a poetic sensibility that speaks to readers across the generations. As Victor A. Kramer, a critic who has written extensively about Agee’s life and career, wrote it in his essay “Urban and Rural Balance in A Death in the Family,”
The text for Agee’s unfinished A Death in the Family is … a book that functions on several levels at once: it is Agee’s memorial; it is his examination of self; it is a picture of a particular era when urban and rural were blended; it is an archetypal rendering of what all persons learn, live, and love.
Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing at two colleges in Illinois. In this essay, Kelly looks at Agee’s use of geographical space.
James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family is primarily, as its straightforward title indicates, about an emotional moment in a closed family unit including its surrounding relations. Agee’s narrative travels from one point-of-view to another, giving his readers a range of perspectives, all used to show the void the death of Jay Follet, husband and father, creates. The book also travels through time, though that might not be a mark of Agee’s artistry as much as it is the work of the editors who, after his death, wove outside material into the book. The story of Jay’s death takes place across the span of just a few days, ranging from the night before it to a few days after, at his funeral; the included material, though, goes back to a time when Jay’s son Rufus, a major character, was barely old enough to understand his surroundings. Adding these out-of-sequence episodes to the ends of Part I and Part II, plus the multi-page prose poem “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” rounds out young Rufus’s experience in a way that a strictly chronological telling would miss.
It is the story’s geographical breadth, even more so than its chronological depth, however, that adds the most to its effectiveness. This is a story about emotions, but the way that those emotions are most strongly presented is through Agee’s use of places. He shows where people are in relation to one another in the world, as well as in their hearts. Any story has to take place somewhere, but the movement across physical space in this particular novel shows more about the inner lives of its characters, and in particular young Rufus, than the story conveys through just dialog and action alone.
Though every location in the book is important, it helps, for the sake of understanding their significance, to divide locations into three general categories. One of these categories is homes: since “family” is such an important part of the social dynamic that Agee is examining, it makes sense that this book would be dominated by variations on what family members call home. Another category would be locations that are passed in transition, by characters on the move from one place to another. Throughout the book, Rufus takes several walks with older relatives that radiate significance about what his life has been and what it is going to be, and Jay’s fatal trip across the Tennessee countryside is certainly significant. Symbolically, these two ideas, home and beyond, meet at the corner of the block where the Follets live, which is where the boy becomes a part of the world outside of his family.
The one setting where most of the book takes place is, appropriately, the Follet house. This is a story about a family, after all, and it makes sense that the book should center around the place where the family gathers. Readers do not see this house as a place of comfort, though. Most of the time, it is the middle of the night, and the house is dark and quiet. Readers get to know Jay when he is preparing to leave for his parents’ ranch out in the country in the dark. The bulk of the novel, the whole middle third, follows Mary’s reactions from the time she is woken by the call to tell her of Jay’s accident to her attempt to go to sleep at first light. There are other scenes in the house, but they are themselves shaded, either by actual night (as when Rufus, as an infant, has trouble sleeping because he fears the shadows in his room) or by the knowledge of Jay’s death. The house is important to the family identity, but Agee does not allow readers to see it in happy times.
There are also homes of other family members presented. One of them, the house of Jay’s parents, is a mirror image of the way his house is presented in Part II of the novel, with family and friends sitting the night out, offering comfort in the face of death (though in this case they are braced against a death that never comes). Readers’ view of this home is obscured by the fact that this scene is told through the eyes of Jay’s brother Ralph, who, due to alcohol and insecurity, renders a view of those around him that is skewed at best. Ralph is so self-absorbed, so focused on hiding his drinking problem that readers get little sense of Jay’s mother, Jessie and George Bailey, Thomas Oaks or Sally Follet, who are there with him. As with the other house, this one is the focus of family solidarity, but it is shown in the novel as a dark and foreboding place.
The home that does seem comforting, even inviting, is the “great, square-logged gray cabin” where Jay’s 103-year-old relative lives. Agee describes the house in mythical terms (for instance, the word “great” is used several times in the short descriptive passage, conveying a sense of grandeur). Everything about this ancestral home is shrouded in myth, from the trip there, which is guided by half-forgotten memories, to the unimaginable details of the old woman’s life (born before Abraham Lincoln) to the woman herself, who seems incapable of understanding what is happening until young Rufus kisses her, at which point she reaches out to him, as if waking from an ancient sleep. Agee clearly wants to emphasize this cabin as a trip back in time for Rufus and for Jay, who is later said to have been born in a log cabin. It is a return home for Jay’s father, too, and for his brother. This obscure cabin out in the sunshine is home to all of them, a home that they have traveled from in the varied courses of their lives.
Although homes as places of comfort is a theme in this novel, the next most frequent place for staging events in this novel is in transit, with characters who are passing through the space they inhabit. Three times throughout the novel, Rufus goes walking with adult family members. The first is in the opening chapter, when he and his father walk home from the movies. During this walk there are signs of Jay’s unrooted nature and his looking backward, from his searching in the tavern for people from “back home” in the Powell River Valley (which in itself foreshadows “Powell Station,” the place a man calls from to tell Mary of Jay’s accident) to the comfort he derives from in the big rock they stop by, which offers him a piece of nature in the middle of the city. Jay takes Rufus into his confidence on the way home, telling him to not mention the saloon to his mother, making this walk a rite of passage for the boy as he is treated, in one thing at least, as his father’s peer.
The walk that begins the novel is counterbalanced with the walk that Rufus takes at the end, with his uncle Andrew. Their man-to-man talk reflects the way Jay and his son shared a secret, as Andrew tells Rufus about the butterfly at the grave, which, Agee makes clear, he would not tell anyone else. This walk ends with Rufus saddled with even more adult responsibility as he witnesses Andrew, enraged about Father Jackson, losing his temper, giving him the unusual sight of an adult out of control of his emotions.
Within the story, before Jay’s death, Rufus walks downtown with his mother’s aunt Hannah to go shopping. This trip, like the other, presents Rufus away from home but safely under the guardianship of an adult relative. His trip with Hannah is particularly significant because their comfortable relationship is to become an important element of Rufus’s life, as Hannah will undoubtedly have a central role in helping Mary raise her children.
What Do I Read Next?
- Agee’s only other novel, The Morning Watch (1950), is about a boy at a boarding school in the mountains of Tennessee who has a religious reaction to the natural world that surrounds him.
- Agee was sent away to school at age nine to St. Andrew’s, a small Episcopalian school. While there, he began a lifelong relationship with Father James Harold Flye. Agee’s correspondences with Flye over the next thirty years, concerning his innermost considerations of moral and spiritual matters, his thoughts on art and alcoholism, and the trials of living, are collected in Letters of James Agee to Father Flye (1962).
- A Death in the Family is concerned with the process of coping with death, which is the subject of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s groundbreaking psychology text On Death and Dying (1969). Kubler-Ross was the person who first charted the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
- One of the great achievements of this novel is the way it evokes the mood of death and mourning throughout. James Joyce, one of the masters of English literature, was expert at evoking the feeling of life burdened by the knowledge of mortality, especially in the short story “The Dead,” which is considered one of the greatest stories ever written. It is a part of Joyce’s collection Dubliners (1914).
- Because of his intense poetic sensibilities and early death, Agee has been treated as a cult figure by some readers. His life is examined in minute detail in Laurence Bergreen’s biography James Agee: A Life (1984), which captures Agee’s magnetic allure while not failing to examine the less admirable aspects of the writer’s life.
The one other significant location in the novel is the corner of the block where the Follet family lives. This is the place where Rufus is seen without adult supervision. It is here that he grows up socially and develops his own unique personality.
