Just when I thought I had read it all.
I’ve read about little kids being created and harvested as organ donors in Never Let Me Go. I’ve read about an alcoholic mom who accidentally drowns her infant in the bathtub in Rabbit, Run.
I’ve read about a farming family who loses their farm, their income, and many of their lives in The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve read about a poor, young girl who gets pushed over a boat and drowned by her fiancé in An American Tragedy. I’ve read about the crappiest marriage in the history of marriages in Revolutionary Road.
I’ve read about some depressing stuff while reading through this list. But A Death In The Family takes the cake, and that’s saying something.
If it feels like I’ve posted a lot about A Death In The Family, it’s because I have. But if you’re ready to move on, this is my final post about the novel before the review on Tuesday.
James Agee lost his father when he was a child. That experience inspired A Death In The Family. It’s a sad story, in ways I’ve already explained.
Early in the novel, there’s a strange dream sequence. Everything is written in italics, and Agee’s style makes a poetic transition.
The following passage from that sequence blew me away.
This feels like deja vu. But it’s not.
Just a few weeks ago, back when I was reading All The King’s Men, I wrote about the controversy over the different versions of that novel. Very similar situation here with A Death In The Family.
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.
This might be the most boring post ever on this blog. I say that just because I’m not into opera, high-pitched singing.
Just the thought of this post almost puts me to sleep, yet it’s relevant.
So I forge ahead. The things I do for 101 Books.
Despite my negativity, I must admit this:
One way you know a novel has made an impact is to see all the different ways it’s been translated into different art forms. Remember all the books-turned-musicals I posted about?
This is relevant to A Death In The Family because the book’s opening inspired the “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” orchestral piece, written in 1947 by Samuel Barber for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
If you’ve read the opening to A Death In The Family, you understand the connection to Knoxville and the summer of 1915. Barber only uses portions of Agee’s text for the lyrics in his piece. It’s been performed thousands of times across the world.
According to Wikipedia:
While posting about A Death In The Family, I’ve briefly mentioned a few times how this novel really hits home.
Here’s why. I’m 37. I’m married. I have a three-year-old son and my wife is due in September with another little boy.
In the story, Jay Follet, the young father who dies, is 36. He has a six-year-old son, Rufus, and a younger daughter, Catherine.
He leaves behind his wife, Mary, and their two young children.
I think you can understand why this book gets to me. I’ll explain more after this passage.
Here’s the setup.
Aunt Hannah is talking to Jay’s two children, attempting to explain that their father won’t be coming home.
This is one of my favorite passages from A Death In The Family.
It comes not long after Jay Follet’s death. His wife, Mary, is understandably heartbroken and suffering. She has two kids to raise alone now.
There’s tension between Mary and her family. She’s a devout Catholic, while the rest of her family are agnostics at best.
After the death, her father sits down with her and offers somewhat bleak but very straightforward advice that I think would be relevant to anyone who has recently suffered the unexpected death of a loved one. He’s trying to help her understand how to move forward.
I mentioned this in my previews, but there’s no spoiler in saying that A Death In The Family is about the death of a young father. That’s the premise of the entire novel.
I’ll cover the novel itself in a lot of detail in the next couple of weeks, because this one really hits home—in more ways than one. But to start off my posts on A Death In The Family, I want to highlight the novel’s foreword, which is written by Steve Earle.
When I first noticed that Steve Earle wrote the foreword, I did a double take. It’s a strange association. Earle’s a famous folk singer with a famous folk singer son, Justin Townes Earl. And if you’ve watched The Wire, you’ll remember Steve Earle played Walon, who was Bubbles’ friend during rehab.
I can’t say I expected to see Steve Earle write the foreword for any novel, much less one that is Time’s top 100 novels. That said, I don’t know if he wrote the foreword himself, or if it was ghostwritten, but it’s really well done.
Earle talks about living in Tennessee, Agee’s home state, for 31 years without ever reading A Death In The Family or anything by James Agee. When he first read A Death, though, he was living in Knoxville, the city in which the novel is set.