On the Southern Literary Trail discussion

A Death in the Family
This topic is about A Death in the Family
50 views
Group Reads: Pre-1980 > First thoughts, A Death in the Family, August 2014

Comments Showing 1-28 of 28 (28 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Begin our discussion of Agee's "A Death in the Family" here. Should you write spoilers, hide them so readers have a choice of reading them or not.

Also, the group read this novel in April, 2013. You may find a lot to interest you there in the earlier discussion.


message 2: by Howard (last edited Aug 04, 2014 06:50PM) (new)

Howard | 377 comments I really like Agee's prologue: "Knoxville: Summer, 1915." His description of families coming out to the porch after supper to enjoy the cool of the evening hearkens back to a simpler pre-TV, pre-AC time. Because of the invention and proliferation of TV and AC, porches began to disappear. They were seen as an unnecessary construction expense. New houses only had stoops. Front porches have made somewhat of a comeback in my town, but nobody sits on them. TV and AC, you know, and video games and -- yes, yes -- for shame, the internet.


message 3: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Diane Barnes | 3869 comments Mod
My father-in-law is of the opinion that TV and AC have contributed to the downfall of our society and civilization as we know it. I miss front porches and neighbors walking around and kids playing outside. The prologue was a beautiful set-up for the novel.


Larry Bassett | 0 comments 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 places the hand of the father “on the top of [the] bare head” of the son. Words are not required to convey the message of connection.


message 5: by ``Laurie (new) - added it

``Laurie (laurielynette) | 58 comments Howard wrote: "I really like Agee's prologue: "Knoxville: Summer, 1915." His description of families coming out to the porch after supper to enjoy the cool of the evening hearkens back to a simpler pre-TV, pre-AC..."


Not only that but houses aren't even built to have window screens anymore due to a/c. Can't even open a window without bugs flying in.


message 6: by Howard (new)

Howard | 377 comments Laurie wrote: "Howard wrote: "I really like Agee's prologue: "Knoxville: Summer, 1915." His description of families coming out to the porch after supper to enjoy the cool of the evening hearkens back to a simpler..."

Laurie wrote: "Howard wrote: "I really like Agee's prologue: "Knoxville: Summer, 1915." His description of families coming out to the porch after supper to enjoy the cool of the evening hearkens back to a simpler..."

Yes, my house was like that. A month ago I tore out every window and replaced them with windows that have screens. It was expensive, but it was worth it. Gotta have some fresh air.


message 7: by ``Laurie (new) - added it

``Laurie (laurielynette) | 58 comments Howard wrote: "Laurie wrote: "Howard wrote: "I really like Agee's prologue: "Knoxville: Summer, 1915." His description of families coming out to the porch after supper to enjoy the cool of the evening hearkens ba..."

Especially with this milder than usual summer we're having in the south I can sometimes turn off the a/c and open a window at night.


message 8: by Howard (new)

Howard | 377 comments Poor, poor Ralph. I feel his pain.


message 9: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Diane Barnes | 3869 comments Mod
Larry, I am so glad that finally we are reading a book that you can appreciate. I started to write "enjoy", but that's not the right word. It so beautifully and powerfully depicts grief and the different aspects of handling it.


Larry Bassett | 0 comments Diane, I'm cautiously smiling myself!


message 11: by Howard (new)

Howard | 377 comments Linda wrote: "Howard wrote: "I really like Agee's prologue: "Knoxville: Summer, 1915." His description of families coming out to the porch after supper to enjoy the cool of the evening hearkens back to a simpler..."

Linda, The notation is also in my copy of the book. But since "Knoxville Summer, 1915" was inserted as a prologue and was written by Agee, I thought it was a perfect fit.

I found the italicized section after Part I, though beautifully written, to be obtrusive as though the editors said we have this beautiful piece of writing, we have to include it, so let's put it here.

I will have to wait to form an opinion about the section after Part II, because I read the novel many years ago and I haven't reached that point in this reading.


message 12: by Howard (new)

Howard | 377 comments Well, I finished it. It must have been about twenty years since I read it the first time, but I was surprised at how much of the story I remembered.

One thing I had forgotten, however, was Andrew's views on Catholicism specifically and Christianity in general. I'm interested if other readers think that Agee was using Andrew to express his personal views.


message 13: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
It is so good to see folks enjoying A Death in the Family. I am especially fond of Knoxville Summer, 1915.

