Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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,...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

One aspect of the novel that is notably different than the way life is in contemporary America is the closeness of extended families, with...

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View

Some novels maintain a consistent point of view, that is, they tell their story from the perspective...

(The entire section is 454 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research various funerary rites of different cultures and report on what each would have to offer the Follet family in a situation like the...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 75 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Agee’s only other novel, The Morning Watch (1950), is about a boy at a boarding school in the mountains of Tennessee who has a...

(The entire section is 274 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Kramer, Victor A., “Urban and Rural Balance in A Death in the Family,” in James Agee:...

(The entire section is 303 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.