A Death in the Family

A Death in the Family

by James Agee, Steve Earle

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781440641794
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/10/2008
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 146
File size: 434 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

James Agee (1909­–1955) is the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the renowned study of Alabama sharecroppers during the Depression. Born in Tennessee, he died two years before the publication of A Death in the Family, his most famous work.
 
Steve Earle (introducer) is an American singer-songwriter, political activist, and author of the short story collection Doghouse Roses. Born in Virginia, he lives with his wife in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

At supper that night, as many times before, his father said, "Well, spose we go to the picture show."

"Oh, Jay!" his mother said. "That horrid little man!"

"What's wrong with him?" his father asked, not because he didn't know what she would say, but so she would say it.

"He's so nasty!"she said, as she always did. "So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!"

His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always the laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father.

They walked downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic, and found their way to seats by the light of the screen, in the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers, while the piano played fast music and galloping horses raised a grandiose flag of dust. And there was William S. Hart with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip, and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world. Then he made a bashful face at a girl and his horse raised its upper lip and everybody laughed, and then the screen was filled with a city and with the sidewalk of a side street of a city, a long line of palms and there was Charlie; everyone laughed the minute they saw him squattily walking with his toes out and his knees wide apart, as if he were chafed; Rufus' father laughed, and Rufus laughed too. This time Charlie stole a whole bag of eggs and when a cop came along he hid them in the seat of his pants. Then he caught sight of a pretty woman and he began to squat and twirl his cane and make silly faces. She tossed her head and walked away with her chin up high and her dark mouth as small as she could make it and he followed her very busily, doing all sorts of things with his cane that made everybody laugh, but she paid no attention. Finally she stopped at a corner to wait for a streetcar, turning her back to him, and pretending he wasn't even there, and after trying to get her attention for a while, and not succeeding, he looked out at the audience, shrugged his shoulders, and acted as if she wasn't there. But after tapping his foot for a little, pretending he didn't care, he became interested again, and with a charming smile, tipped his derby; but she only stiffened, and tossed her head again, and everybody laughed. Then he walked back and forth behind her, looking at her and squatting a little while he walked very quietly, and everybody laughed again; then he flicked hold of the straight end of his cane and, with the crooked end, hooked up her skirt to the knee, in exactly the way that disgusted Mama, looking very eagerly at her legs, and everybody laughed loudly; but she pretended she had not noticed. Then he twirled his cane and suddenly squatted, bending the cane and hitching up his pants, and again hooked up her skirt so that you could see the panties she wore, ruffled almost like the edges of curtains, and everybody whooped with laughter, and she suddenly turned in rage and gave him a shove in the chest, and he sat down straight-legged, hard enough to hurt, and everybody whooped again; and she walked haughtily away up the street, forgetting about the streetcar, "mad as a hornet!" as his father exclaimed in delight; and there was Charlie, flat on his bottom on the sidewalk, and the way he looked, kind of sickly and disgusted, you could see that he suddenly remembered those eggs, and suddenly you remembered them too. The way his face looked, with the lip wrinkled off the teeth and the sickly little smile, it made you feel just the way those broken eggs must feel against your seat, as queer and awful as that time in the white pekay suit, when it ran down out of the pants-legs and showed all over your stockings and you had to walk home that way with people looking; and Rufus' father nearly tore his head off laughing and so did everybody else, and Rufus was sorry for Charlie, having been so recently in a similar predicament, but the contagion of laughter was too much for him, and he laughed too. And then it was even funnier when Charlie very carefully got himself up from the sidewalk, with that sickly look even worse on his face, and put his cane under one arm, and began to pick up his pants, front and back, very carefully, with his little fingers crooked, as if it were too dirty to touch, picking the sticky cloth away from his skin. Then he reached behind him and took out the wet bag of broken eggs and opened it and peered in; and took out a broken egg and pulled the shell disgustedly apart, letting the elastic yolk slump from one half shell into the other, and dropped it, shuddering. Then he peered in again and fished out a whole egg, all slimy with broken yolk, and polished it off carefully on his sleeve, and looked at it, and wrapped it in his dirty handkerchief, and put it carefully into the vest pocket of his little coat. Then he whipped out his cane from under his armpit and took command of it again, and with a final look at everybody, still sickly but at the same time cheerful, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back and scraped backward with his big shoes at the broken shells and the slimy bag, just like a dog, and looked back at the mess (everybody laughed again at that) and started to walk away, bending his cane deep with every shuffle, and squatting deeper, with his knees wider apart, than ever before, constantly picking at the seat of his pants with his left hand, and shaking one foot, then the other, and once gouging deep into his seat and then pausing and shaking his whole body, like a wet dog, and then walking on; while the screen shut over his small image a sudden circle of darkness: then the player-piano changed its tune, and the ads came in motionless color. They sat on into the William S. Hart feature to make sure why he had killed the man with the fancy vest--it was as they had expected by her frightened, pleased face after the killing; he had insulted a girl and cheated her father as well--and Rufus' father said, "Well, reckon this is where we came in," but they watched him kill the man all over again; then they walked out.

