Friday, July 31, 2009

BOOK: A Death in the Family by James Agee

A Death in the Family by James Agee, 310 pages

Book Awards III: Pulitzer 1957; Southern Reading Challenge: Tennessee

Before I read this book, I thought the story would follow the months after the death of the father of a young family in 1915 Tennessee. It turns out that it follows the family in the couple of days before and after the death of Jay. This was only a problem in that those three days of shock were magnified and examined minutely. I've had to spend some time analysing the book to find why it didn't work for me.

Agee died before this book was published. From the Note on this Book - How much polishing or re-writing he might have done is impossible to guess, for he was a tireless and painstaking writer. The editors inserted two scenes at the end of parts I and II, which to me, didn't add much to the story, a little background to the characters.

I really wanted to like this book and thought I would, but it just didn't seem to match the way brain likes to read. The sentences ran on and on, and there were page-long paragraphs and every little detail was excruciatingly described. I understand that this effect was meant to illustrate the effects of grief and the way that time would slow down, but holy hannah, it was painful to read. Add to that the thought processes of a confused six year old boy and I was ready to throw the book. I kept reading and I did like the third section the best but it wasn't enough to salvage the book for me.

For example, the analysis of feelings was so in depth, and exacting, it didn't read true to me. Or maybe just too obvious. Catherine is a three year old girl - Catherine felt more virtuous and less troubled than she had for some time, for she had watched Rufus being scolded, all to himself, and it more than wiped out her unhappiness at his telling her to come along when of course she was coming and he had no right even if she wasn't. page 263 More virtuous?

He could see his mother's face while she told them about it and hear her voice, over and over, and silently, over and over, while he looked around the sitting room and through the window into the street, words repeated themselves (page 239).

That quote there summed up the whole book for me. Over and over, the same words repeated themselves.

Other reviews, much more glowing than mine:
laura at musings
michelle at onemorechapter

If I missed your review, let me know and I'll add you.


  1. Sounds a little heavy to me. Sorry to hear you had trouble with it.

  2. Sorry you didn't like this one!

  3. How can a 3 year old feel virtuous? Don't feel right to me either..thanks for the honest thoughts on this one.

  4. I've seen little kids be all smarty and pleased (although they wouldn't say "virtuous") because their sibling(s) have been scolded for misbehavior while they were behaving. So that didn't really jar me the way it did some readers.

    If Agee had lived, I don't think the book you just read is the one he would have submitted for publication. He probably planned a lot more crafting on the novel. Even though it wasn't ready, I am glad that it was published posthumously because the money was enormously helpful to his widow and young children.

  5. lady lazarus - it was heavy, and the writing of the details made it more so. It was well done in that a death should be heavy; I just wasn't in the mood to read that, and once I started not liking it, I found lots of reasons.

    laura - I know you loved it, and I had that in my head, but it just didn't match my brain waves of thinking.

    staci - I was trying to find an example, there were others. Yeah, it just didn't jive for me

    bybee - I didn't realize that about his family, so that is good to hear. It was still well done, it just didn't match my head. I haven't had a lot of luck with the Pulitzers to be honest.


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