A Death in the Family
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A Death in the Family

3.91 of 5 stars 3.91  ·  rating details  ·  8,154 ratings  ·  609 reviews
"An utterly individual and original book...one of the most deeply worked out expressions of human feeling that I have ever read." - Alfred Kazin

On a sultry summer night in 1915, Jay Follet leaves his house in Knoxville, Tennessee, to tend to his father, whom he believes is dying. The summons turns out to be a false alarm, but on his way back to his family, Jay has a car ac...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published July 28th 1998 by Vintage (first published 1957)
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Community Reviews

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Julie
When I told Brendan that I'd finished "A Death in the Family" he asked me how it made me feel. Not "What did you think of the book?" but "How did it make you feel?"

I felt those hideous, unspeakable emotions that arise when contemplating the death of a loved one. I felt the suffocating sorrow knowing the worst was yet to come for the characters: after the ceremonies end and friends and family slip away to return to their lives, you are left alone and the shock wears away to leave you hopeless an...more
Szplug
Agee's autobiographical masterpiece was still in unfinished form when he died—a labour of love for him, he apparently tinkered with its content and structure endlessly. What he was producing was a remarkable, plenitudinous look at a relatively mundane subject: the effect of the death of a young, strong, and good man on his wife, children and family. We are introduced to this average, likeable Tennessee family—based upon Agee's own childhood—dealing with their daily share of struggles, troubles a...more
Mariel
Oct 02, 2012 Mariel rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: what can you see?!
Recommended to Mariel by: kaneda
Rufus seldom had at all sharply the feeling that he and his father were estranged, yet they must have been, and he must have felt it, for always during these quiet moments on the rock a part of his sense of complete contentment lay in the feeling that they were reconciled, that there was really no division, no estrangement, or none so strong, anyhow, that it could mean much, by comparison with the unity that was so firm and assured, here. He felt that although his father loved their home and lov...more
Nick
Sep 10, 2007 Nick rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: those who appreciate the hidden mystery of the emotional moment
This isn't a difficult book but it's certainly not traditional. There is practically no profluence beyond the natural causality of a single incident--the death of a good man. In other words, there are no surprises, nothing is coming that you don't already know, no real "narrative" reason to turn the page.

Rather, the book is held together by a string of incredibly detailed descriptions of highly emotional moments in one family's life. The vivid inner lives of the characters that Agee creates are...more
Connie
James Agee was only six years old when his young father died in an automobile accident. "A Death in the Family" is an autobiographical novel of that sad time with much of the novel seen through a child's eyes. The novel was unfinished when James Agee also died at a young age. His editor had to decide where to place several gorgeously written flashback scenes of happier days for the family so that they would not detract from the main story.

The beginning of the novel shows the love between Jay and...more
Larry Bassett
This book starts out gentle and familiar with the description of a father and young son at the movie house watching Charlie Chaplin. It is a silent film of course and the words not spoken are acted out on the screen as they are in life. But in life there is not the Chaplinesque exaggeration. As both a father and a son, I am touched by the obvious bond that exists. And as I understand that the words are reflecting back on events of many years ago, I am drawn in by the skill of the author who plac...more
Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist"
James Agee died very suddenly in his early forties after he'd been working on this novel for several years. Those who published it posthumously had to piece it together as best they could, so there are some sections that don't quite fit where they were placed. However, this is still a very powerful piece, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958.

The story itself is very simple. In 1915, a young man with a wife and two children is instantly killed one night in a car accident. The book follows the grie...more
Monica
Dec 28, 2010 Monica rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Monica by: mom and dad
Shelves: special-books
original note: This book so far is giving me some comfort.
It's on a list of the 101 best novels since 1923 that I haven't studied yet, but think it may sit better with me than the 1001 previously discussed.

This Bantam edition I guess I've had since 1983. It says it's the 13th printing and portions were previously published in The Partisan Review, The Cambridge Review, The New Yorker, and Harper's Bazaar: all publications worthy of such incredible writing. One half to three quarters of the way t...more
Sue
Apr 07, 2013 Sue rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Sue by: OTSLT
So infinitely sad. These people are so completely presented in all their parts and thoughts, imperfections, each totally human thought as it occurs at the totally inappropriate moment. This is life on the page.--This was my thought when I was about half way through this novel. How was I to know that it was to become even more sad to the point of wishing I could explain to a child as I read the final page.

Everything rings true.


