Places Discussed

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*Knoxville

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*Knoxville. Tennessee city that is the novel’s main setting, as the home of Jay and Mary Follet and their two children. The novel begins with a short section titled “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” a poetically evocative description of summer evenings that breaks into free verse. After supper, as daylight fades and children run around yelling and playing, relaxed fathers, collars removed and shirt cuffs peeled back, are outside watering their lawns with hoses. This scene competes with the natural sounds and sights of locusts, crickets, frogs, and fireflies, which gradually increase as the night comes on. One by one the men coil their hoses and retreat inside their homes. Not even the man of the house—husband, father, and breadwinner—can hold back the night. Thus the short descriptive section serves as a poetic foreword to the whole novel, which develops the effects on a family of its father’s sudden death.

The opening section also introduces a subtheme of the novel—the social and cultural tensions between the Follet and Lynch families. Jay, Mary, and children live in a lower middle-class neighborhood of similar houses and families, and the Lynches (Mary’s parents, brother, and aunt) live nearby in a slightly older middle-class neighborhood. The middle-class way of life is identified with the city, and the Lynches, who are comfortable, somewhat cultured, and Roman Catholic, assume that their own way of life is the desirable norm. To them, people outside Knoxville are merely hillbillies.

The Lynches admire Jay for having raised himself out of his background (though at first they are aghast when Mary marries him). Jay himself, thoroughly domesticated by the time of the novel (and even cured of a drinking problem), seems to share his wife’s and her family’s middle-class outlook. Yet every now and then he has to slip himself a drink, and he sometimes finds himself gazing north toward the mountains of his birth and feeling something missing from his life. To some extent, Jay appears to fill this void through his relationship with his young son, Rufus, who idolizes his manly father.

It is probably Jay’s manly qualities that attract Mary to marry him. However, her middle-class assumptions and religion make her want to tame those very same qualities in him. In general, the women in the novel seem to take to middle-class life, and its ally religion, more readily than do the men. Even the Lynch men chafe against religion and priests, while the Lynch women embrace them and submit. Like middle-class life, Catholicism is associated more with the city in that part of Tennessee. In the novel, then, the city is the locus of the good life, a stage that expands women’s possibilities but that may constrict men.

*LaFollette

*LaFollette. Small Tennessee town in the mountains about forty miles north of Knoxville that is the home of the Follet family, whose name links them to the place, LaFollette at the time was primarily a trading center for farmers from the nearby Powell River Valley. To the Lynches, LaFollette epitomizes backwardness, as do the Follets who live there: Jay’s drunken brother (an undertaker), their shiftless father, and their downtrodden mother. Jay’s ties to his family and the place finally claim him: A speeding driver, he dies in an automobile accident at Powell Station on the way back from visiting his supposedly sick father.

*Appalachian Mountains

*Appalachian Mountains. Range that includes the Cumberland Mountains around LaFollette and the Great Smoky Mountains east of Knoxville. People living in these rugged mountains are so backward that they are romanticized in the novel. The Follets make a pilgrimage to the family home in the Cumberlands, and Jay takes his family on a scenic tour of the Great Smoky Mountains. Out of touch with modern times, the mountain people exemplify a seemingly idyllic life close to nature and the land, a definite alternative to the middle-class norms of Knoxville. Thus the mountains create a certain ambiguity in this autobiographical novel (Jay’s young son, Rufus, seems to be based on Agee), perhaps an ambiguity that the author felt about his own background.

Historical Context

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One aspect of the novel that is notably different than the way life is in contemporary America is the closeness of extended families, with adult children frequently living with or near their parents. When Jay’s father is stricken with a heart attack, his son Ralph and daughter Jessie and their spouses are available to be at his bedside; when Jay dies, his wife’s brother, her aunt, and her parents are within walking distance; and Great Aunt Sadie, a woman who is herself in her eighties, has responsibility for the well-being of her mother. In rural societies, as Tennessee was in the early part of the twentieth century, it is more common to find extended families supporting each other than it is in urban areas. Traditionally, populations of rural areas have been determined by the need for help: before industrialization, parents on family farms tended to have more children based on their need for helping hands.

By the time the book was written, though, there had been several dramatic shifts in the American population that weakened the family structure. For one thing, the country became overwhelmingly city-oriented during the first half of the century. In 1910, there had been 46 million people counted as rural residents and only two thirds that, or 30 million, were rural. By 1950, the percentages were more than reversed: 54 million people were rural, and 96 million were urban. This population shift is seen even more dramatically when it is realized that, a decade later, the rural population had stayed constant at 54 million, but the urban population had jumped to 125 million. In part, this population shift was caused by younger people leaving rural areas and going to the cities in search of work, especially during the Great Depression, which spanned from the stock market crash of 1929 until America’s entry into World War II in 1941.