The corner is first introduced into the story as the place where Rufus, when he was younger, watched daily as his father “waved for the last time and disappeared,” and where he watched each afternoon for his father’s return. Gradually, Rufus went to the corner on his own, and there encountered children who were not as nurturing as his family members had been, mocking him and confusing him with their ill-natured hostility. In full view of his house, waiting while his father is in transit between the outside world and home, he does whatever he can to join that world of outsiders, even though he knows that he is making a fool of himself.
After his father’s death, he is accepted by a few of the other children, at least by the those who pity him and those who defer to his status as a boy who has gone through the unimaginable, magic process of orphan hood. While the novel is mainly about the way family members come together at a time of tragedy, the street corner represents the beginning of the natural growth process of splintering off from the family. The journey of life begins.
The street corner is also where Walter Starr stops his car to let the Rufus and his sister watch Jay’s casket loaded into the hearse and taken away. It shows a tremendous measure of respect on Walter’s part, trusting them to be cope with the sight that no other adults in their lives trusts them to see. Their view from the corner represents both of the main themes present in this novel’s geography: home, and going away from it.
The event that disrupts the Follet family in A Death in the Family is traumatic in itself, especially to a boy Rufus’s age. Still, Agee showed good artistic sense when he avoided telling the story through action and dialog, which could easily tilt the writing toward over-sentimentality. People in this novel behave as if in a daze, shrouded by the dark still of the night or by the sheer weight of sorrow. The significance of this situation is not shown entirely through character interaction, so Agee fills in the missing elements about Jay and Rufus and their personalities by implying a great deal with the setting of each scene. This story is centered around home, in its many various forms, but when there is a death in the family, home is only the beginning.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on A Death in the Family, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay excerpt, Toles explores Agee’s reunion with self and family in A Death in the Family.
The work of nostalgic vision in both Wilder and Agee is to accommodate the writer’s self within an idealized family or community setting, where an absent parent’s presumed intention for one’s life and the self’s own confused image of what it wants, are magically reconciled. The self must find a way to breathe and stretch out full length in its parent’s presence but be persuaded at the same time that the parent is happy or appeased. James Agee’s “nostalgia” is an attempt to close up the hollow spaces in the “family rooms” he describes, since beyond these rooms, he is convinced, “none can care … and none can be cared for.” It is the child’s still uninhibited and unaggressive tenderness (rather than Wilder’s courteous formality and well-bred “neighborliness”) that serves as Agee’s language of accommodation. The violently disruptive image of the “taloned” mother (in the catalogue passage), sucking her child dry in the guise of nurturing him, was formed, almost without Agee’s conscious assent, in a different emotional country. It is a country that Agee does not dare to let his writer’s voice visit too often. Such images are torn, as he sees it, from the ignominy and desolate solitude of maturity. Nothing inside him matured, Agee believes, at the rate of his sense of failure. Every source of adult pleasure—friendship, sex, drink, even conversation—had somehow to be accelerated in compensation for that. He therefore pursued them all, throughout his adult life, with a near-demonic, self-squandering compulsiveness.
Agee regarded his adult self as the doomed antithesis of the kind of forbearing love that his prose everywhere celebrates. As I previously suggested, he generally identifies this adult self with acquisitiveness and naked want: it is tormented, insatiable, constantly giving pain. (How does one “make do” with an abandoned “locust shell” for an identity?) The half-completed wish in Agee’s central fantasy is to get himself “all the way home.” The “hitch” in this fantasy is that most of what he “knows” himself to be would be inadmissible there: not only in the sight of his family but, crucially, in his own sight as well. The tenant family experience has such immense private significance for Agee because in the Gudger dwelling he almost achieves the sense that he can go back home as a whole person. In the presence of these appallingly harmed individuals who have next to nothing that anyone would desire to take from them (what have they not already lost?), Agee’s own clamorous needs are gradually stilled within him, and his ordinarily acutein him, and his ordinarily acute consciousness of isolation abates. In the magnificent dinner scene that is the emotional and moral climax of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee “discovers” himself seated at his own family’s table once again after a long and bewildering absence, and allows himself—gently, gratefully—to be fed:
To say, then, how as I sat between the close walls of this hallway, which opened upon wide night at either end, between these two somberly sleepy people in the soft smile of the light, eating from unsorted plates with tin-tasting implements the heavy, plain, traditional food which was spread before me, the feeling increased itself upon me that at the end of a wandering and seeking, so long it had begun before I was born, I had apprehended and now sat at rest in my own home, between two who were my brother and sister, yet less that than something else; these, the wife my age exactly, the husband four years older, seemed not other than my own parents, in whose patience I was so different, so diverged, so strange as I was; and all that surrounded me, that silently strove in through my senses and stretched me full, was familiar and dear to me as nothing else on earth, and as if well known in a deep past and long years lost; so that I could wish that all my chance life was in truth the betrayal, the curable delusion, that it seemed, and that this was my right home, right earth, right blood, to which I would never have true right.
It is with the hope of resuming this self-preserving family meal that Agree drafted his unfinished (and perhaps, given the impossible nature of its task, unfinishable) novel about his early childhood, A Death in the Family. The main subject of this book—his father’s death by automobile accident when Agee was a child of six—taxes Agee’s powers of accommodation to the limit at every point of its treatment. He is attempting to relive without rage, and on an imaginative plane of yielding acceptance and forgiveness, the most agonizing and insupportable event of his life. The loss of his father stands, in relation to the life-history that follows it, as the black page that has “marred all the rest.” Mark Doty, in a valuable study of Agee’s quest for selfhood, Tell Me Who I Am cites the following passage from Thomas Wolfe in order to establish, in the widest possible context, the meaning of Agee’s search for his “lost father”:
the deepest search in life, it seemed to me, that thing that in one way or another was central to all living, was man’s search to find a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united.
The myriad tiny and large gaps of sympathy and understanding dividing the members of Agee’s family during the various stages of the tragedy in A Death in the Family Agee endeavors to bridge or seal over by means of an incandescently empathetic language. These gaps, however, all pass into insignificance when set against the gaping chasm of the father’s removal; the available sum of remembered or borrowed tenderness Agee draws upon cannot be made sufficient to cover that.
As I noted at the beginning of this discussion, Agee’s language typically generates outsize images which the self tries to burrow into and inhabit bodily. When Agee feels himself received by the thing his words are imaging, he loses, if only fleetingly, all sense of inner impoverishment. One cannot be filled by what one sees and still be vacant. For Agee then there is a decisive difference between being in one’s language and being in oneself. He regards the former as the condition of endless “entering in”; the latter is an involuntary exile, what Italo Svevo calls “one long shivering.” Language, however, can be a reliable refuge and safeguard only if some part of it issues from a source outside the self—a purer region than anything the self knows in its own person and that does not partake of its contamination. As in the case of the “right home” he describes in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee “would never have true right” to his highest verbal gifts. Before he could proceed with a project as psychologically fraught with danger as A Death in the Family, I would argue, it was essential for him to invoke an imaginative presence stronger in all ways than himself to be his language advocate. The ghost of Jay Follett (Agee’s father), which is literally called into being in the novel to re-visit its former home in the early morning hours after Jay’s death, beautifully fulfills this function. The language of memory in A Death in the Family is underwritten by the ghostly father, as though everything belonging to this book has been held in trust for his child until he was old enough to make honorable use of it. The peace and acceptance that the words of the novel try to release from the interstices of blank tragedy are emotions the father’s spirit might wish to be found there, and it is by his light alone, Agee implies, that they can become visible to others.
The narrative perspective throughout the novel remains fixed in the space briefly occupied by the paternal apparition on its farewell visit to the Folletts: the space of a boundless, sympathetic hope, lacking all foreknowledge. Agee tries to reconstruct his childhood home as his father would like it to be remembered and attempts, as far as he able (without resorting to deliberate falsehood), to respect his father’s parting wish that “all be well there” in his absence. Agee assigns no impressions or perceptions to his own surrogate (the child Rufus) that would prove a barrier to his father’s immediate recognition of him.