"Andrew," Mary broke in, "tell Mama. she's just dying to
know what w...more
Tabitha
This was the second time that I read this book in a two year period and it is as gorgeous and grotesque as I remember.

"She wanted to hold her niece at arms' length and to turn and admire this blossoming. She wanted to take her in her arms and groan unto God for what it meant to be alive(p120)."

"Suddenly there opened within her a chasm of infinite depth and from it flowed the paralyzing breath of eternal darkness. I believe nothing. Nothing whatever." (p121)

"Just spunk won't be enough; you've go...more
David
I was really looking forward to this book. It is spoken of so highly, was graced with a Pulitzer Prize and published posthumously after the untimely death of its young author. However I waited in vain for it to catch fire and was quite disappointed overall. It clearly packed much more of a wallop when first printed but now seems rather dated and less powerful than it once was. At least to me.

Certainly there are lyric passages of great beauty, the most famous of which would be the introductory "K...more
Lisa Vegan
I read this book for my fall freshman year of college, for an English lit course, and it made a huge impression on me. I think I’ve reread it only once, and that was decades ago, but it remains a powerful influence.

I think that this book does a better job than any other I’ve read of communicating the innocence of young children and of portraying how their perceptions of events can be different from those of adults.

The writing style is lovely and the book is very well written, the characters’ per...more
Chris
Dec 01, 2009 Chris rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Chris by: Julie
Heartbreaking and raw. I don't believe I've ever read a book or seen a movie that so realistically portrays a death in the family and what every single member goes through; the weaving of conversations and thoughts between the characters, and being an outsider looking in, some of the conversations and things that were said to Mary and the children. People think they are doing good and mean well, when actually they are saying all the wrong things. And that priest, I wanted to kick him out the doo...more
Derek
A Death in the Family is as every bit as beautiful and grotesque as the title suggests. First, and foremost, I will admit this up front: I cried a little. It wasn't a whole lot, but it was enough. This book roils in emotion -- not ever overdone or melodramatic -- but with just the right, honest blend of reality that nearly every reader will relate to. I oftentimes found myself engaging in the characters' struggles and desparation; I oftentimes found myself thinking back on my own heart-hurts and...more
Jessica T
As I came to an end of reading the novel Death in the Family by James Agee, I felt unbelievably like I was Rose in the 1999 movie remake of Titanic, when Jack dies at the heart of the Atlantic Ocean. Tears just came streaming down my face like how I felt after watching that movie. Not one other book has ever made me feel like I have after reading this story. I feel this book was extremely relatable for people who have lost loved ones which have passed away.

As someone who has lost a close family...more
Katherine
How this won a Pulitzer is beyond me. Perhaps as a tribute to a dead, famous author? "A Death in the Family" was published posthumously, after all.

Nonetheless, this book is a prime example of why posthumously publishing anything is a terrible idea: the craft of writing is much more about editing, revisions, and rewriting than it is just about ~writing~. There are golden moments in here - particularly with the alcoholic brother - but they are few and far between because it seems that no one dared...more
Steve
It is impossible for me to inject any levity into a review of A Death in the Family. No “headline” here, as has been my wont in other reviews. Yes, the pretext for the novel is a death in the family, but the subject matter is the experience of life.

The best captured experience of life here is from the point of view of a 6-year-old boy in the context of the untimely death of his father. If someone were to ask me what it was like to be a little boy, I would refer them to this text. The reason is t...more
Vikki
it's true that this book contains some beautifully evocative and poignant images of a family's grief, but overall it was a real struggle to get through. i haven't read a book like this since my american lit classes in grad school, and i can't say that i miss the style of early 20th century prose. james agee died before this novel was finished, and the published version contains two long sections that suggest, to me, that he had a longer work in mind, one that might have revolved primarily around...more
Mikki
Jan 24, 2011 Mikki rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone who appreciates GREAT literature.
The title is a misnomer -- this book isn't about death as stated, but about life. It's about family and all the good, the tragic, the memorable and bland that accompanies.

The thoughts, actions and memories are told through three narrators (father, mother and young son), and are some of the most poetically detailed slices of life that I have come across in recent reading -- responsibility for and to loved ones, summer nights of nothingness that amount to everything, in-laws (that you might prefe...more
Sarah
This is a quiet, meandering sort of book.
But, oh my! --so beautifully, disarmingly true. This book resonated with me like nothing else I've read in the past year.
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
There are good reads that satisfy and are thoughtful and have lovely writing. And then there are the truly great reads that leave the reader longing to start the book over and reread it just as soon as one turns to the final paragraph. A Death in the Family is a great read.

