James Agee Long Fiction Analysis
Neither James Agee’s novella The Morning Watch nor his novel A Death in the Family offers much in the way of plot. The former covers a few hours of a boy’s Good Friday morning at an Episcopalian boys’ school, the latter a few days encompassing the death and funeral of a young husband and father. Agee’s fiction develops a remarkable lyric intensity, however, and dramatizes with sensitivity the consciousness of children. Agee presents the minutiae of life as experienced by his characters at times of maximum awareness and thereby lifts them out of the category of mere realistic detail into the realm of spiritual discovery.
Even a cursory glance at the facts of Agee’s life reveals how autobiographically based his fiction is. There is no reason to doubt that St. Andrew’s, where he spent the years from ages ten to sixteen, supplies the framework for The Morning Watch, or that Agee’s own family, seen at the time of Hugh Agee’s fatal accident, furnishes the building blocks of the more ambitious A Death in the Family. At the same time, Agee permitted himself artistic freedom in selecting, altering, and arranging the facts of raw experience. It is clear that his literary appropriation of his childhood owes much to reflection and interpretation in the light of maturity.
Agee was a writer who stayed close to home in his work. His fiction displays no trace of the two-thirds of his life spent mainly in New England, New York, and California. As is so often the case with writers from the American South, Agee’s work is imbued with a sense of his origins, of folk traditions viewed in their own right and in competition with the emerging urban culture. The South, with its insistence on the primacy of personal and familial relationships, was in the author’s bones. In keeping to his earliest and most vividly felt years, Agee created a convincing context in which experiences of universal significance could unfold.
The Morning Watch
At the beginning of The Morning Watch, a preadolescent boy and several of his classmates are awakened in the wee hours of Good Friday morning to spend their assigned time in an overnight vigil in the school chapel as part of the Maundy Thursday-Good Friday devotions. Anyone who has experienced a period of religious scrupulosity in childhood will respond to Agee’s presentation of Richard. While his friends fumble and curse in the darkness, Richard prepares for adoration. Once in the chapel before the veiled monstrance, he strives to pray worthily despite the inevitable distractions of potentially sinful thoughts, the dangers of spiritual pride, and the torture of the hard kneeling board. Richard wonders whether he can make a virtue of his discomfort: To what extent is it proper for him to suffer along with the crucified Savior? Agee brings Richard intensely alive and conveys the power and the puzzlement of mighty spiritual claims at this stage of life.
Thenarrative also develops from the start Richard’s sense of his relationships with the other boys, most of whom, he realizes, lack his delicate spiritual antennae. After the stint in the chapel is over, he and two classmates do not return to the dormitory as expected but decide to take an early-morning swim. Their adventure is presented in a heavily symbolic way. Richard dives into deep water at their swimming hole, stays down so long that his friends begin to worry, and emerges before his lungs give out. The boys torture and kill a snake, with Richard (who, like Agee himself, cannot bear to kill) finishing off the job. He debates in his mind whether the snake is poisonous and whether to wash the slime from his hand, deciding finally in the negative. He carries back to the school a locust shell he has found on the way. The snake, which seemingly cannot be killed, suggests both ineradicable evil and, in its victimization, Christ; the locust shell, which he holds next to his heart, seems to represent suffering in a purer form. Richard’s dive into the water and subsequent resurfacing obviously symbolize his own “death” and “resurrection” in this Christian Holy Week.
Some critics have noted the influence of James Joyce on this novella. Certainly Richard resembles in certain ways the youngprotagonists of some of Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) stories as well as Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Attracted by religious mysteries and artifacts, Richard wishes to appropriate them for his own purposes. He senses the conflict of religion with the world, evinces distaste for the practices of the latter, and hopes to fashion a life that blends the best of both. While Richard’s appropriation of religious rite and doctrine is less consciously the artist’s than is that of Stephen Dedalus, the reader senses that Richard’s individualistic spirituality will inevitably bring him into a Joycean conflict with conservative religious practice.
A Death in the Family
Since The Morning Watch, despite its provocatively ambiguous conflict between the world and the spirit, is somewhat labored and precious, and since Agee’s short stories were few and insignificant, his reputation as an important American novelist rests primarily on one book that he did not quite complete before his early death, A Death in the Family. As he left it, the story begins at the supper table of the Follet household in Knoxville, Tennessee, in about 1915 and ends just after Jay Follet’s funeral on the third day following. Agee had written a short descriptive essay, “Knoxville: Summer 1915” (which makes an appropriate preface to the novel), and six additional sections, which together make up about one-fifth the length of the narrative.
Although all the six scenes (as they will be termed here) pertain to times prior to that of the main story, it remains unclear where Agee intended to place them or whether he would have used stream-of-consciousness flashbacks, a story-within-a-story technique, or perhaps another method suggested by his cinematic experience to incorporate them. Surely he intended to use them, for they illuminate and enrich the death story despite the absence of any formal linkage among them or collectively to the narrative. The editorial decision to print three of them after each of the first two parts of the three-part narrative seems...
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