Composer Samuel Barber read this piece by Agee in 1947. He composed his musical version of Agee's work in just three weeks. It is especially intriguing because the Agee's words are sung, always by a soprano. Let me suggest y'all listen to Barber's music while you read, or re-read the prologue. Below are links to different versions, one with Dawn Upshaw, and another with Carol Sampson. Both are delightful.

Barber, Knoxville, Summer 1915: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un7l-...

Barber's Summer Idyll: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/st...

Happy reading and listening!


message 14: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Michael A. Lofaro, a professor of American Literature at the University of Tennessee has been quite critical of A Death in the Family as it was published following Agee's death. Lofaro has worked extensively and edited the complete works of James Agee in a ten volume set.

Among the works is A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text (Collected Works of James Agee) Hardcover – December 30, 2007. According to Lofaro, Editor David McDowell inserted the prologue Knoxville, Summer 1915. Lofaro obtained Agee's origninal manuscript. He has indicated that McDowell cut the novel from 44 short chapters to twenty longer chapters, reordered the chapters, and that Agee had intended the novel to be told in chronological order. In the "restored" version, ADITF begins with Rufus caught in a nightmare, not the idyllic prologue McDowell attached.

I have not read the restored version. It is available from Amazon for $44.96. For those interested only five copies remain available.

Frankly, I loved the edition published by McDowell and Oblonsky. It took the Pulitzer in 1958, was made into a memorable movie, "All the Way Home" with Robert Preston and Jean Simmons in 1963, and is on Time Magazine's 100 Best Novels written in English.


message 15: by FrankH (new)

FrankH | 49 comments Mike wrote: "It is so good to see folks enjoying A Death in the Family. I am especially fond of Knoxville Summer, 1915.

Composer Samuel Barber read this piece by Agee in 1947. He composed his m..."


When I listen to 'Knoxville', one of my favorites, I'm always struck by how well the music captures the profound longing and mystery at the heart of the text. It is a uniquely American sound but, together with Agee's simple but affecting prose, expresses much of the human condition -- as recorded by a loving and beloved child, looking up into 'the wide stars' and wondering on his small presence in the universe.


Connie G (connie_g) | 412 comments What a gorgeously written book! I feel a bit emotionally wiped out since Agee expresses grief, love, confusion, fear, isolation, and the whole gamut of human emotions so well.


Connie G (connie_g) | 412 comments Howard wrote: "Well, I finished it. It must have been about twenty years since I read it the first time, but I was surprised at how much of the story I remembered.

One thing I had forgotten, however, was Andrew..."


Howard has an interesting question concerning Andrew and Agee's religious views. Agee had characters from atheists to very religious people in this book. Mary seems to be based on his own mother, Laura Agee, who was extremely religious. Andrew was not fond of organized religion, but he still had a spirituality about him, illustrated by the miraculous butterfly story.

From what I've read about Agee, he struggled with his religious feelings all through his life.

I have not read it, but Agee also wrote a short autobiographical novel, The Morning Watch, about his years at an Episcopalian school in Tennessee. His spiritual life and religious questioning are an important part of this book as well. There is also a book of letters that Agee wrote to a priest at that school who was a father figure to him. The book is Letters of James Agee to Father Flye about his struggles with faith and other personal demons.


message 18: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Agee had a bias against the Catholic Church. It did not come from his mother who was a devout Catholic throughout her life. Andrew is another question. Rufus's father seems to find his spirituality in nature. Following is the link to an essay: A Death in the Family and Bias against the Cathoic Church: http://www.megaessays.com/viewpaper/7....


message 19: by Howard (new)

Howard | 377 comments Thanks for the links, Mike. They add much to my understanding and appreciation of the book.


Connie G (connie_g) | 412 comments Mike, Barber's musical interpretation of Agee's work is beautiful. Thanks for sharing it with us.


message 21: by Kaye (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kaye Hinckley | 97 comments Mike wrote: "Agee had a bias against the Catholic Church. It did not come from his mother who was a devout Catholic throughout her life. Andrew is another question. Rufus's father seems to find his spiritual..."

I will definitely re-read A Death in the Family now. Twenty years ago, I was enamored with everything Agee, and when I read A Death in the Family, I saw no bias against the Catholic Church in the author, but maybe in a character-- which is not at all the same thing. So I'll have to see if I was wrong. Thanks for posting this, Mike.


message 22: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue | 654 comments I'm not re-reading this book with the group right now as I participated in the group discussion last year, but I did want to say that I found this one of the most affective and effective reading experiences I've ever had. The prose was stunning and the emotions Agee raised were so honest. I still recall father and son watching the night sky. And I remember the priest's visit to the house. These memories evoke such very different emotions. I definitely will read this book again.