It was full dark now, but still early; Gay Street was full of absorbed faces; many of the store windows were still alight. Plaster people, in ennobled postures, stiffly wore untouchably new clothes; there was even a little boy, with short, straight pants, bare knees and high socks, obviously a sissy: but he wore a cap, all the same, not a hat like a baby. Rufus' whole insides lifted and sank as he looked at the cap and he looked up at his father; but his father did not notice; his face was wrapped in good humor, the memory of Charlie. Remembering his rebuff of a year ago, even though it had been his mother, Rufus was afraid to speak of it. His father wouldn't mind, but she wouldn't want him to have a cap, yet. If he asked his father now, his father would say no, Charlie Chaplin was enough. He watched the absorbed faces pushing past each other and the great bright letters of the signs: "Sterchi's." "George's." I can read them now, he reflected. I even know how to say "Sturkeys." But he thought it best not to say so; he remembered how his father had said, "Don't you brag," and he had been puzzled and rather stupid in school for several days, because of the stern tone in his voice.

What was bragging? It was bad.

They turned aside into a darker street, where the fewer faces looked more secret, and came into the odd, shaky light of Market Square. It was almost empty at this hour, but here and there, along the pavement streaked with horse urine, a wagon stayed still, and low firelight shone through the white cloth shell stretched tightly on its hickory hoops. A dark-faced man leaned against the white brick wall, gnawing a turnip; he looked at them low, with sad, pale eyes. When Rufus' father raised his hand in silent greeting, he raised his hand, but less, and Rufus, turning, saw how he looked sorrowfully, somehow dangerously, after them. They passed a wagon in which a lantern burned low orange; there lay a whole family, large and small, silent, asleep. In the tail of one wagon a woman sat, her face narrow beneath her flare of sunbonnet, her dark eyes in its shade, like smudges of soot. Rufus' father averted his eyes and touched his straw hat lightly; and Rufus, looking back, saw how her dead eyes kept looking gently ahead of her.

"Well," his father said, "reckon I'll hoist me a couple."

They turned through the swinging doors into a blast of odor and sound. There was no music: only the density of bodies and of the smell of a market bar, of beer, whiskey and country bodies, salt and leather; no clamor, only the thick quietude of crumpled talk. Rufus stood looking at the light on a damp spittoon and he heard his father ask for whiskey, and knew he was looking up and down the bar for men he might know. But they seldom came from so far away as the Powell River Valley; and Rufus soon realized that his father had found, tonight, no one he knew. He looked up his father's length and watched him bend backwards tossing one off in one jolt in a lordly manner, and a moment later heard him say to the man next him, "That's my boy"; and felt a warmth of love. Next moment he felt his father's hands under his armpits, and he was lifted, high, and seated on the bar, looking into a long row of huge bristling and bearded red faces. The eyes of the men nearest him were interested, and kind; some of them smiled; further away, the eyes were impersonal and questioning, but now even some of these began to smile. Somewhat timidly, but feeling assured that his father was proud of him and that he was liked, and liked these men, he smiled back; and suddenly many of the men laughed. He was disconcerted by their laughter and lost his smile a moment; then, realizing it was friendly, smiled again; and again they laughed. His father smiled at him. "That's my boy," he said warmly. "Six years old, and he can already read like I couldn't read when I was twice his age."

Rufus felt a sudden hollowness in his voice, and all along the bar, and in his own heart. But how does he fight, he thought. You don't brag about smartness if your son is brave. He felt the anguish of shame, but his father did not seem to notice, except that as suddenly as he had lifted him up to the bar, he gently lifted him down again. "Reckon I'll have another," he said, and drank it more slowly; then, with a few good nights, they went out.

His father proffered a Life Saver, courteously, man to man; he took it with a special sense of courtesy. It sealed their contract. Only once had his father felt it necessary to say to him, "I wouldn't tell your mama, if I were you"; he had known, from then on, that he could trust Rufus; and Rufus had felt gratitude in this silent trust. They walked away from Market Square, along a dark and nearly empty street, sucking their Life Savers; and Rufus' father reflected, without particular concern, that Life Savers were not quite life saver enough; he had better play very tired tonight, and turn away the minute they got in bed.

The deaf and dumb asylum was deaf and dumb, his father observed very quietly, as if he were careful not to wake it, as he always did on these evenings; its windows showed black in its pale brick, as the nursing woman's eyes, and it stood deep and silent among the light shadows of its trees. Ahead, Asylum Avenue lay bleak beneath its lamps. Latticed in pawnshop iron, an old saber caught the glint of a street lamp, a mandolin's belly glowed. In a closed drug store stood Venus de Milo, her golden body laced in elastic straps. The stained glass of the L&N Depot smoldered like an exhausted butterfly, and at the middle of the viaduct they paused to inhale the burst of smoke from a switch engine which passed under; Rufus, lifted, the cinders stinging his face, was grateful no longer to feel fear at this suspension over the tracks and the powerful locomotives. Far down the yard, a red light flicked to green; a moment later, they heard the thrilling click. It was ten-seven by the depot clock. They went on, more idly than before.