“This is exactly where our conversation and shared activity broke off,” Agee is implicitly saying. The self that he resurrects is well acquainted with solitude but not yet walled in by it. A fearful gentleness is still his instinctive response to things; his confusions do not breed cruelty, and they live at no great distance from his goodness. No act that the child Rufus has performed or contemplated as yet exceeds his father’s capacity to understand and forgive. Agee struggles to rehabilitate an image of himself identical to that fixed in the still unbetrayed gaze his father turned toward him during their final evening walk home together—a gaze that “sealed their contract.”
The almost unearthly purity and vulnerability Agee’s language aspires to in A Death in the Family are meant to prevent father and son from breaking faith with each other a second time, even when death intervenes. “As long as I am able to write in this way about my father’s life,” Agee seems to be saying, “I have not totally abandoned my father in the place where death divided us. The part of me that knew you directly, father, and possessed your love (because of what I then was) is still there where you left it. Using the words that belong to both of us—formed, as they are, out of your generosity and my great need—we can go back and seek out the spot where we sat together in the dark for the last time, and it will be the same as it was on both sides.”
After Jay’s ghost leaves his house, one family member who sensed his presence surmised that he had come in grieving protest over the fact that “he had no time to adjust his mind and feelings” for his separation from his family. His life had been wrested away from him somehow, and he returns home in the vain, restless hope of being able to do something about it. He can do nothing for himself, of course, but he manages to bring his wife the assurance that he is no longer joined to the accident that killed him but rather “calm” and mysteriously “taken care of,” and he blesses the lives of his sleeping children. The creation of Agee’s book is best approached, I think, as an exactly parallel return visit; Agee, no less exiled than his father is, seeks to come back home for a timeless interval and reach out of his personal darkness to touch once more the lighted rooms where his family dwells. The few points of perfect family intersection can be brought so close together in this interval that “moments of solitude,” as Sharon Cameron puts it, seem almost “the exception rather than the rule.” Though powerless to save himself or to shift events from their appointed course, Agee magically weaves out of his own fear and sorrow an assurance for others in which a growing calm and love are powerfully visible.
There is a quietly building tension, however, in the child’s attempts to fuse his purposes and sensibility with those of the departed father. At various points the desire for fusion moves disturbingly close to a desire for death. The atmosphere of gentleness and striving tenderness that mantles so much of the book’s action is frequently strained, in ways the reader can feel, from being pressed so fiercely against the darkness it means to hold at bay. When the child Rufus listens to his mother singing “Go Tell Aunt Rhoda,” he finds one phrase that he doesn’t understand vaguely troubling, but he prefers not to ask what it means, “because although it sounded so gentle he was also sure that somewhere inside it there was something terrible to be afraid of exactly because it sounded so gentle (emphasis mine). The same paradox informs the image of the window in Jay’s bedroom, where death softly implants its features: “He only saw the window, tenderly alight within, and the infinite dark leaning like water against its outer surface.” Finally, in the central scene I have alluded to several times, where father and son sit together in contented silence midway through their walk home, there is a root-acknowledgment of the kind of inner chasm that love’s best effort can neither reduce nor succor: “although his father loved their home and loved all of them, he was more lonely than the contentment of this family love could help; that it even increased his loneliness, and made it hard for him not to be lonely.”
One cannot easily avoid the suspicion that all of the book’s rescued moments of calm and serenity have this at their base. The novel’s calm is the painfully deceptive calm of the father’s composed features as he lies in his coffin. Agee’s habitual reluctance to relinquish things from his gaze is nowhere more in evidence than in his obsessive scrutiny of his father’s face in death. A minute scar on his chin, whose presence the eye can barely detect, is the only mark of the accident that claimed his life. Agee (child and adult) traces the line of this scar countless times, as though in its hideous capacity to reassure, and in its innocence about its own dread meaning, it was like a word of warning forming inaudibly on his father’s lips. The scar is all that divides the living from the dead, the father’s warm, enveloping presence from the rigid but serene nullity of his absence. The young, open face that even in its last repose declares its connectedness to everything vital is somehow in permanent retreat from the child that comes to it, as always, for answers. It has withdrawn to where the eye can’t follow, leaving behind the secure, seemingly protected bulk of the man’s strength. It is this latter ground of vacated strength, this solid, formidable absence that Agee endeavors to occupy for the writing of A Death in the Family. Perhaps the incomplete wish secretly plotted in this book is the desire to exchange places with the dead father.
As the father stands, apparitionally, at death’s tightening border and peers back longingly toward his missed life, the child Agee positions himself in the shadowy rooms of the living and gazes fixedly toward death. It is as though a terrible and unintelligible error has been committed in destroying the father rather than the son. The former’s tremendous energy, strength, and joyful exuberance, after all, had nothing whatever to do with death, just as the child’s ever increasing isolation and estrangement make a very small claim to life. In one of the lengthy insert sections of the narrative, Rufus, well in advance of his father’s passing, is lovingly wooed by the “darkness” in his bedroom:
Beneath his prostrate head, eternity opened… . And darkness, smiling, leaned ever more intimately inward upon him, laid open the huge, ragged mouth—[The boy screams for his father]
Child, child [says the voice of darkness] why do you betray me so?… . You know that you can never get away: you don’t even want to get away.
But with that, the child was torn into two creatures, of whom one cried out for his father.
The “creature” who cried for his father is soon comforted by him. “The room opened full of gold, his father stepped through the door and closed it quietly.” The “prostrate head” that had been pillowed by the gentle, hollow shadows of night feels its father’s “strong” hand beneath it. The other “creature” of the passage, who remained silent, would presumably have been content to be devoured. Agee’s father never knew this creature existed, but in fact, it was the part of his son that “grew” (all deformed) to manhood. The dream-logic of this episode, within the larger narrative context, is that Jay Follett, by rescuing his son from the darkness for which this son was fated (and already half-reconciled), somehow took the burden of the darkness upon himself and surrendered his life to it. Given the choice, his father would have done everything in his power to protect him. Can one be sure that he didn’t go so far as to make a secret arrangement with an ironic god: his life to be sacrificed in place of his unworthy son’s?
The passionate will to undo such an exchange lies behind the astonishing dream-sequence, which the editors of Agee’s posthumously published manuscript could find no place for in the version of the novel that they assembled (Doty 106–110). The dream begins with an unnamed man (clearly Rufus as an adult) returning to Knoxville, where he sees a crowd of individuals (grown-up versions of the schoolboys who sadistically taunted Rufus en route to school?) “doing some terrible piece of violence” to a man lying upon the ground. (Initially he is referred to as John the Baptist but he quickly turns into Jay Follett.) “The pit of his (the Agee surrogate’s) stomach went cold, yet now he felt really at home.” He fully expects the hostile crowd to cease punishing the man on the ground and direct its fury against him instead: “—that’s all right to(o). Not just exactly, but the way it was meant to be … it was not his business to try to alter fate.” Instead of attacking him, however, the crowd disperses. Agee’s surrogate, who is filled with compassion at the sight of this “brave,” stricken man, first cradles him “like a baby,” then lifts him on his back and proceeds to carry him through the city streets. The destination for this walk, eerily, is the corner where Agee and his father sat together during their final walk—a large rock “under a stray tree.” In the course of the journey, the body proceeds to decompose and stink. It finally proves such an unendurable weight that the son can no longer carry it properly: “He is filled with shame. He found the body had sagged clumsily during his carelessness, and he readjusted his hold, to carry it more decently.” At last he is obliged to drag the body along the pavement like a sled. “It’s a hell of a way to treat anyone, but it’ll have to do.” When he arrives at his destination, he feels a flinching deep within him compounded equally of “tenderness, melancholy, and joy” at the realization that the place is exactly as be remembered it: “… the same tree even, and the tree had not even grown an inch. So shabby and sad; it had been waiting there all this time, and it had never changed, not a bit.” Agee’s persona imagines that the tree “aloofly” welcomes him: “Well. So you came back?” The completion of the trip, however, does not revive the dead father. By his manner of jerking the body over the curb, the son causes his father’s head to be severed from its body, and as the dream concludes, the head inwardly contracts “like a jellyfish or an armadillo.”
