James Agee died two years before his novel, "A Death in the Family," was published in 1957. He never lived to see the book win the Pulitzer...
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — James Agee died two years before his novel, “A Death in the Family,” was published in 1957.
He never lived to see the book win the Pulitzer Prize in 1958, or to see it become a staple on high-school summer reading lists. He never even approved its final form.
Now Agee scholar Michael Lofaro says that “A Death in the Family” was pulled together by a misguided editor whose final version does not match Agee’s intentions. Using Agee’s original manuscript — stacks of yellow paper covered with a tiny cursive hand, written in pencil — Lofaro is reconstructing what he believes is a more authentic version of “A Death in the Family.”
“We’ve confused generations of high-school students,” says Lofaro, an English professor at the University of Tennessee. “People had suspected this wasn’t quite right for a long time.”
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Lofaro’s work coincides with the James Agee Celebration this month at the university, located only a few blocks from the author’s childhood home. Lofaro will discuss his work at a conference April 13-17 as part of events that include art shows, films, theater performances and concerts.
Agee, who also wrote “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and the screenplay for “The African Queen,” was born in 1909 in Knoxville, which is the setting for “A Death in the Family.” The novel is mostly an autobiographical sketch of memories of his father before he died in a car accident in 1916. He began writing the novel in 1948, but it was incomplete when he died of a heart attack in 1955. Agee’s wife and three children were left with little money, and editor David McDowell decided to help them by publishing some of Agee’s work.
On the Web:
James Agee Celebration, jamesageecelebration.utk.edu
Agee was about 99 percent finished with the book, Lofaro says, and McDowell took pieces of the novel and arranged them in a way he thought would appeal to the 1950s audience. In particular, he got rid of a gruesome nightmare scene that originally began the novel. The opening McDowell chose was taken from “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a pastoral piece that Agee had previously published but did not write for the book.
Lofaro says the novel is supposed be in chronological order from the boy’s first memories to the father’s funeral. Instead, McDowell removed some chapters, chopped up others and put some out of order as two flashback sections.
The existing book has 20 chapters; Lofaro’s reconstructed version will have 44 short chapters.
The editor’s note McDowell put at the beginning of the original novel explains some of the changes, but adds it is “presented here exactly how he wrote it.” Lofaro doesn’t agree, but he doesn’t accuse McDowell, who died in 1985, of having bad intentions.
“He’s not the villain in this,” Lofaro says. “He was trying to put food on their table.”
Lofaro’s reconstruction is due out in 2007 and will be part of the 10-volume “The Works of James Agee” to be published by the University of Tennessee Press.
Agee’s daughter, Deedee Agee, also a writer, approves of Lofaro’s work.
“I think it’s kind of interesting to have the two stand on their own and for people to be able to compare them,” she said. “Nobody is ever going to know really what he would have done.”
Piecing together the novel Agee intended was not easy. The original manuscripts, notes and rough drafts ended up in three different places — the University of Texas, University of Tennessee and the James Agee Trust in New Jersey. Agee’s outlines for the book went to Texas after his wife sold them to an antique dealer.
Those outlines referred to chapters no one had ever seen until a book dealer working on behalf of McDowell’s son offered to sell some of McDowell’s papers to the University of Tennessee in 1988. The papers also included McDowell’s notes describing how he altered the novel.