If I could fight, thought Rufus. If I were brave; he would never brag how I could read: Brag. Of course, "Don't you brag." That was it. What it meant. Don't brag you're smart if you're not brave. You've got nothing to brag about. Don't you brag.

The young leaves of Forest Avenue wavered against street lamps and they approached their corner.

It was a vacant lot, part rubbed bare clay, part over-grown with weeds, rising a little from the sidewalk. A few feet in from the sidewalk there was a medium-sized tree and, near enough to be within its shade in daytime, an outcrop of limestone like a great bundle of dirty laundry. If you sat on a certain part of it the trunk of the tree shut off the weak street lamp a block away, and it seemed very dark. Whenever they walked downtown and walked back home, in the evenings, they always began to walk more slowly, from about the middle of the viaduct, and as they came near this corner they walked more slowly still, but with purpose; and paused a moment, at the edge of the sidewalk; then, without speaking, stepped into the dark lot and sat down on the rock, looking out over the steep face of the hill and at the lights of North Knoxville. Deep in the valley an engine coughed and browsed; couplings settled their long chains, and the empty cars sounded like broken drums. A man came up the far side of the street, walking neither slow nor fast, not turning his head, as he paused, and quite surely not noticing them; they watched him until he was out of sight, and Rufus felt, and was sure that his father felt, that though there was no harm in the man and he had as good a right as they did to be there, minding his own business, their journey was interrupted from the moment they first saw him until they saw him out of sight. Once he was out of sight they realized more pleasure in their privacy than before; they really relaxed in it. They looked across the darkness of the lights of North Knoxville. They were aware of the quiet leaves above them, and looked into them and through them. They looked between the leaves into the stars. Usually on these evening waits, or a few minutes before going on home, Rufus' father smoked a cigarette through, and when it was finished, it was time to get up and go on home. But this time he did not smoke. Up to recently he had always said something about Rufus' being tired, when they were still about a block away from the corner; but lately he had not done so, and Rufus realized that his father stopped as much because he wanted to, as on Rufus' account. He was just not in a hurry to get home, Rufus realized; and, far more important, it was clear that he liked to spend these few minutes with Rufus. Rufus had come recently to feel a quiet kind of anticipation of the corner, from the moment they finished crossing the viaduct; and, during the ten to twenty minutes they sat on the rock, a particular kind of contentment, unlike any other that he knew. He did not know what this was, in words or ideas, or what the reason was; it was simply all that he saw and felt. It was, mainly, knowing that his father, too, felt a particular kind of contentment, here, unlike any other, and that their kinds of contentment were much alike, and depended on each other. 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 loved all of them, he was more lonely than the contentment of this family love could help; that it even increased his loneliness, or made it hard for him not to be lonely. He felt that sitting out here, he was not lonely; or if he was, that he felt on good terms with the loneliness; that he was a homesick man, and that here on the rock, though he might be more homesick than ever, he was well. He knew that a very important part of his well-being came of staying a few minutes away from home, very quietly, in the dark, listening to the leaves if they moved, and looking at the stars; and that his own, Rufus' own presence, was fully as indispensable to this well-being. He knew that each of them knew of the other's well-being, and of the reasons for it, and knew how each depended on the other, how each meant more to the other, in this most important of all ways, than anyone or anything else in the world; and that the best of this well-being lay in this mutual knowledge, which was neither concealed nor revealed. He knew these things very distinctly, but not, of course, in any such way as we have of suggesting them in words. There were no words, or even ideas, or formed emotions, of the kind that have been suggested here, no more in the man than in the boy child. These realizations moved clearly through the senses, the memory, the feelings, the mere feeling of the place they paused at, about a quarter of a mile from home, on a rock under a stray tree that had grown in the city, their feet on undomesticated clay, facing north through the night over the Southern Railway tracks and over North Knoxville, towards the deeply folded small mountains and the Powell River Valley, and above them, the trembling lanterns of the universe, seeming so near, so intimate, that when air stirred the leaves and their hair, it seemed to be the breathing, the whispering of the stars. Sometimes on these evenings his father would hum a little and the humming would break open into a word or two, but he never finished even a part of a tune, for silence was even more pleasurable, and sometimes he would say a few words, of very little consequence, but would never seek to say much, or to finish what he was saying, or to listen for a reply; for silence again was even more pleasurable. Sometimes, Rufus had noticed, he would stroke the wrinkled rock and press his hand firmly against it; and sometimes he would put out his cigarette and tear and scatter it before it was half finished. But this time he was much quieter than ordinarily. They slackened their walking a little sooner than usual and walked a little more slowly, without a word, to the corner; and hesitated, before stepping off the sidewalk into the clay, purely for the luxury of hesitation; and took their place on the rock without breaking silence. As always, Rufus' father took off his hat and put it over the front of his bent knee, and as always, Rufus imitated him, but this time his father did not roll a cigarette. They waited while the man came by, intruding on their privacy, and disappeared, as someone nearly always did, and then relaxed sharply into the pleasure of their privacy; but this time Rufus' father did not hum, nor did he say anything, nor even touch the rock with his hand, but sat with his hands hung between his knees and looked out over North Knoxville, hearing the restive assemblage of the train; and after there had been silence for a while, raised his head and looked up into the leaves and between the leaves into the broad stars, not smiling, but with his eyes more calm and grave and his mouth strong and more quiet, than Rufus had ever seen his eyes and his mouth; and as he watched his father's face, Rufus felt his father's hand settle, without groping or clumsiness, on the top of his bare head; it took his forehead and smoothed it, and pushed the hair backward from his forehead, and held the back of his head while Rufus pressed his head backward against the firm hand, and, in reply to that pressure, clasped over his right ear and cheek, over the whole side of the head, and drew Rufus' head quietly and strongly against the sharp cloth that covered his father's body, through which Rufus could feel the breathing ribs; then relinquished him, and Rufus sat upright, while the hand lay strongly on his shoulder, and he saw that his father's eyes had become still more clear and grave and that the deep lines around his mouth were satisfied; and looked up at what his father was so steadily looking at, at the leaves which silently breathed and at the stars which beat like hearts. He heard a long, deep sigh break from his father, and then his father's abrupt voice: "Well . . ." and the hand lifted from him and they both stood up. The rest of the way home they did not speak, or put on their hats. When he was nearly asleep Rufus heard once more the crumpling of freight cars, and deep in the night he heard the crumpling of subdued voices and words, "Naw: I'll probably be back before they're asleep"; then quick feet creaking quietly downstairs. But by the time he heard the creaking and departure of the Ford, he was already so deeply asleep that it seemed only a part of a dream, and by next morning, when his mother explained to them why his father was not at breakfast, he had so forgotten the words and the noises that years later, when he remembered them, he could never be sure that he was not making them up.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"[James Agee's words] are so indelibly etched someplace inside of me that I couldn't reach to rub them out even if I wanted to. And I never want to."
-Steve Earle, from the Introduction