In this most extreme version of the half-completed wish, Agee is allowed both to go back home as a man and to carry his father with him, but there is no release from his psychic burden upon his arrival. Father and son clearly achieve a monstrous partial fusion here; at every stage of the dream Agee appears to be both inside and outside himself simultaneously, and one has the continual sense of a dizzying interpenetration of identities. The boundary lines firmly separating “what is his” from “what is mine” have completely collapsed, so even the landscape is empowered to take on aspects of both free-floating selves. The tree at the corner, for example, is not only the father and son’s shared image of the past, perfectly preserved, but also the betrayed father reproving his son for having abandoned him (“Well. So you came back”), as well as the starveling child, who has never entered maturity (“the tree had not even grown an inch. So shabby and sad”). The rotting body that the son tries so “carefully” to preserve as he carries and pulls it through the streets is at once the weight of his father’s life, which the son must carry in his absence, and the horribly befouled remains of his father’s “hopes” for his son’s own life. (Whenever you dishonor yourself, you dishonor me.) The body is principally identified with Agee’s private shame and disgrace by the time he gives it the violent yank that decapitates it. Yet there is also a helpless, guilty anger brought on by the son’s uncertainty about what his father expects of him. The father is looking for things in his son that the son could never be after the father abandoned him. (All personal strength—perhaps the very idea of strength—died with Jay Follett.)
The arduous journey home is, of course, an attempt to stave off a catastrophe that has already happened, that even now crushes the weak son under its weight. If his father is still miraculously waiting for him at their secret meeting place, he will not have to die this time. The son’s thoroughly disintegrated, inwardly festering life can be buried in his father’s place. This suppressed emotional core of A Death in the Family is engendered out of the same impossible confinement in familial love that produced Emily’s cry of anguish during her failed return to earth in Our Town. The innumerable imaginative concessions that Agee makes to his father’s vision of family reality—the channelling of all his rage and grief into a vocabulary of love-drenched sympathy—cannot entirely subdue the terrible ache of protest forming within. In the sudden, overwhelming bareness of the stage in Our Town, or on the equally bare stage of Agee’s nightmare (his memory drained for once of those shimmering images where it is usually possible for him to take cover), we enter a condition of utter exposure to each writer’s family solitude. Here the compensating force and aspiration of nostalgic desire (“finding ourselves not in the world we love, but knowing how deeply we love it, enjoying some conviction that we will return, or discover it, or discover the way to it”) yields no shelter or protection (Cheever 158). “The pit of his stomach went cold,” Agee tells us, “yet now he felt really at home.”
Source: George Toles, “‘Practically an American Home’: James Agee’s Family Solitudes,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 39–56.
Victor A. Kramer
In the following essay excerpt, Kramer discusses Agee’s recollection of a simpler more rural past being encroached upon by an urban future in A Death in the Family.
As Agee was first planning A Death it appears that he wanted to rely upon a technique similar to that employed in Famous Men. That is, he would write only what he could remember. This is especially true of the opening and closing sections of the book and the interchapter materials, which fall outside the main chronological sequence. But this novel also developed out of a larger conflict; in a fundamental way it was Agee’s mode of simultaneously remembering the past and getting away from the horrors of the present. He wrote much of the text that became this novel in the late 1940s, a time when he was especially disturbed by the use of the atomic bomb as well as the problem of how individuals can survive in a mass society. Both “Dedication Day” and “Scientists and Tramps” are from this period. In “1928 Story,” written at approximately the same time as A Death was begun, Agee begins by outlining the disappointment and frustration his speaker feels in not having written as much, or as well, as he might have. In “1928 Story” such statements flow into a remembrance of earlier times, and the speaker is able to catch the beauty (and awkwardness) of earlier moments.
In A Death in the Family Agee also took very simple events from his childhood and then allowed his imagination to play over them. Some parts of his remembrance are therefore chronologically months or years in advance of the father’s death. With such reference points it was possible for him to reconstruct the domestic love that enveloped the young Rufus, a love that combined country and city attitudes.
Agee was only six years old when his father died; thus while his book is definitely written to honor his father, it is also an attempt to catch a moment then three decades in the past. As Agee matured, he came to realize that particular events and places in his childhood neighborhood had been experienced both by him and his father. For instance, the railroad viaduct, which today still bridges the valley between the business center of Knoxville and residential areas, was a specific place that Agee associated with his father. The bridge is very carefully described in the fictional account of Rufus and Jay, and the description reveals the method of the entire book. Details about the remembered past are evoked through careful attention to the “dignity of actuality.” Rufus recalls how “Whenever they walked downtown and walked back home, in the evenings, they always began to walk more slowly, from about the middle of the viaduct, and as they came near [their] corner they walked more slowly still, but with purpose… .” Through this specific attention to details of place, such a passage suggests how Rufus intuitively sensed the homesickness of his father.
Readers of this novel, usually first recall the sketch “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” which was chosen by David McDowell as an opening for the book. Its dominant tone is one of nostalgia for an earlier quiet time; and it, as already suggested, is one of several autobiographical or reminiscent pieces about Tennessee that were written in the 1930s. Another is an experimental poem, entitled In Memory of My Father, in which some of the same imagery employed in the novel is used; the poetic remembrance of a small child, going to sleep and comforted by the parent, is an image suggesting all children in similar circumstances. Agee’s 1936 sketch, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” similarly does an economical job of evoking an atmosphere like that which Rufus and his father enjoy, such as at the beginning of the novel when they go to the movies and later walk home together. In the “Knoxville” sketch, inserted as an introduction, a time of harmony with nature is imagined: the cities’ noises are blended with natural ones. But the mood that actually generated the novel is evident in an excluded passage that I have edited and entitled “Dream Sequence.” This is the real introduction to the novel. In it the tension between country and city is clearly evident. Edited nine years after the novel’s publication, Agee’s “Dream” begins as nightmare and suggests that only through a work of art can any lasting harmony be achieved. It is necessary for the artist first to exorcise the nightmare of urban life if the peacefulness of a remembrance like A Death in the Family is to be created.
“Dream Sequence” is a sketch recording the nightmare of a narrator (very much like Agee) who recalls how he found himself on a crowded city street—perhaps New York, perhaps Chattanooga—but then obviously Knoxville: “The town had certainly changed. It wasn’t as he remembered it from childhood, nor did he like its looks as well as his memories of it … Even the heat and sunlight of the weather was different, it was the weather of a bigger, worse, more proud and foolish city … ” The narrator then relates how he saw a group of people doing something horrible to someone, and upon approaching that crowd he knew the figure was John the Baptist and that he was being stoned. The narrator decided a proper burial was in order, and he began that chore. He began pulling the corpse down the sweltering and then freezing streets—symbolism that suggests the passing of years. And as time passed, the terrain became more and more familiar. In both this “Dream” and in the opening section of the novel, Agee recalls the outcroppings of limestone common to the landscape of Knoxville. A visitor to Agee’s old neighborhood in Knoxville would notice the same outcroppings today.
Two things become clearer to Agee’s dreamer. First, he was getting closer to his old childhood neighborhood, and this was the atmosphere he and his father used to enjoy in their privacy late at night: “The corner was where he used to sit with his father and it was there of all times and places that he had known his father loved him … and his father had come out of the wilderness.” And secondly, if the man was John the Baptist, he was somehow also the narrator’s father, and he, the Christ, had failed his father. The question is how that failure could be (at least partially) rectified. The answer is to go back into those years, by way of a work of art, and to do honor to the memory of the father by evoking as much of those times as possible. This became the basic method, and accomplishment, of Agee’s novel. To remember, or to infer, as much as possible, and thereby through art to impose order upon the chaos of life, its disruptions and its memories.
