James Rufus Agee: A Death in the Family

I don’t know how I came to buy Agee’s, A Death in the Family, but I’ve had it for some time, unread, and only recently took it with me on a trip to Scotland—more for its convenient size than for any other reason.  This autobiographical novel, which won James Rufus Agee the Pulitzer Prize posthumously, was my introduction to his writing.  I’ve since ordered “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” which is another major work of Agee’s on which he collaborated with photographer Walker Evans, and am looking forward to reading it.

A Death in the Family [Penguin Books, 2008],begins with an explanation by the publishers that Agee was not finished with the book at the time of his heart attack and death in a New York taxicab on May 16, 1955, when he was 45 years’ old.

It was Agee’s intention to work on this book over the coming summer, as he says in his final letter (May 11, 1955) to close friend and long-time correspondent, Father James Harold Flye:  “…I am planning to retreat from money work, use this summer free, and finish my book.”  [Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, George Braziller, 1962]

He died just five days later.

The publishers of A Death in the Family further explain that the book is presented exactly as Agee had written it to that point in time, with the exception of seven-or-so pages which they could not satisfactorily fit into the novel.  There were also several sections of text which were outside the time span of the basic story, and which the authors decided to print in italics after Parts I and II to assist with transitions in the narrative.  Agee’s Knoxville Summer of 1915, often described as a ‘prose poem’ was added as a scene-setting prologue by the publishers, even though it was not a part of the original manuscript.

Here’s a selection from this prologue:

Content, silver, like peeps of light, each cricket makes his comment over and over in the drowned grass.

A cold toad thumpily flounders.

Within the edges of damp shadows of side yards are hovering children nearly sick with joy of fear, who watch the unguarding of a telephone pole.

Around white carbon corner lamps bugs of all sizes are lifted elliptic solar systems.  Big hardshells bruise themselves, assailant:  he is fallen on his back, legs squiggling.

For those of us whose childhoods were lived in the out-of-doors amidst the creepy-crawly lives of insects and reptiles, these words evoke summer evenings with all the mystery and wonder of moonlight, starlight, and sightless sounds.  “Sick with joy of fear” is an apt description of a child’s sense of the magic, danger, and excitement in the natural world.

It’s tantalizing to wonder what A Death in the Family would have looked like at the end of the summer of 1955 had Agee lived to complete his work on it.  The Pulitzer Prize judges evidently thought that what Agee had completed by the time of his death was sufficient to earn him their prize for the year 1958.  The book was published in 1957 by the publishing house of an acquaintance of Agee’s, David McDowell, of McDowell, Obolensky, Inc.  Agee seems to have known McDowell through Father Flye, since McDowell was a former alumnus of St. Andrew’s, the boarding school where Father Flye taught.  McDowell not only published A Death in the Family, but also both volumes of Agee on Film, a compilation of Agee’s movie reviews, and he was working on a biography of James Agee when he died on April 8, 1985, at the age of 67 (http://www.nytimes.com/1985/04/13/arts/david-mcdowell-dies-a-publisher-and-editor.html).

A Death in the Family is based on Agee’s childhood memories of his family at the time of his father’s death in a car accident when Agee was six years’ old.  Since Agee was born in 1909, age six would take us to the time of the book’s prologue, 1915.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a blind…the nighttime phone call from Agee’s Uncle Ralph, his father’s brother, who imparts the information that their father is seriously ill and seemingly near to death.  We are therefore led to believe that Agee’s grandfather will be the family death for which the novel is named.

All the clues to doubt this are provided by the character of Ralph, and by his brother Jay’s (Agee’s father’s) reaction to the phone call, although we are not ready to relinquish our initial impression until proof that the story concerns another death is later delivered.

Ralph’s character is first indicated by Jay’s exasperation with the phone call and his inability to get a reasoned, common-sense assessment of their father’s condition from Ralph.  Ralph spends much of the telephone conversation wallowing in self-pity and apologies for having to call at such a late hour.

