A masterpiece revisited
At the time of his death of a heart attack at 45, James Agee had published relatively little of his own creative work. Known more for his insightful movie reviews and film adaptations, Agee had produced a novella, a volume of poetry and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a study of Alabama sharecroppers. He left behind the manuscript of a novel he’d been working on for more than a decade, which editor David McDowell published as “A Death in the Family.” Appearing in 1957 -- two years after Agee died -- “A Death in the Family” received great acclaim and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. A lyrical, perfectly calibrated and deeply moving account of a man’s death and its effects on his family, it still stands -- more than 50 years after its publication -- as one of the most beautiful of American novels.
Now, editor Michael A. Lofaro has incorporated recently recovered material and rearranged existing chapters in “A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text.” Much of this material became available to scholars in 2002, after a change in the directorship of the James Agee Trust. Motivated by McDowell’s claim in the original introduction that Agee’s novel was “presented . . . exactly as he wrote it,” Lofaro sets out to correct the “degradation” of Agee’s original manuscript from McDowell’s “editorial decisions, inaccuracy, and deception.” He includes more than 10 additional chapters, replaces substitute versions of three additional chapters and reinserts scenes that appeared as flashbacks in McDowell’s version into the beginning of the story. Lofaro also removes the famous prologue “Knoxville: Summer, 1915" -- a previously published set piece that McDowell acknowledges he added to the manuscript -- and replaces it with a new introduction, a nightmare sequence. The result is a longer and drastically different book.
Reconstructing Agee’s novel is a questionable undertaking, not least because the existing novel is a masterpiece. It centers on the family of Jay Follet -- based on Agee’s father -- who is killed in a car accident on his way home from his parents’ house. Beginning with the gorgeous prologue, the novel brilliantly weaves together the points of view of Jay’s wife, brother, in-laws and 6-year-old son, Rufus. In coming to terms with this unexpected death, the surviving characters grapple with family, faith, tensions between rural and urban existence, and the challenges and rewards of human interaction.
Agee’s understanding of his characters is sympathetic and deep, and his prose is poetic and beautiful. Here, for example, are Jay’s observations as he drives out of Knoxville on his ill-fated trip: “Before long the city thinned out into the darkened evidences of that kind of flea-bitten semi-rurality which always particularly depressed him: mean little homes, and others inexplicably new and substantial, set too close together for any satisfying rural privacy or use, too far, too shapelessly apart to have coherence as any kind of community; mean little pieces of ill-cultivated land behind them, and alongside the road, between them, trash and slash and broken sheds and rained-out billboards: he passed a late, late streetcar, no passengers aboard, far out near the end of its run.”
And here is young Rufus puzzling out his father’s command not to brag: “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.” Thankfully, Lofaro preserves this material, while changing characters’ names (which McDowell had altered) back to the real names of Agee family members. He also slightly edits passages -- mostly of dialogue -- to more closely match regional speech patterns.
But Lofaro’s other choices are more inexplicable. While he refers in his preface to Agee’s intent and the “true structure” of the novel, there is, of course, no way to know what the novel might finally have looked like. In the extensive textual commentary, Lofaro grants that there is no proof that Agee would have used the nightmare sequence as a prologue -- or even that he intended an introduction at all. And in Lofaro’s notes for his Chapter 17 -- McDowell’s Chapter 1 -- he states that the use of a different name for Rufus, as well as the coloration of the manuscript paper, “may mark this chapter as one that Agee created early in his project” -- in other words, consistent with McDowell’s placement. These examples show that any editor’s guesswork is exactly that, guesswork; and that Lofaro’s choices are no more definitive than McDowell’s.
But the most important measure is the work itself, and by that standard McDowell’s version is superior. Agee’s prose is so poetic that it is an undeniable pleasure to read the recovered chapters, which include a trip to the fair and a ride in the eventually fatal car. But these new sections are best read as outtakes, separate from the finished product. Lofaro conjectures that McDowell “changed the novel to suit the popular tastes of the 1950s and increase the book’s marketability”; he does not consider that McDowell might have made his decisions for a simpler reason: to create the best possible book. The new chapters, while interesting, don’t add much to our understanding of Jay or Mary or young Rufus. In fact, everything that needs to be established -- the tenderness and conflict within the marriage, Jay’s drinking and tendency to drive too fast, Rufus’ deep sensitivity and his near-worshipful relationship with his father -- is handled perfectly, and more economically, in the original version.
Lofaro also sequences the chapters chronologically, but in doing so, he diffuses some of the novel’s more moving episodes. This is especially true of the protracted, devastating scene of Rufus’ humiliation by bullies, which occurs early in Lofaro’s version. McDowell uses this scene as a flashback just before Rufus learns of his father’s death, thus increasing the emotional impact of the loss and underlining the boy’s vulnerability.
Most egregious, however, is Lofaro’s choice to remove “Knoxville: Summer, 1915" and replace it with the nightmare sequence. He claims that the original prologue “creates a delightful reverie” that sets “a completely contradictory tone for the work.” This is nonsense. The original prologue does indeed create a dreamlike, idyllic atmosphere -- but also a sense of deep foreboding and impending loss. It is powerful precisely because the world it depicts is so beautiful, and because it is clear that such perfection cannot last. The replacement prologue, with its graphic violence and religious symbolism, is heavy-handed and not nearly as effective.
The discovery of lost sections of “A Death in the Family” is exciting for anyone who cares about Agee’s work and American fiction in general. But rather than rescuing Agee’s masterful novel, Lofaro has made a mess of it. Reading “A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text” is like observing a machine that has been taken apart, or an animal that’s been dissected. The individual parts are laid out for display -- but the machine doesn’t work, the animal’s been gutted. The James Agee Trust’s new leaders apparently support Lofaro’s efforts, which means it’s possible that his version of “A Death in the Family” could replace the original altogether. If this occurs, one of our finest works of American literature will effectively be lost. That would be a nightmare beyond the proportions of even Agee’s most haunted imaginings.