The late James Agee's A Death in the Family has the simple beauty and drama of a folk ballad. Set in the foothills of Tennessee's Great Smokeys, it sings of "quiet summer evenings" and a Knoxville family faced with the problems of love and human loneliness. It's a song about Rufus Follete, a boy of six years or so, who wants a cap like a man's and who finds the night frightening as he lies in his bed. It's about his father, Jay, who drives too fast and sometimes drinks too much, but who sings his son back to sleep with "Froggy would a wooin' go;" and about his mother, Mary, afraid for her loved ones and even more afraid to trouble them with these fears; about three year old Catherine, and about all sorts of people, some weak, some strong, most of them both.
The action covers the few days up to and after Jay's death in an automobile accident. By sensitively showing the impact of the death on each person, Agee created a novel full of intensely real emotion. The book is a truly poetic work with unity and power that came from a simple, dramatic plot developed through a musically subtle evolution of tone.
Joy, Tragedy, Refrain
The first of the novel's three parts is full of joy intensified by the painful difficulty of breaking out of loneliness and communicating this joy to loved ones: Rufus sees a Charlie Chaplin movie with his father and they walk quietly home looking "across the darkness at the lights of North Knoxville"; Jay, roused late at night to come to his sick father's bedside, makes his wife's breakfast in the 3:00 a.m. quiet of the kitchen to thank her because she had troubled to rise and make him something warm for the long night journey.
The second part is the somber and tense tragedy of Mary's brother identifying a body in the darkness along a country road, and of Mary waiting in the kitchen's stark white light, trying to adjust to the expected news of Jay's death. She waits alone despite her aunt's presence because sorrow, like joy, is a loneliness infinitely difficult to communicate even though, and yet because, it depends upon others.
The last part is a refrain. Somehow, for some reason, life must and should go on. Strangely, this is just what her husband's funeral seems to mean to Mary. The children must be made to understand what death is, why their father is "sleeping" but will never awake to tease them, or sing to them. Mary no less then they, must become more "grown-up" and realize what this death will mean. She once said her children were "brought up to trust older people when they tell (them) something. . . ." But she had promised Catherine and Rufus the night of Jay's death that he would be home when they awoke.
Give and Take
Every detail in the book is keyed to the general tones and the death is meaningful to all it touches. The wife of a stranger who finds Jay's body replaces with a sheet the horse blanket her husband had put over the dead man. This is the only way she can participate in the tragedy; it's all a stranger can do to show her sorrow and it's enough.
Agee handles the restrained give and take of those who people his beautifully evoked scenes with a grasp of the complexity in human relationships that is almost painful. He realizes that motives are never clear, be they involved in buying a cap or loving someone. His art skillfully builds up the tense situation of Rufus trying to select a cap that will not offend his Aunt's tastes, and yet satisfy his own preference for gaudy colors. She is equally concerned about not intimidating him in the choice, and the result is a scene of touching humor.
Rufus is at an age when he can feel this duplicity of love and hate in the concrete, sensual way of children--and poets--without forgetting its reality through the over self-consciousness of adult introspection. The development into this state is what marks the process of his growing up. Agee traces this growth through the boy's encounter with new words. At first "concussion" is an interesting sound, harsh and hard. Then he learns it is connected with a blow, just as it sounds, and that it is what killed his father. "Chariot," in "Swing low sweet chariot. . . ." is for him a "cherryut," ". . . a sort of beautiful wagon because home was too far to walk ... but of course it was like a cherry too" for both are beautiful and sweet, and so is home, though ever so far away. In one remarkable scene, Rufus uses a child's sensitivity to sound to judge the context of a conversation whose words he cannot hear or understand.
The poetic mixture of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch that makes up a child's world is most beautiful in scenes of Rufus alone written outside the general text: "... (the curtains in the room) ... were touched by the carbon light of the street lamp, they were as white as sugar. The extravagant foliage which had been wrought into them by machinery showed even more sharply white where the light touched, and elsewhere was black in the limp cloth." These scenes were meant to be inserted in the story's sequence a la Faulkner, but Agee died before he did it and the editors have wisely chosen to print them as prologues to the book's sections rather than insert them without his aid.
Agee died in 1955 from a heart attack. He was 45, and like the father in his novel, died "in his strength." Unfortunately, he left few works behind him, among them no other novels. His was a unique talent, combining a rare sensitivity to the drama of domestic situations and a just as rare gift for poetic language. It's sad to think that equally fine works might have followed A Death in the Family. The book deserves to be read with the same kind of care he gave to its writing.