A Death In The Family Gets Updated
This feels like deja vu. But it’s not.
James Agee actually died before the novel was published. Because of that, David McDowell, who was Agee’s friend and protege, put together the novel based on how he believed Agee would’ve wanted it.
Back in 2008, Michael Lofaro, a professor at the University of Tennessee, pieced together an updated version of the novel based on his research. It was called A Death In The Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text.
The updated version wasn’t received very well. Even Steve Earle, in his introduction to the original version of the novel, which is the one I read (Penguin Classic edition, 2009), admits he likes the original better, though he compliments Lofaro’s changes.
A few years ago a new version of A Death In The Family appeared. Subtitled A Restoration of the Author’s Text, it opens with a stunningly crafted nightmare sequence that the editor of the new version, University of Tennessee professor and leading Agee scholar Michael Lofaro, maintains was intended, by the author, to open the book. There are many other differences, and they are not subtle. The 1957 version’s twenty chapters become forty-four shorter ones, and some deleted chapters have indeed been restored. Others that were heavily edited are also returned to their original condition. In addition, the narrative is rearranged in order that all of the events occur chronologically. These changes are supported by painstakingly exhaustive study of the manuscripts and the author’s notes and correspondence. The result is impressive and fascinating. It is a scholarly triumph and a must for Agee addicts, and I’ll probably read and reread it for the rest of my life.
But I still like the old one better.
The moral of the story here is that updating a Pulitzer Prize winning novel is not a project to be taken lightly.
Obviously, Lofaro didn’t take the task lightly. But the updated version sounds like more of a sideshow or a “bonus feature” for readers who are really into Agee, instead of a version that should replace the original.
I’m not a big fan of these types of drastic changes to classic novels. You?
Read more in a New York Times article on the changes made to the novel.