James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family is a classic American story, chronicling just a few days in 1915 during which a husband and father is called out of town to be with his own father, who has had a heart attack, and while returning is killed in a car accident. Agee patterned the story closely after his own life, focusing on a boy who is the same age that he was when his father died. The narrative shifts from one perspective to another, including the young widow and her two children and her atheistic father and the dead man’s alcoholic brother, to name just a few, in an attempt to capture the ways in which one person’s loss immediately and powerfully affects everyone around.
The book was published in 1957 by McDowell, Obolensky, two years after Agee’s death from heart failure at the age of 46, and was awarded the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Although Agee had worked on it for almost a decade, he had not produced a definitive final draft, and so his publishers had to put the book together in a way that they believed would make the most sense. They have indicated places where they added materials that come from outside of the flow of the story, such as the opening section “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” which was first published in the 1940s. Critics agree that the end product is a consistent novel, one of the most moving works ever written about one of the most traumatic experiences a child could ever face.