"The work of a writer whose power with English words can make you gasp."
-Alfred Kazin, The New York Times Book Review

" It is, in the full sense, poetry. . . . The language of the book, at once luminous and discreet . . . remains in the mind."
-The New Republic

" Wonderfully alive."
-The New Yorker

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

On a spring night in 1915 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Jay Follet, a gentle, well-intentioned but financially unsteady father of two, is awakened by a telephone call from his drunken brother Ralph. Their own father, he learns, is having serious heart trouble and may or may not pull through. Follet bids a lingering good-bye to his deeply pious wife, Mary, and drives off into the darkness, little imagining that the death that is soon to occur will be his own.

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel A Death in the Family, James Agee reconstructs through the lens of fiction the real-life car accident that claimed his father when James was not yet six years old. Leading us from the evening of the phone call that sets the tragedy in motion to the funeral that strives to bring the calamity to closure, Agee offers a plot that is simplicity itself, and the occurrences he describes are perhaps no different from those that would transpire within any family that has had a member suddenly stolen from its midst. Despite its seeming straightforwardness, however, A Death in the Family is a novel of surprising profundity and aching lyricism. With deft strokes of characterization, Agee brings vivid life to Mary, whose loss brings her both to rely upon and to question God as she has never done before. We also come to know Mary’s brother Andrew, whose contempt for religion both adds a sharp philosophical edge to the novel and stirs elemental conflicts among its characters. Deep pathos surrounds both Ralph Follet, the self-pitying alcoholic who struggles to come to terms with the dishonored place he fills in his family, and Mary’s aunt Hannah, whose capacities for indulgent kindness and stinging severity hover in a fitful, unsteady balance. In these characters, the lines between love and hate are finely drawn, and Agee develops their sometimes speechless passions with refinement and understanding.

At the emotional center of Agee’s novel, however, stands his own remembered self, in the form of young Rufus Follet. Awkwardly self-conscious, comically trusting, Rufus has only recently begun to understand the depth of the attachment that can exist between father and son—only to have that connection violently destroyed overnight. His efforts to comprehend his loss exude an unforgettable poignancy, and his recollected moments of closeness to his father rise to a poetic grace seldom encountered in the American novel.

A triumph of literary style and psychological acumen, A Death in the Family excels in its brilliant attention to the too-often overlooked nuances of thought, speech, and action that comprise the true fabric of being. One of the most intensely personal novels ever written, it also transcends its author’s subjectivity to shed clear light on the mysteries of life and death, of faith and unbelief, in which all of us inescapably share.
 