We’re subsequently taken into Ralph’s mind and thoughts at his father’s bedside while he waits for his brother to arrive.  His character as a weak and self-obsessed man, an alcoholic, unreliable son, a volatile and unpredictable father, a jealous, unfaithful and emotionally abusive husband, is provided to us by Ralph himself.  “I ought not ever to have fathered children, Ralph thought.  I ought not ever to have been born.”

And Ralph later believes himself to be the cause of his brother’s death, since it was his phone call that brought Jay out to see their father.

Contrasting with Jay’s brother, Ralph, is the character of Agee’s mother Mary’s brother, Andrew.  While Ralph is, by his own admission, a weak and dissolute man, Andrew is, by his words and actions, a stalwart support to his family.  It is he who goes to the scene of the accident and identifies Jay’s body.  He is also the one to bring the details of the accident back to the family, and help with arrangements.  When Ralph, who works as an undertaker, seeks to assuage some of his imagined guilt by providing for the burial of his brother (“He’s blaming himself for Jay’s…He wants to try to make up for it.”), Andrew tells him firmly, on his sister’s behalf, that she does not want this.

In addition to the skillfully drawn personality profiles of the main characters, Agee takes us inside the mind of the six-year-old boy he was when his father died.  We learn his view of events and the degree to which he is able to absorb the enormity of the changes in his family circumstances at that time.

Some of the six-year-old Rufus’s remembrances have to do with trust, as when his parents’ friends told him that he could whistle and the cheese would jump off the table into his lap.  His parents’ friends, a couple by the names of Ted and Kate,

…were shaking with laughter they were trying to hold in, though he couldn’t see what there was to laugh about in a cheese that wouldn’t even move when you whistled even when Uncle Ted said it would and he was really whistling, not just trying to whistle.”  He was “…almost crying with embarrassment and impatience” and the couple “burst out laughing out loud, but his father didn’t laugh, he looked all mixed up, and mad, and embarrassed, and his mother was very mad, …”   She reacted by saying “…I think it’s just a perfect shame, deceiving a little child like that who’s been brought up to trust people, and laughing right in his face!”

Similar instances of Rufus’s vulnerability to deception happened during his interactions with older schoolboys who habitually teased and tormented him because of his name.  Making Rufus tell them his name was the trigger which started them chanting a derogatory rhyme.  He wanted so much to be friends with these boys that he repeatedly allowed himself to be victimized by them, in the hope, each time, that this time their attentions would be genuine and truly friendly.

Later, after the death of his father was explained to him, Rufus took the information to these schoolboys, some of whom had learned of it through their parents.  Rufus thought that the importance of the event would buy him respect and admiration from these boys,

…he knew that they were all approaching him with the realization that something had happened to him that had not happened to any other boy in town, and that now at last they were bound to think well of him; and the nearer they came but were yet at a distance the more the gray, sober air was charged with the great energy and with a sense of glory and of danger, and the deeper and more exciting the silence became, and the more tall, proud, shy and exposed he felt; so that as they came still nearer he once again felt his face break into a wide smile, with which he had nothing to do, and, feeling that there was something deeply wrong in such a smile tried his best to quieten his face and told them, shyly and proudly, “My daddy’s dead.”

The tragic loss of his father was a concept impossible to grasp on an emotional level by this little boy.  His little sister was even less able to understand anything of what had happened, and could not accept that her father would not be coming home again.

I remember the death of a little friend from a brain aneurysm when I was around seven years’ old, and I remember her funeral, which I attended with my Grade 2 classmates.  Amongst the few, clear memories I have of that day were the sight of her white-sheeted casket, and her emotionally distraught parents.  I also remember the Grade 1 teacher from my previous year in elementary school weeping quietly at the service, which surprised me very much since I found her a harsh, unkind woman as a teacher.  I felt that if she could cry I ought to be crying, too, since Marcy was my friend.  And so I tried, but I was continually distracted by the hornets in the window.  I had a terrible fear of stinging insects, and so I watched them carefully out of the corner of my eye.  There was a strange unreality about that day, and try as I might, I could not feel the grief of it, even though I missed my friend and was sad to lose her.

