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A Death in the Family ()

Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) (1958)

This almost completely autobiographical novel details the impact of a father's accidental death on a Knoxville, TN family.  The parents were modeled on Agee's own; the father is a warm-hearted agnostic who takes his young son to Charlie Chaplin Silents and local bars.  The mother, outwardly pious but tormented by doubt, is much more reserved.  Various members of both sides of the extended family make appearances and the story concludes with the funeral, where the presiding minister refuses to perform the full Church service for an unbaptized soul.

Agee is, or was, considered one of the tragic figures in American letters, an immensely talented young author hiding his light under Henry Luce's bushel and doing hackwork for Fortune magazine.  Oddly enough, his journalistic account of Depression era workmen, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, is now considered a masterpiece.  Meanwhile, this unfinished novel, despite winning the Pulitzer, is rightly considered to be a fairly standard Southern slice-of-life melodrama.  It is most interesting for the insight it offers into Agee's troubled relationship with his mother, indeed one of his biographers believes that in his screenplay for The African Queen he wrote Bogart as himself as Hepburn as his mother--think about that one.


Grade: (C)


Book-related and General Links:
    -James Agee Collection, 1928-1969 (U of Texas Ransom Humanities Center)
    -A Comparison of A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
    -Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Agee and Evans' Great Experiment (Suzanne A. Austgen)
    -Documentary photography:  Walker Evans' and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous
Men (1936) and the film "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Revisited" (History of Photography)
    -ESSAY : 'Death in the Family' author remembered  (April 11, 2001, AP)
    -REVIEW: of JAMES AGEE By Laurence Bergreen HIS DEATH GAVE LIFE TO HIS LEGEND (Phillip French, NY Times)
    -Luc Sante: The Eye of Walker Evans (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: All-American The Collected Short Prose of James Agee edited, with a Memoir by Robert Fitzgerald (Wilfrid Sheed, NY Review of Books)
    -'Writing and experience: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, again' (Niall Lucy, The Australian Journal of Media & Culture vol. 5 no 1 (1991))
    -REVIEW : of   Let Us Now Praise Famous Men  (Vera Rule,  August 18, 2001, The Guardian)