ABOUT JAMES AGEE

James Rufus Agee, known to his family as Rufus, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1909. His father, Hugh James Agee, or Jay, worked at a variety of jobs, including construction work for his wife’s family business. When James was nearing six, his father struck an embankment while driving home from visiting his own ailing father. The car flipped over, and Jay was killed instantly. The accident and its aftermath were etched into Agee’s memory. As his teenage years approached, Agee formed a close attachment to an Episcopal priest, Father James Flye, who became his mentor and surrogate father. Agee graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1928 and moved on to Harvard, where he studied literature under the eminent critic I. A. Richards. After graduating, Agee began a productive but difficult tenure with Fortune magazine. In 1936, on assignment with Fortune, Agee traveled to Alabama with photographer Walker Evans to report on the struggles of poor tenant farmers. Although Fortune rejected Agee’s piece on the subject, his collaboration with Evans led to a groundbreaking, though initially unpopular work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published in 1941. While working on a variety of fiction manuscripts, Agee wrote film criticism for the Nation and a number of screenplays, including The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. Battling alcoholism and heart disease, Agee worked for years to complete his magnum opus, a novel about his father’s death called A Death in the Family. On May 16, 1955, two days before the thirty-ninth anniversary of his father’s fatal accident, James Agee died of a massive heart attack in a New York taxicab. Published posthumously in 1957, A Death in the Family was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958.
 


