Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 902
The novel’s nostalgic evocation of an earlier, quiet time is set by “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” a poetic reminiscence James Agee wrote in 1936. It was selected by an editor to be a preface to the novel, which was not quite complete when Agee died. The preface re-creates childhood memories of the peaceful summer evenings of Agee’s middle-class Knoxville home as the women finish their kitchen work and the men, collars open and in shirtsleeves, watched by their children and older relatives, turned out to water their lawns. Such evenings are filled with shapes formed by spraying hoses, the sounds of nozzles being adjusted, and the recollections of the family, its work set aside momentarily, sitting outside on a quilt making small talk, watching the sky, waiting for the night to come. The preface closes with a life-affirming benediction: “May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.”
Cast as a novel, A Death in the Family is Agee’s long-planned autobiographical memorial to his father. The event that inspired the memorial was a simple one, though its consequences were not. Hugh James (Jay) Agee died in an automobile accident outside Knoxville, Tennessee, on May 18, 1916. Jay had been responding to an emergency call from a brother that their father was dying. The brother had been drinking and, ironically, there was no emergency, a situation made more poignant by the reader’s foreknowledge of what is to happen. Six-year-old Rufus, Jay’s son, whose childhood memories, dreams, and reconstructions inform the story, idolizes his father (rather than his mother, Mary) as the nurturing parent, the model around whom he senses his place in the world and the beginning of his own identity. His father’s death shatters the delicate balance and tranquillity of Rufus’s childhood, and, in fact, marked Agee for the remainder of his own rather brief life.
A 1958 Pulitzer Prize winner, Agee’s A Death in the Family is a touching and lyrical novel of domestic love. Combining strains that are romantic and modernist, it works at different levels around a number of important themes. Agee’s—Rufus’s—childhood love of his father, delicate and balanced but prone to damage by a wrong word or look on the part of those who compose Rufus’s world, provides the novel’s main theme. Agee’s story, however, goes beyond this theme.
Agee was a southern writer who could be associated with a particular southern locale and era. Within that framework he was also in many ways a southern traditionalist, although the novel’s abundant detail includes the depiction of sentiments and situations that are universal. Agee carefully documents the erosion of rural values among people like his father by Knoxville’s growing industrialization during the years of his childhood. The harsh noises of passing streetcars that make his little sister Catherine cry and the grinding, whirring metallic sounds of Jay cranking his Ford, a disturbance to family and neighborhood alike, are only two of many examples of this erosion that Agee sought to evoke.
The clash of rural and urban values is likewise played out within his parents’ mutual love. Jay remains countrified at heart while Mary, quite consciously, is an urban Catholic. Socially, Mary and her relatives look down on Jay. To be sure, Jay dominates his household, but he is oblivious to the price Mary pays in chagrin at his ways. Gentle enough, patient in his way, generous, hardworking, practical, devoted, and deeply attached to his country roots, he nonetheless is sometimes an embarrassment. While he accedes to Mary’s wish to raise the children as Catholics, he is personally unreligious and unbaptized, a sore point with Mary’s priest as well as occasion for her brother Andrew’s outrage at the funeral. Jay’s humor, in addition, runs to the vulgar, or so it seems in his day; he swears, spits, enjoys bending the elbow, and lapses into rural idioms and songs. His death by a prime symbol of modernization, the Ford automobile, and his father’s wasting away are metaphors for the decline of the old rural South.
In addition to the evocations of tensions between Rufus’s parents and within the extended family (some of them healthy tensions that stitch together the framework of family loves), Agee laces the novel with concerns about the forces that are pulling those networks asunder. Those forces manifest themselves in physical separations and in those fragmentations that attend urban living. In this light, Jay is “a victim of progress,” but so, too, are Rufus, Mary, and Catherine; no one can say how the family might have developed differently had Jay lived.
A Death in the Family is like a photograph, sharp in its details of a family in a moment in time, during an age in passage, never to be experienced again, and all the more precious in recognition of the photograph’s ephemeral qualities. Enduring qualities remain, evoked by the photograph: Jay and Mary singing their son through his nightmares, Rufus feeling his father’s hands stroking his head, Rufus smelling Jay’s leather and tobacco, kids on their bellies reading comics, parental admonitions to Rufus about respecting differences (those of black people, of relatives, and of old folks): all archetypal memories, recognizable to everyone, and timeless.
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