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A Death in the Family

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  14,261 ratings  ·  1,165 reviews
The American classic-now available from Penguin for the first time

Published in 1957, two years after its author's death at the age of forty-five, A Death in the Family remains a near-perfect work of art, an autobiographical novel that contains one of the most evocative depictions of loss and grief ever written. As Jay Follet hurries back to his home in Knoxville, Tennesse
Paperback, 320 pages
Published September 10th 2008 by Penguin Books (first published 1957)
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Jeff Yes. He desperately needed a drink because life at home was so dull it was eating him alive. I could relate, having to endure reading it.
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Denise Definitely I continued reading it - the descriptions of the relationships are excellent and I certainly appreciated that part of his writings and, as …moreDefinitely I continued reading it - the descriptions of the relationships are excellent and I certainly appreciated that part of his writings and, as you point out, particularly the world from the point of view of a 6 year-old. Like I noted, what becomes "heavy" with James Agee is when he wanders into disclosing all that is going on in his mind - all the phylosophizing that doesn't really add (in my opinion) to the his "story".(less)
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Average rating 3.91  · 
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Oct 13, 2014 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
Jim Fonseca
Sep 08, 2013 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 l
Mar 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Until my GR friend Roger recently published his review of this book, I had forgotten I read it, many years ago.

It used to sit in a corner of my office desk in 1973, a few months after my graduation.

The experience of that office, like reading Agee’s short and remarkable book, was filled with my attempts to find my youth in the wasteland of the spirit which is the modern workplace.

But I could find neither a respite from my ragged dreams of adulthood, nor the fulfillment of my magical childhood v
Aug 23, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
You May Ask Yourself...Am I Right? Am I Wrong? ....Same as it ever was; same as it ever was"
And you may ask yourself:
Do I Want to Feel the Loss of a fictional Close Family Member?

And you may tell yourself:
Might Help Me through Grieving

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down ["Once in a Lifetime," Talking Heads]

Set primarily in east Tennessee, A Death in the Family won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Lit. This book is among a handful that I could not finish reading after realizing whe
Julie Christine
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
May 09, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: public-library
Published after the death of the author, A Death in the Family won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958.  Classics have become classics for a reason.  Unfortunately, that fact provides no guarantee that every reader is going to love a given masterpiece.  Sadly, this is going to be the case here.  My rating is not a reflection of the quality of the writing, it is based solely on personal preference.

Very fine writing captured the devastating grief of the new widow, the confusion of her two small children, a
James Agee’s prose is finely weighted in this autobiographical fiction novel. The words are delivered with a delicate grace, each one set in its place like a jewel bracketed and waiting for the sun to show off its brilliant facets. Each phrase casts its visual imagery upon the mind as Agee balances the words just so. A sculpted study of a family’s loss and bereavement, the novel is startling in its simplicity yet cutting in its exploratory layers of what it means to be a member of this family ex ...more
Jan 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020, american, fiction
"A rocking chair betrayed reiterate strain, as of a defective lung; like a single note from a stupendous jews-harp, the chain of a porch swing twanged."
- James Agee, A Death in the Family


Emotionally, this unfinished autobiographical novel felt a bit like David Foster Wallace's last, unfinished novel The Pale King. But it also felt a bit like Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. It was beautiful and sad. It had no answers. Not about religion. Not about God. Not about family. It made me cry, retreading my
Roger Brunyate
Two Inquiries

I'm starting this review for the third time, hoping to make it more focused and succinct. Let's start with the best the book has to offer:

Knoxville: Agee's childhood home

…On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept o
I have never seen the portrait of grief drawn so vividly and sporadically as in Agee’s posthumous novel, A Death in the Family. Every space, light, distance, and shadow weigh heavy against every ounce of feeling derive from the minutiae of everyday gestures and conversations; and they weigh heaviest once they turn into a series of memories. Since this novel does not rely on a rich narrative but more on the inevitable wake of death, it painfully but genuinely communicates—in often repetitive but ...more
Connie G
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
Sep 30, 2009 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
Dec 20, 2011 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 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
Lori Keeton
The poetic and atmospheric prose of James Agee’s A Death in the Family captures a time and place so familiar to him that it invites the reader to become a member of the family. Only a person who has lived this life can write so eloquently about the minute details of such a tragedy. He has opened up his heart and soul and given us a picture in words of how life and death are entwined. That is the feeling I have as I think about how this work has lingered in my mind.

Agee wrote this as a semi auto
Mar 24, 2011 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, 20-ce, us
Agee's prose seems to me deeply influenced by Faulkner, but with an uncanny ring of Chekhov. Still reading.— Ah, the book fell from my hands. Must give it another try when the planets align. :-) ...more
Apr 05, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
***3 Stars***
Dec 13, 2012 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. Obviously, there are many other readers who appreciate Agee's writing style. 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 dog worrying a bone. Wh ...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
May 02, 2008 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
3.5 stars, rounded up.

This is a difficult review to write, because I believe I should have felt more than I did while reading this poignant account of the death of a young father. I’m not sure if the lack of connection was my fault or Agee’s, but I am going to assume it was mine.

The descriptions of the relationship between the father, Jay, and his son, Rufus, are touching and very real. Since the book is autobiographical in nature, Agee having lost his own father at the age of six, they no doubt
Apr 27, 2010 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
Jeanette (Again)
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
Dec 05, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Azita Rassi
Dec 13, 2016 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 :-)
Dec 07, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Beautiful book, very raw and authentic. Notice the title and decide when to best read this book’s contents.
Oct 22, 2009 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
Jul 26, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: cbf-to-finish
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
Oct 18, 2010 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
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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.

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61 likes · 20 comments
“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. ” 24 likes
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