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • James Agee was an enthusiastic reader of Sigmund Freud. How, if at all, is this interest reflected in A Death in the Family?
  • Although A Death in the Family is a work of fiction, it is highly faithful to the actual events surrounding the death of James Agee’s father. Why do you think Agee chose to present his memories in a fictional account instead of as a nonfiction memoir?
  • James Agee died before the text of A Death in the Family could be finalized and it was his editors who decided on the placement of the italicized nonchronological passages that appear at the ends of Parts One and Two. How does the insertion of these passages change the way one reads and understands the novel? Do you think Agee would have approved?
  • The first section of the novel’s published text, “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” was published separately in Partisan Review in 1938. It formed no part of Agee’s manuscript for A Death in the Family. Why do you think Agee’s editors chose to commence the novel with this section? How does its inclusion affect the reading of Agee’s novel as a whole?
  • Although Rufus and his father exchange relatively few words in Chapter 1, one senses that they are communicating deeply on a nonverbal level. What are the nature and substance of this communication, and what techniques does Agee use to establish the father-son bond in the space of only a few pages?
  • What is Jay’s opinion of Rufus? How well does he appear to know his son? How do his views of Rufus differ from how the reader perceives the boy?
  • Why did Mary’s family object to her marrying Jay? What effects does their opposition seem to have had on their marriage? Were her family’s misgivings justifiable?
  • Assess Jay’s strong and weak points as a husband and father. Is he someone you would like to have had in your family? Why or why not?
  • Agee chooses to narrate Jay’s relatively uneventful trip to his ailing father’s house, but he opts not to directly narrate the fatal return trip, choosing instead to describe the crash only through the secondhand accounts of characters who did not witness it. What do you think of this choice, and why do you suppose Agee made it?
  • A Death in the Family is a novel about the pre-Civil Rights-era South, written and published just as the civil rights movement was gathering force. How do issues of race influence the novel, especially as they relate to Rufus?
  • When the stranger calls to report Jay’s accident, he specifies that his family should “send a man out here” (p. 103). This is just one of the instances in the novel where roles and behavior are strongly dictated by gender. What commentaries are implied in A Death in the Family, and to what extent do you think Agee was aware of making them?
  • Much of the philosophical tension in the novel arises because of Mary’s deep religiosity and her conflicts with characters like Jay, her brother Andrew, and her father Joel, whom “God in a wheelbarrow” would not convince to abandon his atheism (p. 172). In general, which side gets the better of the argument in this novel, faith or unbelief?
  • What are your thoughts about the scene in which Jay’s ghost is thought to appear (Chapter 12)? How do the characters’ reactions to the supposed apparition reveal aspects of their personalities?
  • Agee takes great pains to give balanced portraits of his characters, enabling us both to sympathize with and criticize them and their views. With which of Agee’s characters did you find it most difficult to sympathize, and why?
  • One of Mary’s hardest moments comes in Chapter 14, when she must explain Jay’s death to their children. Do you agree with the way in which she does this? How should a parent of children of differing ages and levels of comprehension go about explaining an event like this?
  • 16. Rufus struggles to understand whether his father died, as his mother would have it, “because God wanted him” or, as Aunt Hannah explains it, because of a mechanical malfunction with the car (pp. 227, 234–235). Which explanation seems more plausible to him, and does it seem more likely that Rufus will grow up believing or disbelieving in God?
  • How does the scene where Rufus discusses Jay’s death with the other schoolchildren (Chapter 16) influence the way in which he comes to terms with the event?
  • Analyze the character of Father Jackson. Is he as contemptible as Rufus, young Catherine, and Andrew consider him? If not, why not? What accounts for his inability to relate more positively to the Follet children?
  • In Chapter 20, Andrew describes how a butterfly settled on Jay’s coffin just before it was lowered into the ground, a moment that he contrasts violently with Father Jackson’s prim refusal to perform the complete burial service over the unbaptized Jay. What argument does Agee appear to be making about natural versus institutionalized religion?
  • At the end of the novel, Andrew’s anti-Catholic screed convinces Rufus that Andrew hates Rufus’s mother. Is Rufus correct about this? If not, what is a better way to describe the unstable cocktail of emotions that Andrew feels toward Mary?
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    A Death in the Family 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I lost my father when I was 7. Reading this book, I felt the author could not have written it without losing a parent as a child. I did a little research and found out this is the story of James Rufus Agee losing his father at the age of 6. For anyone wanting a persective of death in the age before pop psychology and counselors on every corner,this story is right on the money.
    Mariamosis More than 1 year ago
    I can't believe so many people gave this three or less stars. Although not my favorite book, I read until my eyes bled. The author creates wonderful characters who all have different perspectives regarding the deceased. Agee really captivated the confusion and thought process a child might endure when dealing with the death of a family member. Probably not in my top ten, but definitely worth reading. (no age limitation for this book)
    Awesomeness1 More than 1 year ago
    Unfortunately, the old mean librarian wouldn't let me renew this book, so I didn't finish the last 100 pages. But I did enjoy what I read. A Death in the Family, first of all, is very well written. The prose is very beautiful and complex. The story is somewhat slow-moving, and the plot was more of a character study than anything else. It did take me a few chapters though, to get all the characters straight, especially Ralph and Rufus, whom I would often confuse. I didn't really have a particular problem with this book, but I wasn't compelled by it. Given the option of reading this and watching TV, I chose TV most of the time. This book was not bad, and I did enjoy what I read, but I was never excited or caught up in it.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    ' A Death In The Family' is a profoundly moving book, that will captivate the heart of anyone who has ever lost someone dear.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I would have to say that I enjoyed this book! It was sad, but it will also make you think and appreciate your family more. I think James Agee is a great author and his writing style is very easy to follow and understand. I want to read more books by him later on and i would read this book again in a couple of years because I enjoyed it.