City life was, almost by definition, less oriented around the family than the rural life that had dominated American culture in earlier centuries. Without the family structure to support them, millions of citizens, especially those who were older and less able to work, were faced with poverty. In 1935, during the height of the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, to provide financial support for citizens who otherwise would be destitute. The support that this Act gave to elderly citizens who were on their own made older relatives less dependent on their younger relatives for simple subsistence.

When Agee was working on this book in the 1950s, the family was also being weakened by the distractions that come from a leisure-oriented society. Television, in particular, became a mass-medium in the fifties, bringing the outside world into homes more vividly than radio ever could. The world that Agee describes in “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” a world of families gathering together on front lawns, playing with each other and mingling with the neighbors, was fragmented, as television offered a reason to stay isolated. Family discussion, once a focal point in households, became viewed as a distraction. As the family drifted apart, the fifties bred a youth culture, with teenagers seeking to develop identities distinct from those of their parents and of earlier generations.

 

Literary Style

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Point of View

Some novels maintain a consistent point of view, that is, they tell their story from the perspective of one character. In A Death in the Family, however, Agee has chosen to alternate points of view. The novel is told at different times from the perspectives of each of the members of the main family discussed (Rufus, Jay, Mary and Catherine), as well as from the viewpoints of such secondary characters as Aunt Hannah, Ralph, Andrew, and Mary’s mother and father. With this approach to the material, Agee is able to make this the story of a whole family, and not just the story of any one particular character.

Symbolism

In literature, a symbol is something that has both specific and general meaning: it fits into the story, but also indicates a meaning beyond its own place. Agee uses symbols in A Death in the Family that have personal, cultural, and spiritual meanings.

The cap that Rufus receives from his Aunt Hannah, for instance, has a symbolic meaning for him that other characters in the story do not recognize. To his parents, the cap is a foolish desire, a frivolous and unnecessary expense. To Rufus, though, the cap symbolizes a level of maturity that others do not yet see in him. Its symbolic meaning is so strong to him that he focuses on it throughout the night, anxious to show it to his father as a mark of achievement.

Readers might not think much of the Ferryman who carries Jay across the river in Chapter 3, unless they are aware of classical Greek literature. In Greek myth, the souls of the dead are ferried across the river Styx by Charon, the silent old boatman in charge of bringing new souls from the world of the living into Hades. While the Ferryman fits comfortably into the book, and would not be out of place in Tennessee in 1915, the use of a figure from antiquity foreshadows, for those familiar with the myth, the fact that Jay will never return from the far bank of the river.

The most poignant symbol, however, is the butterfly in the story that Andrew tells Rufus about his father’s burial. The reader does not need any outside understanding of what the butterfly symbolizes because Andrew explains its significance to his nephew, telling him that he thinks it is as much a miracle as anything he has ever seen. He makes the event miraculous for Rufus by sharing the story with Rufus when he would not share it with anyone else in the family. In this way, the meaning Andrew sees in the butterfly, Jay’s soul being released, becomes real precisely because he has found meaning in it.

 

Compare and Contrast

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1915: The Ford Model T, or “Tin Lizzy,” revolutionizes transportation by offering affordable, mass-produced transportation to middle-class families.

1950s: The automobile is an icon of the age, as materials and products that were unavailable during the Great Depression and World War II allow car makers to build their products bigger and faster.

Today: Many drivers insist on sport utility vehicles because they want to feel safe, while others find the big, fortress-like vehicles to be a waste of fossil fuels.

1915: It is not unusual for a family like the Follets to have a black nurse like Victoria, though southern states like Tennessee are strictly segregated.

1950s: The Civil Rights movement is on the rise to destroy institutional racism.

Today: Legal penalties are in place to punish racism, but blacks and whites in America still have vastly different outlooks and viewpoints.

1915: The “ear trumpet” used by Mary’s mother to augment her hearing is a relic, dating back to the 1800s. Electronic hearing aids are available, though not common.

1950s: Transistor technology has made possible hearing aids that are small enough to be carried in a shirt pocket.

Today: Hearing aids are powerful and small enough to be worn unnoticed within the ear canal.