The story is very simple. Jay Follet, the dad and the husband in the family, receives a call from his brother that his father is very ill and is near death. Jay goes to be with his father and on his return is killed in an auto...more
John Otto
The advantage of not having been an English major in college is that all the classics are new to me. This book, the only novel by James Agee, may be the finest novel I have ever read. It is the only one he ever wrote and it was published posthumously in 1946, two years after he died. Agee was well-known in his life-time for a work of non-fiction about depression-era tenant farmers, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," and for his movie reviews.

"A Death in the Family," won the Pulitzer Prize for lite...more
Matt Hlinak
I love the introductory prose-poem “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a hauntingly nostalgic depiction of a night in the author’s childhood. Although Agee examines this night with a sharp eye for detail, his view is uncritical. This is the reminiscence of a boy “well-beloved in that home,” and the piece contains no direct signs of conflict, although there are allusions to “the sorrow of being on this earth” and a prayer to remember Agee’s family “kindly in their time of trouble.” The main focus of the...more
Cynthia
Agee's book is about loss, or should I say LOSS. The main character suffers the loss of the most important, or at least one of, the most important people in her life. She leans on the love of her family and God but even with those loves she's still essentially alone and lost in pain. Unfortunately most of us old folks have weathered such losses and gotten through them somehow. It's hard to let the loss make you a better, more loving, a stronger person but the only other alternative is to become...more
Brian Lane
Nov 14, 2013 Brian Lane rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
Agee was working with so many different points of view, with being inside the psyche of adults and children, struggling through the depth and complexity of their thoughts and feelings. He must not have been able to keep at the intensity required to pull this book from the innermost recesses of his soul for long periods. And even with its richness and complexity, I feel that he was probably still working on the prose - there is a longing incompleteness to the book. There is a genuineness about th...more
Annalisa
This is definitely a slower read. I highly enjoyed the description and the picture I have in my head of this old-town family going through tragedy. It's very quaint and plain and powerful. My favorite chapters were those told by Rufus' point of view, particularly the ones told of the older school children harassing him, heartbreaking. And the parts where little Catherine (spelling? I listened to it audio) doesn't quite comprehend what death is. The book was published after Agee's death and there...more
Wayne
Agee, who died fairly young, tells a semi-autobiographical story of a father/husband/son/brother's death and how the family comes to terms with his early death. Taking place over only a few days, the details and observations are meticulous and universal. The many ways in which we grieve are distilled in the lives of his characters and, though his observations are meticulous and beautifully written, the novel is sometimes painful to read. Not a page-turner, but it was 'with me' from the moment I...more
Steven
Winner of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize, this book explores how a death in the family affects other family members. A nice plot twist in the book also makes this an interesting read. I really like the way that the author switches point of view in the narrative. We see the story from different characters view points. Most interesting is the view from the five year old son.
Lauren
A death in the family by james Agree is a book about a family that experiences a tragic death ( as explained in the tittle). when Jay Folit gets a call in the middle of the night from his brother saying that his dad is in the hospital. Jay can tell the brother is sober and it could be a false alert, when jay goes down to see his brother he soon finds out that his father is fine he leaves in a huff then gets hit by a car on his way home and killed. After this the brother and the family all are de...more
Ben Dutton
James Agee, screenwriter of The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter, was a prolific film critic and sometime novelist. A Death in the Family, published after his early death of a heart attack at the age of forty-five, would earn him the Pulitzer Prize and international acclaim. Though the novel was incomplete at his death, its constituent elements had been completed and it only befell its editor, David McDowell to organise his work into its final form. This meant including Knoxville: Summe...more
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An American author, journalist, poet, screenwriter and film critic. In the 1940s, he was one of the most influential film critics in the U.S. His autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family (1957), won the author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.

Life
Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, at Highland Avenue and 15th Street (renamed James Agee Street in 1999) to Hugh James Agee and Laura Whitman Tyler....more
More about James Agee...
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Cotton Tenants: Three Families Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, and Shorter Fiction The Morning Watch

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“How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, 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. And what's it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what's it all for?

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, and it's almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember.

And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn't what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.”
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“And no matter what, there's not one thing in this world *or* the next that we can do or hope or guess at or wish or pray that can change it or help it one iota. Because whatever is, is. That's all. And all there is now is to be ready for it, strong enough for it, whatever it may be. That's all. That's all that matters. It's all that matters because it's all that's possible. ” 13 likes
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