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When A Father Dies: James Agee and A Death in the Family

When A Father Dies: James Agee and A Death in the Family

A Review by Clif Cleaveland, MD

For some years this novel rested in my stack of good-but-unread literary intentions. A seminar on the "family" provided the necessary stimulus for a first reading. Earlier this year a dramatization of A Death in the Family for the public television network stimulated a second reading of the novel and study of the life of the author, James Agee. I sought to determine how much of the work was autobiographical.

James Rufus Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee November 27, 1909 to Hugh James and Laura Tyler Agee. A sister, Emma, was born two years later. In 1915 James Agee died in the crash of his T-Model Ford. In 1918 Laura moved the family to Monteagle, Tennessee where James spent the next six years as a student of St. Andrews Academy. After a further year in Knoxville, James entered Phillips Exeter at age fifteen. Following graduation, James matriculated at Harvard College, graduating four years later in 1932. Faculty at both schools recognized the excellence of his writing. His friends recalled his social daring.

Time-Life hired James as a writer for Fortune magazine. In 1933 he married Via Saunders, who recalled, "I thought of him as a person who suffered an awful lot. He had a great deal of unhappiness in his work…He used to get frightfully depressed and say, 'I can't write anymore; I can't work…He would bang his head on the wall and say, 'I am no good,' and that sort of thing."

James produced a variety of pieces for Fortune and reviewed books and movies for Time and Life. Steven Vincent Benet selected a volume of Agee's poetry for the Yale Younger Poet series in 1934. Archibald MacLeash wrote the introduction. James Agee contributed text, while Walker Evans supplied the photographs for Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, a highly regarded meditation on the lives of Alabama sharecroppers.

His second wife, Alma Mailman, recorded, " He was gentle unless he was drinking; then he would get violent. His violence was never against people; it was against situations or against himself…people's pain used to upset him."

Mia Fritsh, his wife from 1944 until his death in 1955 recalled, "He was a man of excesses and of extremes…I mean he was constitutionally unable to seriously consider moderation or not doing what he wanted to do, so this never really dawned on him."

Agee spent his final years in Hollywood as a screenwriter. He wrote the screenplay for The Quiet One, a documentary that won the Venice Film Festival Award for best film in 1948. In 1951, Agee received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for The Africa Queen. He also wrote the screenplay for Night of the Hunter, which premiered in 1957.

Throughout his years from Harvard to his fatal heart attack on May 16, 1955, Agee battled excesses-alcoholism, chain-smoking, despair, over-commitment to multiple simultaneous projects. He had little regard for his personal appearance or hygiene. Rages, depressions, and recurrent infidelities marked his final years.

Among his close associates were Charles Chaplin, movie director John Huston, Whitaker Chambers, the writer and editor, Dwight McDonald and poet and translator, Robert Fitzgerald, who wrote, "The man was immoderate in every way. His interests were immoderately wide. His intellect was immoderately intense, and his passions were immoderately large. This was true at Harvard and became even true in New York and later."

In 1934 Agee wrote his longtime friend, Father James Flye, " I am in the most possible kinds of pain, mental and spiritual. The trouble revolves chiefly around the simple sounding problem of how to become what I wish I would, when I can't…My ideas and impressions and desires, which are much larger than I can begin to get to paper, are loose in my brain like wild beasts, not devouring each other, but in the process of tearing the zoo apart.

A Death in the Family lay unfinished at the time of Agee's death. Friends assembled the final manuscript, which was published in 1957. A Death in the Family won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year.

Rufus Follett, the six year old hero of A Death in the Family, loses his beloved father in a car crash in East Tennessee in the spring of 1915. Events preceding the tragedy amply document the affection of Rufus for his father. Cultural, religious and economic issues cloud the relations between Rufus's parents and complicate relationships within and between maternal and paternal sides of the family. Rufus is repeatedly made the confidante of various adults who share their secrets.

The evening of the funeral, Rufus laments, "After a little, I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her; and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home; but will not, O. will not, not now, not ever; will not ever tell me who I am."

A Death in the Family is intensely autobiographical. In the novel James Agee poses the essential question of how Rufus' (his own) life can ever gain a sure footing once his father has died. In a large family in Knoxville Jay Follett alone could establish a rapport with the bright and self-conscious Rufus. The power of the bond between a father and a son is nowhere else more powerfully drawn. Had Jay lived, Rufus had a chance to define boundaries for his intellect, passions and dreams. With the precision of a psychoanalyst James Agee delineated the turning point in his own life when childhood ended and diverse and emotionally inarticulate forces assumed control of his subsequent development. Upon reaching the final page of the novel we know that all will not be well for Rufus. We long to help but cannot.

Note: I learned of James Agee's life from his Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, Remembering James Agee by David Madden, Agee: His Life Remembered edited by Ross Spears, and James Agee: A Life by Laurence Bergreen.