As for Agee and religion, it did seem to me that he was making a statement about his experience/thoughts about the Catholic Church. These were very Catholic images and examples he incorporated in his story and they were so negative and, sadly, probably true.


Larry Bassett | 0 comments Sue wrote: "As for Agee and religion, it did seem to me that he was making a statement about his experience/thoughts about the Catholic Church. These were very Catholic images and examples he incorporated in his story and they were so negative and, sadly, probably true. "

In Chapter 17 Father Jackson, the Catholic priest, comes to the house before the funeral. In this story, he is the representative of the church, of God on earth. And a poor representative he is as he is exposed by author Agee as officious and unfeeling as he interacts with both children and adults. My negative feelings about organized religion make it easy for me to dislike him as a character. He seems like he would be a negative presence even if the reader was positively disposed to religion. His impact on the mother is summarized in what, for me, is a key sentence in the book. The fact that this is experienced by the children seems critical to me.
And they felt that though everything was better for their mother than it had been a few minutes before, it was far worse in one way. For before, she had at least been questioning, however gently. But now she was wholly defeated and entranced, and the transition to prayer was the moment and mark of her surrender.

“Wholly defeated and entranced” is a stunning word combination.


message 24: by Sue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sue | 654 comments Larry, exactly. I'm a Catholic but I found that whole episode so hateful. Sadly I have met priests who aren't good people let alone priests. Such people exist everywhere, not just in the Catholic church. When they enter the priesthood or other form of religious calling, the get power. And we all know what power can do. Just as it does in civil affairs.


message 25: by Ron (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ron (mrkurtz2) | 40 comments Knoxville: Summer 1915 may appear to be prose, but it is beautiful poetry to me. The poetry is the sounds of a summer evening that Agee says is lower middle class, but it reminds me of a 1940's mill village where the houses are smaller and closer together and no one watered their grass. The poetry starts with the sounds made by the watering of the grass. "Hoses were attached at spigot ... The nozzles were variously set... and the water whishing out a long loose and low-level cone, and so gentle a sound. First an insane noise of violence in the nozzle, then the still irregular sound of adjustment, then the smoothing into steadiness and a pitch as accurately tuned to the size and style of stream as any violin. ... and that same intensity not growing less but growing more quiet and delicate with the turn of the nozzle, up to that extreme tender whisper when the water was just a wide bell of film." Agee says the hoses were set much alike and therefore resembling an orchestra "while the locusts carry on this noise of hoses on their much higher and sharper key." The music of each locusts never varies more than two full tones and yet they seem to be discrete for each locust. The locusts are all around in every tree so that the noise appears to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. It is like the noises of the sea and the thumping of a grandchild's heart that you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening. Now the men close their spiggots one by one and coil their hoses clockwise or counter-clockwise and take their places in their choice of chair to watch the parade on the street as it passes by. The music now comes from a loud auto, a quiet auto and maybe a street car stopping, belling, and starting and miscellaneous clatter. "Now is the night one blue dew." This is followed by a poem within poetry. And as bedtime nears, the boy offers a prayer. One last paragraph has only two sentences, the second of which confirms our view that this is indeed poetry. The last sentence ends in a juxtaposition of Frost and Eliot in a repeat, recite, reiterate, repetition, restitution: "miles to go before I sleep and miles to go before I sleep" = "this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper" = " but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am."


Connie G (connie_g) | 412 comments Ronald wrote: "Knoxville: Summer 1915 may appear to be prose, but it is beautiful poetry to me. The poetry is the sounds of a summer evening that Agee says is lower middle class, but it reminds me of a 1940's mil..."

Beautifully expressed, Ronald.


message 27: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Diane Barnes | 3869 comments Mod
Nice observation, Ronald. It is poetic, it put me into a trance that was hard to shake off.


message 28: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Ronald wrote: "Knoxville: Summer 1915 may appear to be prose, but it is beautiful poetry to me. The poetry is the sounds of a summer evening that Agee says is lower middle class, but it reminds me of a 1940's mil..."

This is just excellent, Ronald. Your statements emphasize that the prologue begs to be read aloud. Your points were driven home when I listened to the novel on an Audible recording. You are the Laureate of the Trail.


back to top