The last pages of the “Dream Sequence” possess a calmness similar to the opening of the book. Agee’s return to the calmness of his childhood, interrupted by the father’s death, is made, therefore, by way of the horrors of contemporary life, an urban life symbolized by a maddened crowd. Agee’s homage to this father, then, seems to be both a recapitulation of what he remembered and a symbolic statement about all who are drawn to the city.
There is both terror and a large amount of nostalgia in what Agee decided to write about, yet it is only through nostalgia that it is possible for a writer of fiction to achieve a perspective adequate for such a vision of how rural and urban forces were once in conjunction to form particular moments of domestic love. Agee wanted to do honor to that earlier time. To do so, his memory became as important as his imagination. It is significant to observe that throughout the manuscript for this novel the names of real persons are consistently used. The same is true of much of the manuscript for The Morning Watch and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Agee wrote in one of the working notes for A Death in the Family that Jay, the father, was a “victim of progress.” One of the variant sections for the book is a discussion between the parents about the dangers of purchasing an automobile. What better symbol, we might ask, is there for the fragmentation of family? A particular marriage and its love provided an atmosphere for Rufus; and the inference is clearly suggested that the child drew upon the earlier time when rural forces, and the presence of the father, were being blended with city life. Agee and modern American culture and modern Americans, however, seem largely to have lost the strength to be gained from such a blending.
Clearly there is the possibility that, had Agee lived to complete his novel, he would have written more sections stressing his autobiographical remembrances of both country and city. One such excluded section is a two-page sequence in which Rufus recalls how his father used to spit in the fireplace—much to the horror of the mother. After she had instructed Jay not to do such a thing in front of Rufus, Rufus continued to observe Jay doing it, but only when the mother was absent.
When Rufus is in the presence of either of his parents, or when he thinks about them, Agee stresses the contrast between them, yet also their contribution of qualities that make the child’s world secure. One section of the novel is, appropriately, a stream-of-consciousness monologue in which the child muses about the differences he senses between his parents: “She wore dresses, his father wore pants. Pants were what he wore too, but they were short and soft.” Similar passages are incorporated throughout the text.
It is the combination of mother and father, with their differing attitudes, that allows Rufus to feel at ease. Rufus remembers a motoring trip to visit the father’s relatives: “After the dinner the babies and all the children except Rufus were laid out on the beds to take their naps, and his mother thought that he ought to lie down too, but his father said no, why did he need to, so he was allowed to stay up.” Similarly, when Rufus is first introduced to his great-great-grandmother, and he kisses her, the mother voices concern and his father says “Let her be.” Jay will have Rufus experience as much of the diverse world as possible, and he tries not to be overly protective. In another episode Aunt Hannah senses that the cap Rufus wants is correct for a boy who wants to be grown up. A year earlier Rufus had asked his mother for a cap but suffered a rebuff when she refused. We can understand with Rufus that, if Jay took him shopping, “his father wouldn’t mind” if he had such a cap, even though his mother “wouldn’t want him to have a cap, yet.” Hannah reflects that “Mary would have conniption fits” over Rufus’s choice, but “Jay wouldn’t mind.”
In a related way, during the opening pages of the novel when Jay and Rufus are getting ready to go see a Chaplin movie, Jay enjoys asking “What’s wrong with [Charlie]?” “not because he didn’t know what she would say, but so she would say it.” And then when Rufus and his father go, ritualistically, to the movies they feel all the more enclosed in each others’ presence. This fictional father is somewhat rough, a bit coarse, and country. But the boy’s mother seems overly genteel; and going to the movies is an escape from her for both father and son. On the walk home Jay stops off at a saloon looking for friends from his home area in the mountains. This is, perhaps, one of the most poignant scenes in the novel because the saloon is both a meeting place and a reminder of the inevitability that the rural connections of the past are impossible to maintain. The many hints throughout this text about Jay’s alcoholism (by inference a commentary on Agee’s own drinking problems) are another way of commenting on the difficulty of adulthood and change.
Rufus senses that he needs and will need both parents, but he is without such abstract knowledge. Agee, looking back over his own life and his remembrance of those years, also saw the need for the balance provided by both parents and their traditions. Therefore, the picture we are given of Rufus’s parents frequently combines their best qualities. Where this is most apparent is the contrast in the scenes where Jay and Mary, separately, sing to Rufus. Jay loved to sing the old country songs that he remembered from childhood. Rufus also realized that sometimes his father joked by talking like a “darky,” and “the way he sang was like a darky too, only when he sang he wasn’t joking.” Rufus also remembered how his parents sang together and how beautifully his mother’s clear voice combined with Jay’s, yet he also sensed that when she tried to sound like a country singer she could not do it. Rufus “liked both ways very much and best of all when they sang together and he was there with them, …” yet he is suddenly separated from such experience when his father is killed and the boy is thus doomed to his mother’s dominant influence.
Throughout the novel it is implied that Jay has accommodated himself to living in the city. The passage describing his journey to his own father’s sick bed, the very trip that ironically leads to his death, points up how he must have often felt about aspects of the city. “The city thinned out,” Agee wrote, and for a few minutes Jay drove through
the darkened evidences of that kind of flea-bitten semi-rurality which always peculiarly depressed him: mean little homes, and others inexplicably new and substantial, set too close together for any satisfying rural privacy or use, too far, too shapelessly apart to have adherence [“coherence” in pencil manuscript] as any kind of community; mean little pieces of ill-cultivated land behind them, and alongside the road, between them, trash and slash and broken sheds and rained-out billboards… .
This is the same kind of feeling almost everyone experiences (unconsciously perhaps) as movement from urban to rural is experienced. Such a feeling would have been all the more acute if a rural background were one’s origin. Then, it might seem, material progress and faith in institutions—whether governmental or religious—might be increasingly difficult to accept. Seventy years ago, when Agee’s father was in his middle thirties, it would have clearly been an even more poignant feeling, and this is what Agee seeks to evoke.
It is also made clear that Agee’s fictional family was in the habit of going into the country for Sunday drives. The ferryman who takes Jay across the river recognizes him: “You generally always come o’ Sunday’s, year womurn, couple o’younguns,” and Jay answers with a monosyllabic reply reflecting his country ties: “Yeahp.” Jay’s wife also clearly senses that Jay feels most comfortable in the country; and when she prepares Jay’s breakfast in the early morning of his departure, she does it the way she imagines a mountain woman might.
Another revealing interchange between spouses about family and change occurs in the novel during one of the family trips to visit relatives. On that particular Sunday the parents attempt to figure out how old the great-great-grandmother might be, and Mary comments “—why she’s almost as old as the country, Jay.” Jay’s reply suggests an enormous amount about how the parents think. He immediately meditates on the natural world—the geological fact of the mountains; but the mother thinks of the nation’s government. Dealing in abstract concepts is not Jay’s ordinary mode of thought. He deals more immediately with the concrete, and it is for such reasons that he enjoys being with Rufus and singing old songs. There are many manuscript variants from the section about singing that demonstrate Agee’s fascination and interest in this subject. During one of his evenings of song Jay recalls how his own mother used to sing to him (and how those times are gone), yet how through one’s children they can be repeated, at least a little bit: “Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel… .”