And so Agee’s childhood remembrances of his father’s death ring true to me.  There is trauma and confusion for a child in an encounter with death at a young age, but not the same depth of sorrow and grief that adults experience at the loss of someone close to them.  I’ve carried the memory of my little friend’s death from that time in my childhood to this day, and I remember her glossy brown ringlets, heart-shaped face, almond eyes, and her cleverness and humour.  She was a perfect child, except for health issues—she was asthmatic, and needed to wear a surgical mask on dusty, dry days walking to school.  I have repeatedly thought of her family’s devastation (her father went into the Anglican ministry afterwards), and wonder to this day what her life might have been had she lived.

Of course, to an even more profound degree, Agee would never lose the remembrance of his father’s loss.  We can surmise that much of the detail of events and adult interactions of that time in his childhood must have been supplied to the adult Agee by his mother.  His re-creation of them in the novel masterfully interweaves words and actions with the personalities that prompted and guided them.  The related misapprehensions and confusions between child and adult, child and child, and adult and adult further evince the emotionally turbulent time between the death and funeral.

Unsurprisingly, the novel engages with religion to a significant extent.  Agee’s own quest for understanding of spiritual and religious matters within the context of his life and art can often be seen in his 30-year correspondence with friend and mentor, Father Flye, Episcopalian priest and teacher, whom Agee met when he was a 10-year-old student boarding at St. Andrews’s school.

Here’s an excerpt from Agee’s January 26, 1949, letter to Father Flye:

My intuition is that God is not a vulgarian. I don’t think He so directs traffic that one truck miraculously stops short on a precipice and another demolishes a child.  I think the former and the latter merely happened, and stand in humility before chance (with its conceivably traceable causes), not God. I would suppose that God leaves the Universe to its own devices (largely, anyhow), as He leaves human beings to theirs—largely.

A memorable scene in A Death in the Family involving spirituality is the one in which Rufus’s dead father’s presence is sensed by his mother Mary, along with her aunt, mother and brother.  Mary’s father, agnostic or atheist, is the only one immune to this perception.  Mary thought at first that it might have been the children waking and moving about, but then

…whoever or whatever it might be, she became sure that it was no child, for she felt in it a terrible forcefulness, and concern, and restiveness, which were no part of any child.

Even Mary’s nearly-deaf mother imagined she heard footsteps, which she herself knew to have been impossible, since she could barely hear anything shouted into her hearing trumpet.

She laughed at herself, “I must be getting old and dippy.”

The religious members of the household, Mary and her Aunt Hannah, could readily accept a visitation by the spirit of Mary’s dead husband.  However, Mary’s brother Andrew, who shared his father’s agnosticism or atheism, unwillingly felt a presence, and was chilled (“felt the flesh go cold along his spine”) by his deaf mother’s unprompted remark, ““Has somebody come into the house?” Catherine inquired in her clear voice.”

There was another apparent instance of spiritual presence at the burial when a cloud covered the sun and a butterfly came to rest on the coffin as it was being lowered into the ground.  In the dazzling sunlight that appeared following this, the butterfly took flight out of the grave, much like a soul soaring upward to heaven.  Rufus’s Uncle Andrew told him of this, in a tone of wonder and amazement (Rufus was not permitted to attend the funeral himself).  However, combined with the sense of the miraculous was Andrew’s anger and disgust with the officiating priest who refused to read the full burial service over Rufus’s father, since he was not baptized.  Andrew says…

Genuflecting, and ducking and bowing and scraping, and basting themselves with signs of the Cross, and all that disgusting hocus-pocus, and you come to one simple, single act of Christian charity and what happens?  The rules of the Church forbid it.  He’s not a member of our little club.

And so the story ends on the unresolved conflict between the spiritual and the religious, and the essence of true Christianity versus hypocrisy.  The six-year-old child’s life had been a series of misapprehensions to this point in time, and he leaves the episode of his father’s death and funeral with continued confusion and an inability to understand what his uncle is trying to communicate to him.  One realizes at this point that the adults around him are often unable to understand, either.