Assessments of A Death in the Family at the time of its publication indicate that reviewers were not just out to honor the memory of a good writer who had died, but that they saw the qualities of the novel that have made it an American classic. Dwight MacDonald, writing in The New Yorker, noted that even though Agee died before final editing, the book “reads like a finished work—brilliant, moving, and written with an objectivity and a control he had not achieved before.” Most reviews, like that written by Melvin Maddocks in The Christian Science Monitor, were generally pleased with the book while still recognizing its weaknesses. Examining how difficult it is to write convincingly from a child’s perspective, Maddocks notes that “James Agee’s posthumous novel is proof that the job can sometimes be managed accurately as well as fondly, vividly as well as indulgently.” Maddocks goes on to list faults: “It can be merely rhetorical as well as eloquent. The words that click and shuttle to weave a vivid sensory pattern can also produce cotton wool. . . . Furthermore, it is doubtful that the novel was as completely finished as its publishers indicate.” The fact that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is an indication of the esteem held for this novel by critics of its time.
As the years have passed, A Death in the Family has come to be seen as James Agee’s legacy, the lasting achievement of a writer who was mostly known in his day for his transitory magazine writing. Though it is uneven and very personal, the novel approaches one of life’s most moving experiences with a poetic sensibility that speaks to readers across the generations. As Victor A. Kramer, a critic who has written extensively about Agee’s life and career, wrote it in his essay “Urban and Rural Balance in A Death in the Family,”
The text for Agee’s unfinished A Death in the Family is . . . a book that functions on several levels at once: it is Agee’s memorial; it is his examination of self; it is a picture of a particular era when urban and rural were blended; it is an archetypal rendering of what all persons learn, live, and love.