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A Death in the Family

3.92  ·  Rating Details ·  11,462 Ratings  ·  828 Reviews
James Agee. A Death in the Family. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, [1957]. First edition with the correct first issue points. Octavo. 339 pages. Publisher's binding, dust jacket.
Winner of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

Agee was a poet, a penetrating film critic for TIME and other magazines, an intricate public conscience, and a man who carried all his life the bur
Hardcover, 339 pages
Published 1957 by McDowell, Obolensky
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Reid Hopefully you carried on reading it. The relationships become much clearer. The reason it might seem a bit confusing is because it is written largely…moreHopefully you carried on reading it. The relationships become much clearer. The reason it might seem a bit confusing is because it is written largely from the perspective of a six-year-old boy, whose view of the world is filled with certain assumptions that any adult might consider in need of explanation, but a young boy does not. Keep reading. It's a very fine book.(less)
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Jim Fonseca
Sep 08, 2013 Jim Fonseca rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An oldie (1938) but a goodie. This book is a poster child for truth in advertising: it is precisely what its title tells us. A young husband and father is taken in the prime of life. As the family gathers in the house before the funeral, we hear every comforting word, every sob. We hear the prayers with the priest; we pick up the scent of flowers; we hear the empty condolences. A grief-stricken toddler daughter is hiding under the bed. They start loading the hearse.


In between these scenes we le
Oct 13, 2014 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: classic-novels
Do you want to hear a joke? Too bad. I just read James Agee’s A Death in the Family and it’s so damn depressing that all I want to do is sit in a dark closet and tremble with existential angst. This is the kind of novel that makes me want to weep into my whiskey, but that would only tighten the spiral of depression. If you’re going to take anything while reading this book, it should certainly be cocaine.*

*Do not take cocaine while reading this book. Or probably any other book.

The best way to de
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
You May Well Ask Yourself In Deciding Whether to Read this Novel One or Both of 2 Questions:

1. Do I Really Want to Insert into my World the Pain and Loss of a Close Family Member (albeit, fictional)?

2. Might this Book Be a Blessing to Help Me through a Time of Unbearable Loneliness and Grieving for a Lost Friend or Family Member?

I answered the first question in the negative and abandoned this book. I expect though that I could very well find myself one day looking for just such a novel when the
Sep 30, 2009 Szplug rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Dec 20, 2011 Mariel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 11, 2007 Nick rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
What do I do? I am worrying about my rating of A Death in the Family. I was uncomfortable with all the stuff about religion in the book. This and the funeral at the end were difficult for me to bear. I am altering the rating to four. The rating reflects my personal preferences.


I have chosen to give this book five stars because it so very accurately portrays death in a Southern family. It has in-depth character portrayals and excellent writing. I didn't enjoy read
May 02, 2008 Monica rated it it was amazing  ·  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
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
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
Azita Rassi
Dec 13, 2016 Azita Rassi rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A masterpiece of characterization. I can't wait for the BBC Radio 4 discussion about it with the author.
A month after the above sentences, I discovered that the book of the month announced, though of the same title, is actually the first volume of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, another highly acclaimed 'A Death in the Family'. Well, I will read that one as well. All I can say is that it was a lucky mistake :-)
Mar 24, 2011 William1 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, us, 20-ce
Agee's prose seems to me deeply influenced by Faulkner, but with an uncanny ring of Chekhov. Still reading.
Apr 27, 2010 Sue rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
“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. ”

James Agee's 'A Death in the Family' was published posthumously and also won the late author a Pulitzer Prize. In additio
Dec 05, 2011 David rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 22, 2009 Stephen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Nov 11, 2009 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 18, 2010 Vikki rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jul 26, 2011 Katherine rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 13, 2012 Chrystal rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is not a poorly-written book, only an extremely boring one. I had to force myself to read it because I felt surely there was some redeeming quality in it that would merit its being awarded a Pulitzer Prize. That being said, I feel it is a particular type of reader which appreciates this style of writing. As for myself, it makes me want to punch a wall or break things when I have to plod through painstaking descriptions of people's thoughts, going round and round over the same thing like a d ...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
Jan 17, 2013 Jaksen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm moving through those classics on the '100 books' every reader should read...etc, whatever. (There are a lot of such lists, and on many of them I've already read a good half to three quarters of the books. Anyhow...)

I hadn't read this one, though the movie version with Robert Preston is one of my favorites. The book is a sad one, big reveal. Whenever I felt a little bit of optimism, the next page was a huge sink that just swallowed me up. I've been there, in terrible and all-consuming grief,
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
Jan 12, 2011 Mikki rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Delara Hazegh f
I felt a deep sense of emptiness the entire time I was reading this book. It was somehow harsh or I don't know, kinda frustrated me sometimes.
The best part was the last chapter when Andrew describes the whole butterfly story to Rufus.
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.
Jun 09, 2012 Derek rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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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.

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 about James Agee...

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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.”
“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. ” 19 likes
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