1915: Funeral parlors are in existence, but are only popular in urban areas. In a relatively small town like Knoxville, it is still common to hold wakes and funerals in the house of the deceased or a loved one.

1950s: Americans are accustomed to their last viewing of deceased loved ones happening at a local funeral parlor owned by a member of the community.

Today: Like much else in society, the funeral business is increasingly run by corporations, while consumers have an expanding variety of methods of self-expression in funerary arrangements that have become commonly accepted.

1915: Long distance telephone service makes it possible to place a cross-continent call between New York and San Francisco.

1950s: Telephone usage is common—there are about 55 million phones in the United States—but still expensive. Long distance calls are often placed through an operator.

Today: Wireless phones have made it possible and affordable to call to anywhere, from anywhere.

 

Media Adaptations

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A Death in the Family was adapted to the stage as the play All the Way Home in 1960; a film version of the play was made in 1963.

On March 25, 2002, PBS broadcast an adaptation of A Death in the Family directed by Gil Cates and starring Annabeth Gish and James Cromwell, as part of its Masterpiece Theatre series. It was written by Robert W. Lenski. The series was later released on VHS from Public Broadcasting System.

 

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Kramer, Victor A., “Urban and Rural Balance in A Death in the Family,” in James Agee: Reconsiderations, edited by Michael A. Lofaro, University of Tennessee Press, 1992, pp. 104–18.

MacDonald, Dwight, Review of A Death in the Family, in the New Yorker, November 16, 1957, p. 224.

Maddocks, Melvin, Review of A Death in the Family, in the Christian Science Monitor, November 14, 1957, p. 7.

 

Further Reading

Doty, Mark, Tell Me Who I Am: James Agee’s Search for Selfhood, Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

One of the most psychologically intensive studies of Agee’s life, this book draws heavily off his letters and the writings of those who knew him.

Kramer, Victor A., “Remembrance of Childhood,” in James Agee, Twayne’s United States Authors Series, No. 252, Twayne Publishers, 1975, pp. 142–55.

This section of a standard overview of Agee’s life and work focuses on A Death in the Family and how it joined the end of Agee’s life with his first memories.

Lowe, James, The Creative Process of James Agee, Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Lowe’s general theme is “disparateness” throughout Agee’s works: the ways in which his writings in different genres tended to draw in different directions.

Madden, David, ed., Remembering James Agee, Louisiana State University Press, 1974.

Madden provides a collection of essays by people who knew Agee, including Father James H. Flye, Robert Fitzgerald, Dwight Macdonald, and Whittaker Chambers.

Moreau, Geneviève, The Restless Journey of James Agee, William Morrow, 1977.

This book gives equal attention to Agee’s life and his work, claiming not to be a biography but a literary examination of the ways he drew from the familiar for his writing.

Spiegel, Alan, James Agee and the Legend of Himself, University of Mississippi Press, 1998.

Spiegel organizes his book around ancient mythic motifs, examining how Agee’s writings built a mythic personality for the author.

 

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Barson, Alfred T. A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.

Bergreen, Laurence. James Agee: A Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984. A fascinating biography that discusses A Death in the Family. Many fine photos.

Doty, Mark A. Tell Me Who I Am: James Agee’s Search for Selfhood. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. An interesting study of Agee’s search for selfhood, in which the remembrances in A Death in the Family play a major role.

Folks, Jeffrey J., and David Madden, eds. Remembering James Agee. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. Essays and recollections by people who knew Agee, including his widow.

Kramer, Victor A. James Agee. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Covers all of Agee’s work including a lucid and insightful discussion of A Death in the Family.

Lofaro, Michael A., ed. James Agee: Reconsiderations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995. Collection of essays that considers the Agee legacy; extensive consideration of A Death in the Family and of Agee’s narrative techniques.

Madden, David, and Jeffrey J. Folks, eds. Remembering James Agee, 2d ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. The twenty-two essays in this book touch on every important aspect of Agee’s life and work. They range from the reminiscences of Father Flye to those of his third wife, Mia Agee. The interpretive essays on his fiction and films are particularly illuminating, as are the essays on his life as a reporter and writer for Fortune and Time.

Moreau, Geneviève. The Restless Journey of James Agee. Translated by Miriam Kleiger. New York: William Morrow, 1977. A sensitive portrayal of Agee and his work.

Spiegel, Alan. James Agee and the Legend of Himself: A Critical Study. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998. Important study of all of Agee’s work; in-depth consideration of A Death in the Family, including discussion of the book as a transcendental novel infused with a sacramental vision.

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