    lauralkeet on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a stark, realistic portrayal of the searing emotional pain in human response to tragedy. The novel takes place over just a few days, as a close-knit family copes with the sudden loss of a loved one. FIrst, there is the waiting -- knowing an accident has occurred, but not yet knowing the outcome: This heaviness had steadily increased while he sat and waited and by now the air felt like iron and it was almost as if he could taste in his mouth the sour and cold, taciturn taste of iron. Well what else are we to expect, he said to himself. What life is. He braced against it quietly to accept, endure it, relishing not only his exertion but the sullen, obdurate cruelty of the iron, for it was the cruelty which proved and measured his courage. Funny I feel so little about it, he thought. (p. 136)When the death is discovered, Agee delves deep into the souls of his characters and their varied responses. The adults try to explain the loss to two young children. One of the children, a 6-year-old boy, meets up with children on their way to school and uncomfortably revels in his celebrity status. Some of the adults become stronger in their grief, and take care of those who have fallen apart: "That's when you're going to need every ounce of common sense you've got," he said. "Just spunk won't be enough; you've got to have gumption. You've got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice. You've got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You've got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they've come thorugh it and that you will too. You'll bear it because there isn't any choice -- except to go to pieces." (p. 149)This book is well written, and immensely powerful. Agee takes the reader deep inside the hearts and minds of his characters; I could identify with everyone in some way. He plumbs the depths of emotion, such that the book must be set aside every so often to work through feelings evoked by the text. I was most touched by the children in this story: the boy and his younger sister. Their emotional needs were largely ignored. The adults underestimated their ability to grasp the situation. Some wanted to exclude the children from the rituals of mourning; others took them under their wing and allowed them to grieve in their own ways. Agee writes from his own experience, having experienced a similar tragedy at a young age himself. While it was a very sad book, I am glad to have read it -- it will occupy a place in my heart for a long, long time.
    MickyFine on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    Late at night, Jay receives a phone call falsely informing him that his father is dying. On his return journey, Jay is killed in a car accident. This one event will have a range of emotional ramifications for his family as they deal with the realities of his death.Agee's novel was post-humously published in 1957 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958. The novel is a fascinating study in small details, exploring the life of a family living in Tennessee in 1915. We gain an insight into this family both prior to the accident and in the odd period afterwards. Agee brilliantly creates multiple third person points of view, providing us with insights into his wife, his young children, and other family member's reactions to Jay's death. Grappling with issues like faith, unbelief, and the strange things one does and must deal with while grieving are all deftly explored. A sombre and mentally-engaging novel, it is ultimately a fascinating exploration of the rippling ramifications of a death of a family member.
    Brenda63 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    At first I found this book to be a little difficult to read, but I stuck with it and am glad that I did. Once the ryhthym of James Agee's writing became familiar to me I was caught up in the world of Rufus as he experiences the death of his father.
    briany on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    One of the most honest books I've read
    eembooks on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    I felt down and sad while reading this book. The death of a young father as told though son Rufus, wife Mary and others. This book unique as told though the thoughts of many. Question if the father was drunk when he went off the road is never answered. There are heavy religious overtones and conflicts including the priest who only briefly appears but causes great angust. Although loved the prose probably would not read again
    skstiles612 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    This is the story of a father¿s untimely death and the family¿s reaction to it. At the beginning of this story you immediately know that this is a very close family. When the father is suddenly killed in an automobile accident we are taken on the journey the family must take as they realize the immediate and future changes to their family, their feelings and life. Agee did a great job of bringing the reader along. I felt the pain and grief due to the descriptive and emotional way this was written. He touched on other topics especially the church and the role it played in society during that time period. I found myself angry along with Mary¿s brother Andrew at the priest who refused to complete the service because her husband had not been baptized. This was definitely a good book.
    debnance on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    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 automobile accident.But there is so much more to this book that makes it a great read. The writing is beautiful, filled with wonderful words and phrases that feel fresh and new without feeling artificial. Agee gets inside each character's head so that each character seems unique and genuine. The reader is left with the mysteries of the story that so often occur in real life: Had Jay been drinking when the accident took place? Was Jay's father really seriously ill and, if not, why did Jay's brother call? What will happen to Jay's wife and children? How will the accident change their lives?A must read.
    gbill on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    James Agee wrote ¿A Death in the Family¿ over the last seven years of his life, and it was still incomplete at the time of his sudden death from a heart attack at age 45 in 1955. The book is about the premature death of a family man and it¿s autobiographical in that Agee¿s father had died in a car crash when he was just six; sadly, and ironically, Agee himself left behind a wife and three kids when he himself died. The book was published in 1957 and won him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. The book really takes a magnifying glass to the emotions and inner thoughts of those who are left behind when a loved one dies, as well presents the perspective of children in conversations with adults on death and other matters. Agee also probes deeply into uncomfortable situations such as being bullied as a child, and being drunk and making a fool of oneself in front of other family members. All of these `ring true¿, and Agee does have a very creative way of writing (e.g. ¿The cricket cherished what avaricious secret: patiently sculptured what effigy of dread?¿). Unfortunately the magnifying glass is a bit too large; I found the book to be a bit slow and ponderous, and not as cathartic as I would have hoped.Quotes:On `going home¿:¿How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can 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.¿On death, how it makes you grow up:¿Your turn now, poor child, she thought; she felt as if a prodigious page were being silently turned, and the breath of its turning touched her heart with cold and tender awe. Her soul is beginning to come of age, she thought; and within those memories she herself became much older, much nearer her own death, and was content to be. Her heart lifted up in a kind of pride in Mary, in every sorrow she could remember, her own or that of others ( and the remembrances rushed upon her); in all existence and endurance. She wanted to cry out Yes! Exactly! Yes. Yes. Begin to see. Your turn now. 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.¿And:¿There had been, even, a kind of pride, a desolate kind of pleasure, in the feeling: I am carrying a heavier weight than I could have dreamed it possible for a human being to carry, yet I am living through it. It had of course occurred to her that this happens to many people, that it is very common, and she humbled and comforted herself in this thought. She thought: this is simply what living is; I never realized before what it is. She thought: now I am more nearly a grown member of the human race; bearing children, which had seemed so much, was just so much apprenticeship.¿On death, persevering though it:¿Hannah, left alone, was grateful that we are animals; it was this silly, strenuous, good, humble cluttering of animal needs which saw us through sane, fully as much as prayer; and towards the end of these moments of solitude, with her mind free from the subtle deceptions of concern, she indulged herself in whispering, aloud, `He¿s dead. There¿s no longer the slightest doubt of it¿¿¿On death, epitaphs:¿That¿s what they¿re for, epitaphs, Joel suddenly realized. So you can feel you¿ve got some control over the death, you own it, you choose a name for it. The same with wanting to know all you can about how it happened.¿On religion, this about a self-righteous reverend¿s words and voice:¿¿it seemed to say unpleasant things as if it felt they were kind things to say, or again, as if it did not care whether or not they were kind because in any cas