There is yet another way to “get back home,” and that is the artist’s. In one of the working notes for the novel Agee recalled that on one of the mornings surrounding his father’s funeral he and his sister were taught how to read the comics—arms just so, legs up, and bellies on the floor, and he added a comment that such actions implied archetypal actions performed by those unaware of what they were doing. Agee’s entire fictionalization is archetypal in this manner. Thus various parts of this book work similarly to suggest either the fragmentation of family or the loss of rural virtues. A motif buried in this text, yet referred to regularly in the working notes, is Agee’s fascination with Rufus’s inability to fight and Jay’s subsequent embarrassment about this lack. The scene about the child’s wandering the Knoxville streets the morning after his father’s death symbolically enacts what all must feel in such situations. In this sense Agee’s concerns are archetypal. His novel is a meditation about a wider pattern of all fathers absorbed by the city, then senselessly killed, with their families then accordingly destined to be formed in their absence.
The central theme of Agee’s book is domestic love—a subject that seems particularly unpromising for a novelist in the middle part of the twentieth century. But delicate domestic love, which has been experienced by millions and millions of families, is what holds Agee’s remembrance together. The family has always provided comfort and nurture, but in a society like today’s, the family seems best described by Henry Adams in his delineation of the centrifugal forces generated by the society. Family members spin away from each other as external activities become more pronounced. However, each action and gesture of love is unique, and as these, individual acts are performed, they have value within a unique framework. It was such a realization, along with the conviction that city forces were becoming strongee, that must have prompted Agee to “go back into those years.”
Source: Victor A. Kramer, “Urban and Rural Balance in A Death in the Family,” in James Agee: Reconsiderations, edited by Michael A. Lofaro, University of Tennessee Press, 1992, pp. 104–18.
Eugene T. Carroll
In the following essay excerpt, Carroll describes the poetic landscapes and symphonic structures Agee creates in A Death in the Family.
A Death in the Family, by and large, demonstrates Agee’s strong and gifted sense of symphonic form, not only in the poetic and imagistic movements of each of the parts but in the interplay between sets of characters who, as Concannon points out, “move together and apart in a dance-like rhythm of dialogue and introspection.” In Part 1, Rufus is not always sure of his father in their duet of men’s night out, i.e., the Chaplin film; the bar scene (where there is no music), and the nightscape of Knoxville. Agee’s landscape at night details in duet the innocence of memory, Rufus in concert with his father, every sound recorded: “Deep in the valley an engine coughed and browsed; couplings settled their long chains, and the empty cars sounded like broken drums” or “Sometimes on these evenings his father would hum a little and the humming would break open into a word or two, but he never finished a part of a tune, for silence was even more pleasurable… .” The warm dark night is interrupted only twice for quick glimpses of Agee’s perennial memory, momentary flashes of “the odd, shaky light of Market Square,” and incongruity of life and picture: “A dark-faced man leaned against the white brick wall, gnawing a turnip; he looked at them with sad, pale eyes, … and Rufus, turning, saw how he looked sorrowfully, somewhat dangerously, after them.” A moment later, Jay and Rufus pass a wagon with a large sleeping family and a woman wearing a sunbonnet: “Rufus’s father averted his eyes and touched his straw hat slightly; and Rufus, looking back, saw how her dead eyes kept looking gently ahead of her.” Even later, the father and the son, the duet of love and contentment, sit on a rock above North Knoxville: “Where were no words, or even ideas, or formed emotions, of the kind that have been suggested here, no more in the man than in the boy child.” Agee builds image upon image of “dark night,” interlocking the time frames of his father’s last evening of life and Rufus’s own feelings of security and trust despite the sadness of the “dark-faced” man and the “dead eyes” of the woman near the wagon. The first chapter ends, Rewak points out, as the father and the son walk in silence, “the rest of the way home,” and the last chapter will end as Rufus and Andrew walk “all the way home.” “Between these two events,” Rewak concludes, “Agee has built around the word, ‘home,’ the connotations of peace and strength but also death and fear.”
In the second chapter of Part 1, Agee shifts, with poetic and musical skill, to the relationship between husband and wife, Jay and Mary, as the former prepares to leave in the middle of the night to visit his ailing father. Their “domestic particulars” are both comedic and serious; Mary is prudish and overly religious while Jay, not always successful in the “verities” of home and family, tries to remember what to do outwardly, “Bring your shoes—to the kitchen,” and inwardly, so as not to awaken the children. Mary, the wife and mother, the epitome of domesticity, symbolizes a part of the Follet family’s strong belief in warmth and strength. Jay prepares to leave the bedroom when he turns to look at the unmade bed: “Well, he thought, I can do something for her… . He drew the covers up to keep the warmth, then laid them open a few inches, so it would look inviting to get into.” His movement is nostalgic, remembering sensitive and husbandly details: things, little things that mean so much. Mary’s breakfast for Jay is large today: eggs, bacon, pancakes, and coffee. Jay returns the favor by heating warm milk, an image to be repeated in later chapters: “She poured the white, softly steaming milk into a thick, white cup and sat down with it… . Because of the strangeness of the hour and the abrupt destruction of sleep, the necessity for action and its interruptive minutiae, the gravity of his errand and a kind of weary exhilaration, both of them found it peculiarly hard to talk, though both particularly wanted to.” Now as Jay prepares to leave, Mary “remembers” a new clean pocket handkerchief; the couple walks to the edge of the porch, where “deep in the end of the back yard, the blossoming peach tree shone like a celestial sentinel,” and they struggle with departure in their goodbyes. Even the customary morning rhyme is “remembered” but not sung: “Goodby, John, don’t stay long / I’ll be back in a week or two.”
Agee, in the next several chapters, enlarges on the fundamental character and personalities of Jay, Ralph (his brother), and Mary as they react to their own particularly interior landscapes, a blending of picture and tone. Jay drives from the warmth of his hearth to the black unknown ahead of him as he leaves Knoxville behind: “Along his right were dark vacant lots, pale billboards, the darker blocks of small sleeping buildings, an occasional light,” to “that kind of flea-bitten rurality” with “mean little homes … mean little pieces of ill-cultivated land behind them,” and a “late, late streetcar, no passengers aboard, far out near the end of its run.” After his encounter with the ferryman, who, like Charon, gives him a final ride across the river, he finds that the land becomes more familiar, “real, old, deep country now. Home country.” The simplicity of life, the landscape of “place” is here at home, “where he felt much more deeply at leisure as he watched the flowing, freshly lighted country; and quite consciously he drove a little faster than before.”
Mary’s landscape, on the other hand, is one of guilt or religiosity, symbolized by the “white” sleep. Her concern centers not so much on her husband’s leaving but on her unspoken and sometimes unconscious feelings about her father-in-law because “everyone forgave him so much and liked him so well in spite of his shortcomings … a kind of weakness which took advantage and heaped disadvantage and burden on others.” If the call in the night concerned her mother-in-law, Mary would have felt differently. She turns to prayer, when “I almost wished for his death!” and she immediately reverts to her religious scruples, praying for help and understanding for herself, her father-in-law, and her husband. Her landscape, unsettled at times, is peopled, though, with the intimate and loving associates of family, Jay, Rufus, her daughter Catherine, and Aunt Hannah: “I must just: trust in God… . Just do His will, and put all my trust in Him.” The “stream of whiteness” breaks as she awakens to another day: “A streetcar passed: Catherine cried.”
Ralph’s landscape is one of self-pity and the bottle, and while Agee paints a dismal picture of a man incapable of giving or even feeling love, he never condemns him, only letting the color and odor of irresponsibility, self-destruction and helplessness strongly stand out. When Ralph approached his mother to show his affection for her, she turned away, knowing that “he was beseeching comfort rather than bringing it.” Agee’s Ralph is a pathetic character, reeking of booze and self-pity, a slobbering figure of a man, fat, disgusting, and uninteresting to all, including his wife. A one-dimensional human, Ralph contrasts sharply with Jay and almost any other man in his narrow frame of reference; even the house hand, Tom Oaks, can ask the mother if he is needed and to call if she wants anything. Ralph’s shame borders on self-hatred, and his landscape, like a wild, erratic storm, defeats him constantly. When one of life’s strongest and most inevitable tests come to his family, “one of the times in a man’s life when he is needed and can be some good, just by being a man,” Ralph fails and ends up as a weakling.
