A Death in the Family by James Agee

About the Author: James Agee was essentially a poet whose collection of poetry is titled Permit me voyage. His other famous works of prose include Let us now praise famous men and The Morning Watch. He was born in Knoxville, Tennessee which provides the setting for many of his works including A Death in the Family.

Sadly, Agee passed away suddenly before he could finalize the manuscript of A Death in the Family. After his passing, the editors put together the novel with absolutely no rewriting. The editors came across certain sections that did not fit into the overall chronology of events and hence those sections are printed in italics. This work of Agee is also considered to be partly autobiographical.

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The narrative is about how a family deals with the sudden death of one of its members, Jay Follet. The readers are given a glimpse into the minds of the various members and it is such honest writing that you feel as if Agee has lived the life of each character. For example, when the narrative shifts to the perspective of Jay’s old mother-in-law, she is in a room with four other people who are discussing what needs to be done next. Since she is quite deaf, she feels uncomfortable and decides to smile politely even though she knows they are discussing something related to Jay.

Other family members are Jay’s alcoholic brother, Jay’s wife Mary and her atheist father with his very strong views. But the most moving part of the novel is when Jay’s two children, Rufus and Catherine, try their hardest to understand what is happening around them.

All the chapters in italics are from the perspective of Rufus, which I am guessing is autobiographical because the author’s middle name is Rufus. Some of these chapters are very heart-warming as the young Rufus struggles to understand racism, atheism, etc. – ideas that are far beyond his age.

One thing that struck me about the book is how the writing could be so wonderfully poetic but still feel endearingly simple. Here are a few of my favourite lines ….

” An auto engine bore beyond the edge of audibility the furious expletives of its incompetence”

 

“…. the solemn wonder tolled in him like the shuddering of a prodigious bell…”

 

On stillness – “their little sounds vanished upon it like the infinitesimal whisperings of snow, falling on open water”

A Death in the Family is powerful and poignant prose. I would recommend it to everyone without a second thought.

 

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