    mrstreme on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    James Agee¿s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Death in the Family captured the initial moments of grief with beautiful clarity. The shock, anger and sadness that inflicted each character was so realistically drawn, it was near flawless. Won posthumously in 1957, the edition of A Death in the Family that I read contained only minor changes to Agee¿s writing, plus two sections that were not placed formally into the story by the author. To think that Agee wrote this masterpiece without the benefit of an editor shows you the caliber of his writing. Like his character development, this story was close to perfect.Jay Follett was a husband and father with a slightly mysterious past, who was called to his father¿s bedside in the middle of the night. On his trip home, his car experienced mechanical failure, resulting in Jay¿s instantaneous death. He left behind his wife, Mary and his two children, Rufus and Catherine.The mysterious aspects of Jay¿s life enthralled me. You get the impression that he was an alcoholic ¿ perhaps on the wagon at the time of his death ¿ who pulled himself out of nothing into a productive life. As Mary¿s family learned of Jay¿s death, you discovered they were not supportive of Mary and Jay¿s marriage initially, but as time evolved, they grew to love him. Without a doubt, he held a tight bond with his son, Rufus. For most of the book, you witnessed the emotional roller coaster that the family experiences as they deal with Jay¿s death. From wanting to know the details of the accident to trying to sleep and eat, death and daily living were juxtaposed for the readers to consider: How would you deal with the sudden death of a loved one?The book ends on the day of the funeral, leaving you curious about how the family would cope so early in their grief. How would Mary survive without her husband¿s financial support? How would the children learn to live without their father? Agee leaves many questions unanswered, but made one thing clear: grief is a force to be reckoned with. It ebbs and flows throughout a person¿s lifetime; always there ¿ sometimes in the distance, sometimes very close. A Death in the Family was a wonderful tribute to this raw human emotion.
    Awesomeness1 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
    Unfortunately, the old mean librarian wouldn't let me renew this book, so I didn't finish the last 100 pages. But I did enjoy what I read. A Death in the Family, first of all, is very well written. The prose is very beautiful and complex. The story is somewhat slow-moving, and the plot was more of a character study than anything else. It did take me a few chapters though, to get all the characters straight, especially Ralph and Rufus, whom I would often confuse. I didn't really have a particular problem with this book, but I wasn't compelled by it. Given the option of reading this and watching TV, I chose TV most of the time. This book was not bad, and I did enjoy what I read, but I was never excited or caught up in it.
    bastet on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    This is a book that helped me so much when my own mother died many years ago.
    1morechapter on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    Jay Follett, a dutiful husband and father, travels to his parents¿ home because his father is dying. On his way back to his wife and children, he is killed in a car accident. The reaction to this tragedy by his family is told with heartbreaking prose. I was especially moved by the thoughts, feelings, and actions of his son, Rufus. This novel was largely autobiographical for Agee as his father died in a car accident when he was six years old. Sadly, Agee himself died of a heart attack at the age of 45, leaving behind young children of his own.This novel profoundly touched me as my own father died of heart complications at the age of 44. The death of someone so young affects a family very deeply for many years. It is a tragedy I hope few people have to experience.
    gmdenatale on LibraryThing 8 months ago
    My father died when I was a baby. When I read this book as a teenager, so many things about my life perspective fell into place.
    av11 More than 1 year ago
    A Death in the Family was written by James Agee. The story is told through many different perspectives throughout the book. It begins with a little boy, Rufus Follet, who explains the relationship between his father and him. This book explains what the lives of the characters were like before after Jay’s death, and it shows how differently they all act. The story is told in such a way that makes it simple to relate to the characters pain. The story begins to unfold when Jay Follet, the father and husband, is phoned late in the night. He is forced to go back home to Knoxville, Tennessee to assist his father. After promising to make it home in time for dinner, he is killed in a fatal car accident with nothing more than a scrape on his chin. This novel includes a lot of foreshadowing that kept me questioning what was bound to happen next. It was hard to assume what was going to happen at times because Agee always found ways to change it up. This novel was written based off events from Agee’s life, it shows how hard death is to deal with. It proves how the death of someone affects everyone, it is felt and shown through everyone’s actions and mood. With Jay gone the little ones have no choice but to get along with one another and come together to take care of their mother. For the children, Rufus and Catherine, none of it makes sense. Although, they do their best to understand the situation based on how their mother is acting. When they are suddenly taken out of school and surrounded by several family members things get confusing. There was a bit of irony involved, Jay was going to Tennessee to take care of his father after a near death experience, but after realizing it was nothing serious Jay was the one injured and killed. The death of Jay forces the family to become closer than ever, having to rely on one another. Throughout the story their are smaller stories being told about different characters, these little stories end up tying together the bigger, overall story. While reading I assumed the smaller stories were just put there to explain the characters better. But towards the end of the book the stories came into play. While learning about the characters, they all explain their lives and include life lessons within the text. It was neat being able to compare the families lives before and after the death of Jay. They changed the way they lived and never acted as they would have before. Grandparents and relatives find themselves praying during the funeral. Something they would make fun of others for. Although the kids do not fully understand what "death" is and means they begin to catch on; They can't quite wrap their heads around it, but each of them have their own idea. This story comes to a conclusion after the funeral when the kids begin to grasp the concept that their father is never coming home. This book is a classic and should definitely be read. Agee did a wonderful job at putting this together, the story within the pages was inspiring and heart breaking at the same time. The family in this was truly indestructible and held together at their lowest point.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    As expected, this was a sad story. Nonetheless, it was written with such attention to detail, such tenderness for the characters, and real insight into the human condition that I would recommend it to any serious reader.
    DLawrence More than 1 year ago
    This book has been in my library since freshman year of college. Unfortunately, in this edition, I could not find the famous preamble ("We are talking now of summer nights in Knoxville, Tennessee....") It is one of the most poetic prologues to any book I am have read. Agee died much too soon. He was a gifted writer. As to the comments about this book, I think it would help if the reader takes this story on as a memoir, on of the first, and notice the dialogue between father and son, who it conflicts, as all fathers and sons do. I don't think we will ever have such a writer again. It reads more like poetry and has a marvelous story to tell.
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