In the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of Part 1, Agee begins to escalate the whole thematic structure of the novel into small, delicate, comedic or serious moments, exquisite scenes of “standing time.” Moods become like movements of a symphonic piece—some slow, some fast, some moderate in tone with flowing, endless themes and counter-themes. Some of the scenes bring the human spirit back into focus; others show grim turns of grief and loss, and still others extend more understanding and peace. In the fifth chapter, for example, Rufus, when told by his mother of the possibility that his grandfather might die, comes to grips, momentarily, with what a loss is all about and equates the possible passing of his grandfather with the death of his cat: “Mama,” Rufus said, “when Oliver went to sleep, did he wake up in heaven too”? Mary, startled but always straitlaced, and always relying on what the church teaches about death, fends Rufus off with meaningless adult answers that center, first, upon the anxiety that the children should finish breakfast and prepare for school, and second, with the repetitious “I don’t know.” Within the purest realm of child-like reasoning, Rufus satisfied himself about who gets into heaven in the case of the rabbits who were bloodied to death by the dogs: “Why did God let the dogs in”? Mary, agitated but resigned, replies, “We mustn’t trouble ourselves with these things we can’t understand. We just have to be sure that God knows best.” Rufus plays the comedic and unexpected role: “I bet they sneaked in when He wasn’t looking… . Cause He sure wouldn’t have let them in if He’d been there. Didn’t they Mama? Didn’t they”? Mary once again retreats to the church’s stand, this time speaking theologically of good or evil and God or the devil, playing a rapid-fire but unwieldy exchange with Rufus, whose only repeated words are “what” or “why.” She opens with the word “tempts”; he seizes onto that word and asks: “What’s tempt?” She hesitates and says: “the Devil tempts us when there is something we want to do, but we know it is bad.” Rufus continues the momentum: “Why does God let us do bad things?” Mary: “Because He wants us to make up our own minds.” “Why” is the continually drumming word for Rufus, but finally the dialogue ends with Mary’s carefully spaced words, which are intended to be emphatic: “God—doesn’t—believe—in—the—easy—way.” Catherine, innocent and wide-eyed through the exchange, injects another comedic touch: “Like hide-and-go-seek.” Rufus, agitated and angry, blusters at her: “God doesn’t fool around playing games, does He, Mama! Does He! Does He!” Rufus, unbowed by his mother’s defense of his sister but aware that he must apologize for unbecoming behavior, says unwittingly: “I am sorry, Catherine… . Honest to goodness I am. Because you’re a little, little girl… .” Not realizing what he had just said and how it affected Catherine, Rufus is sent “brusquely” off to school.
Agee’s women, like Mary and little Catherine, symbolize a sense of gentility, the love and respect for home and “place,” but more than any other characteristic, they instinctively and successfully balance the need for the virtues of faith, hope, love, and even reserve, to be alive and vibrant. Mary, for example, is patient and giving, and unlike Jay, she demonstrates an interior of self-restraint. Those attributes become more apparent in another scene, when Rufus (Agee) accepts an invitaton to go shopping with Mary’s Aunt Hannah, whom Rewak calls “the strongest character in the book.” Mary and Hannah are much alike, at this point, and although the aunt is older and wiser, her feelings toward her niece are from a completely interior point of view and never spoken. When Hannah asks Mary if Rufus would like to go shopping with her, Mary’s tone in return is reserved and hesitant. Hannah is “tempted to tell her not to make up children’s minds for them but held onto herself… .”
In the afternoon, when the two leave for the shopping tour, the streetcar carries them to Gay Street and the stores. Once inside, Rufus pays little attention to what his great-aunt is doing or saying; he focuses instead on “the clashing, banging wire baskets which hastened along on little trolleys, high above them all, bearing to and fro wrapped and unwrapped merchandise, and hard leather cylinders full of money.” The contrast between the two sharpens vividly when Hannah asks Rufus if he would like a new cap; as they move to men’s furnishings, Hannah’s eyes fall on “a genteel dark serge with the all but invisible visor, which she was sure would please Mary, …” but Rufus’s senses were “set on a thunderous fleecy check in jade green, canary yellow, black and white, which stuck out inches to either side above his ears and had a great scoop of visor beneath which his face was all but lost.” Aunt Hannah thinks of the reaction from Mary, perhaps even Jay, and certainly the boys on the block, but she refrains from comment; Rufus likes the cap and she buys it. Agee’s treatment of Aunt Hannah is one of respect for age, wisdom, and strength of character. She personifies a two-tiered dimension of womanhood: first, in elegance, graciousness, beauty, and a love of “remembrance,” and second, in the awareness of the youth and vigor of the generations behind her. Agee’s keen wit about Hannah is apparent with a reference to her “pouring gravely through an issue of ‘The Nations.’”
As theme and counter-theme, life and death move slowly or rapidly through the sensibilities of these characters or their responses to their day and to each other. The interpolated prose-poems after chapter 7 support a different tonality, the overwhelming memories of Rufus as a child with loving parents nearby. Ohlin, writing of these memories, argues: “The long lyrical section describing Rufus’s fear of the dark goes so far beyond anything that could possibly be characterized as the child’s awareness that it becomes, in effect, expressive of Agee’s effort to move inside the experience rather than of the experience itself.” Rufus fears the blackness and the premonition of the death that will shortly take place; in this nightmare of time, unlike the peace and tranquility of “Knoxville,” Rufus, as an infant in a crib, can see and hear “a serpent shape” on the wallpaper or voices like locusts that “cared nothing for him” before Jay came in to quiet him. Rufus “remembers” Jackie, the cloth dog, and remembers his father singing familiar songs, some old, some popular: “Frog he would a wooin’ go un-hooooo,” “I got a gallon on a sugarbabe too,” or “Google Eyes,” and the old and loving spiritual, “Git on board, little children.” Mary also sang softer and more maternal songs to Rufus, perhaps because she was pregnant with Catherine. He liked “Sleep, baby sleep,” “Go tell Aunt Rhoda,” but especially, “Swing low, sweet cherryut,” sung either by his father or mother; the reflection is on home, the meaning of home, the journey of life to death, and is summed up in “Comin’ for to care me home.” Agee’s mood and tone, like that of Thomas Wolfe, his sonorities of sound in music, of distance and nearness, of simplicity and complexity, reverberate in: “How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves … you can never go home again. You can go home, it’s good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life.”
Agee’s sensitive perceptions of his father reflect the strongest kinds of images of Jay (100–101), with detailed precision of what he wore—for example, “hard” pants, “hard” coats, “hard” celluloid collars, and “hard” buttons on a vest; or of the smells associated with maleness—i.e., “dry grass, leather and tobacco”; or of the case of a big mustache, not particularly enjoyed by Mary. When Jay was talking about the “mush’tash,” “he was joking, talking like a darky. He liked to talk darky talk and the way he sang was like a darky too, only when he sang he wasn’t joking.” Rufus, too, becomes reacquainted with a “darky” or “colored” in a scene with Victoria, black Victoria, who had taken care of him when he was born; now that Mary is about to give birth to Catherine, she reemerges to take him to his “Granma’s.” Mary cautions Rufus not to refer to her color or her “smell”; Rufus, throwing caution to the wind, asks directly: “Why is your skin so dark,” and Victoria answers: “Just because that was the way God made me.” Against the background of a “yellow streetcar,” Victoria reminds Rufus that he should be more careful about asking a “colored” why her skin is dark, but adds lovingly: “You make me feel happy … I missed you terribly, honey.” Agee’s finely tuned senses, like the mechanics of the streetcar, move the experiential memories beyond the darkness and the light and signal life as is was in another time and death as it is to be.
In Part 2, the daily lives of Mary, Andrew (her brother), and Aunt Hannah, in particular, and others in general, come to an abrupt halt as Jay’s death becomes a part of their sensibilities. Mary sends her brother to find out if Jay is injured or dead, and in the meantime she prepares the downstairs bedroom for what may be a long convalescence, brings “clean sheets and pillowcases” to the bed, plumping and smoothing the pillows, bringing out the bedpan and the thermometer, replacing the guest towels, every action designed to relieve the tension, and finally, falling down on her knees, to utter the words of the Cross she knows so well: “O God if it be Thy will.” With Hannah at her side, Mary begins her long vigil of faith and hope, small talk, and tea as the symbol of warmth. Time, as a measure of day and night, disappears; conversation becomes inactive, and silence pervades as the two women wait and wait and wait. “Mary did not speak, and Hannah could not think of a word to say. It was absurd, she realized, but along with everything else, she felt almost of a kind of social embarrassment about her speechlessness.” Hannah, thirty years ago, lost and grieved as Mary would tonight. The women pray an alternate litany for God’s forgiveness and quietly say the “Our Father.” The rhythms of life have closed down, and with every tick of the clock and Andrew’s absence or lack of a phone call, death is no longer a possibility but a truth.
Finally, after long hours of waiting, Andrew brings the fatal news to the waiting women, and Mary, alone now as a widow, says in a small voice: “I want whiskey,” to preserve a closeness, a last bond with Jay: “I want it just as strong as I can stand it.” Andrew, in concert with Mary, plays his double role as loving brother and uneasy messenger with honesty and devotion. The other members quickly come to the house, Mary’s father offering philosophical words for her sorrow and loss: “Just spunk won’t be enough; you’ve got to have gumption.” The family hears details of the accident and death for their needs and knowledge. Andrew—as Rewak writes, “perhaps the most likeable person in the book, for he is always entirely honest with his feelings”—calls Ralph to inform him of Jay’s death. With significant irony, Ralph’s conversation is never heard and barely reported; Andrew’s comments afterwards, though, are clear: “Talking to that fool is like trying to put socks on an octopus.”
In the middle of their grieving process, the family members become very much aware of a “presence” in the house, each one coming to a feeling of someone “never for an instant in one place. It was in the next room, it was in the kitchen, it was in the dining room.” In guarded seconds with Andrew, Mary shows her intensity about his death: “it simply felt like Jay … I just mean it felt like his presence.” Later, as they listen for additional sounds, Mary remarks that Jay has gone to see the children in their bedroom for the last time. She feels his “presence” in the room, “of his strength, of virility, of helplessness, and of pure calm.” He leaves, as he came, quietly and with his duty done, and Mary accepts her loss: “God help me to realize it.” The family members resume their grief individually and collectively and then leave; Andrew, the family poet, reflects on God’s order of life, Jay’s death, and his own personal sense of loss. In the early morning hours, walking home, he “remembers” the words of the hymn, “above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” In past years, those words were ones of comfort, but now death interrupts, and his belief in people, in his own continuity, in the justice and mercy of God and in his own hard wish to know God, are shattered. In the house, meantime, Mary and Hannah go to bed, and latter’s heart and mind empty and heavy, the former accepting the finality of Jay’s death and her own faith in God: “Thy will be done.”
In the last three interludes before Part 3, Agee’s mirror to the past illuminates, in the first scene, the powerful struggle of Rufus to accommodate other boys from the street and the neighborhood, some young, some older, as friends in his life. He sees these boys, either “cocksure” of themselves or attentive, smiling, and curious, as companions growing up. At times they show contempt and amusement as they use his name in a chorus ditty: “Uh-Rufus, Uh-Rastus, Uh-Johnson, Uh-Brown / uh-What ya gonna do when the rent comes round?” Bewildered and hurt, he asks his parents about his name, and Mary replies that, while the “colored” people use the name, “it was your great-grandfather Lynch’s and it’s a name to be proud of.” Rufus is not convinced altogether, but his identity and position with the boys is partially solved when he sings for them in his own childlike fashion: “I’m a little busy bee, busy bee, busy bee, / I’m a little busy bee, singing in the clover.” As he dances and sings he watches the faces of the boys, the older ones “restrained and smiling,” the middle-sized boys with faces of “contempt.” In the second scene, more in association with Agee’s sensibilities, the countryside provides pastoral beauty. The family is driving into the back country, the deep, hill country, a timeless place with its history but very little present. The central figure is Rufus’s great-great-grandmother, whose longevity, as Coles writes, “is beyond any meaning of age most of us know… .” Agee’s description is a composite of mood, picture, tone, color, and rhythm of words, “white bone and black vein … brown-splotched skin, the wrinkled knuckles … a red rubber guard ahead of her wedding ring … her eyes … as impersonally bright as two perfectly shaped eyes of glass.” The family talk has been on the events of history she has lived through: the Civil War, President Lincoln, and even the age and time before and after. Now Rufus, the oldest of her great-great-grandchildren stands before her to close the generational gap; when he kisses her, the bonding is complete. In the third and final scene of the interludes, Rufus rides on a train through the Smokies with Jay, Catherine, and Uncle Ted and Aunt Kate, the latter relatives of a nonentity status from Michigan. The scene has little do with the physical journey but much to do with growing up and the interplay between parents and children and other adults. Ted wants Rufus to whistle at a meal for more cheese, and when he cannot, Mary protests Ted’s continuing tease: “I think it’s a perfect shame, deceiving a little child like that who’s been brought up to trust people… ;” Jay, Ted, and Kay disagree, and Mary—again on the defensive—concludes: “But he’s been brought up to trust older people when they tell him something.” Agee’s unusual picture of childhood innocence, loneliness, and the preparatory moments of experience in life points out not only fears and hopes and a child’s naïveté but, more than anything else, Agee’s search, a longing and pleading search for an answer to “tell me who I am.”
Source: Eugene T. Carroll, “Mood and Music: Landscape and Artistry in A Death in the Family,” in James Agee: Reconsiderations, edited by Michael A. Lofaro, University of Tennessee Press, 1992, pp. 82–103.
Kramer, Victor A., “Urban and Rural Balance in A Death in the Family,” in James Agee: Reconsiderations, edited by Michael A. Lofaro, University of Tennessee Press, 1992, pp. 104–18.
MacDonald, Dwight, Review of A Death in the Family, in the New Yorker, November 16, 1957, p. 224.
Maddocks, Melvin, Review of A Death in the Family, in the Christian Science Monitor, November 14, 1957, p. 7.
Doty, Mark, Tell Me Who I Am: James Agee’s Search for Selfhood, Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
One of the most psychologically intensive studies of Agee’s life, this book draws heavily off his letters and the writings of those who knew him.
Kramer, Victor A., “Remembrance of Childhood,” in James Agee, Twayne’s United States Authors Series, No. 252, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 142–55.
This section of a standard overview of Agee’s life and work focuses on A Death in the Family and how it joined the end of Agee’s life with his first memories.
Lowe, James, The Creative Process of James Agee, Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Lowe’s general theme is “disparateness” throughout Agee’s works: the ways in which his writings in different genres tended to draw in different directions.
Madden, David, ed., Remembering James Agee, Louisiana State University Press, 1974.
Moreau, Geneviève, The Restless Journey of James Agee, William Morrow, 1977.
This book gives equal attention to Agee’s life and his work, claiming not to be a biography but a literary examination of the ways he drew from the familiar for his writing.
Spiegel, Alan, James Agee and the Legend of Himself, University of Mississippi Press, 1998.
Spiegel organizes his book around ancient mythic motifs, examining how Agee’s writings built a mythic personality for the author.