R. B. Morris — a singer, songwriter, poet, and author — was the second artist to participate in the UT Libraries’ program Boundless: Artists in the Archives. Inspired by materials in our Special Collections, Morris composed a song about writer James Agee and wrote this essay on Agee’s autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family. ***DISCLAIMER: This essay contains language that may not be appropriate for children.*** —Ed.
A Note on This Book
James Agee died suddenly May 16, 1955. This novel, upon which he had been working for many years, is presented here exactly as he wrote it. There has been no rewriting, and nothing has been eliminated except for a few cases of first-draft material which he later reworked at greater length and one section of seven-odd pages which the editors were unable satisfactorily to fit into the body of the novel.
The ending of A Death in the Family had been reached sometime before Agee’s death, and the only editorial problem involved the placing of several scenes outside the time span of the basic story. It was finally decided to print these in italics and to put them after Parts I and II. It seemed presumptuous to try to guess where he might have inserted them. This arrangement also obviated the necessity of the editors having to compose any transitional material. The short section “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” which serves as a sort of prologue, has been added. It was not part of the manuscript which Agee left, but the editors would certainly have urged him to include it in the final draft.
How much polishing or rewriting he might have done is impossible to guess, for he was a tireless and painstaking writer. However, in the opinion of the editors and the publisher, A Death in the Family is a near-perfect work of art. The title, like all the rest of the book, is James Agee’s own.*
*The editors’ preface to the original publication of A Death in the Family, which has been included with all subsequent editions of the original publication.
The Lost Ending of A Death in the Family
Let Us Dream a New Beginning
Not Quite All The Way Home
WHEN DR. MICHAEL A. LOFARO FIRST TOLD ME about the new material found for James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family — all the missing chapters, the author’s notes on how to structure the book, a whole different beginning to the story, as well as a new and wildly different introduction that’s a gruesome surreal dream Agee has of dragging the naked murdered body of John the Baptist, who then becomes Agee’s father, through the streets of downtown Knoxville — I was somewhat in a dream myself just to hear the revelation of this discovery. I asked him about the end of the book.
So, after all the new research through the re-emerged manuscripts of
Agee’s ‘unfinished’ novel… the end of the novel is still the same. James Agee may have never called his book finished, but he did by all accounts have the end of his story written and in place.
“The ending,” he said. “It’s the same.”
I thought there was perhaps a question in his answer, like why do you ask? I was curious to know if the ending like the beginning had been altered in any way, or was it still as the original publication and this as Agee intended?
“Yes, it remains intact,” he said.
So, after all the new research through the re-emerged manuscripts of Agee’s “unfinished” novel, published posthumously to great acclaim and resonating yet over 60 years later with new editions of both the original and a significantly revised or “restored” version, A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text (2007), edited by Michael Lofaro, assistant editor Hugh Davis, and followed quickly by The Making of James Agee (2008), edited by Hugh Davis, with even more research, information, and conjecture, the end of the novel is still the same. James Agee may have never called his book finished, but he did by all accounts have the end of his story written and in place.
I was glad to know this. I have always marveled and admired and wondered at how Agee ended his story. But I have also long since come to see it as a kind of lost ending, a generally lost storyline in the otherwise growing story of his masterful book.
NATURALLY, THERE WAS A LOT OF FOCUS AND LOVE given to the beginning of the original publication. It opened with “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” which is like a holy temple unto itself, and was already renowned before arriving. Then the story proper begins in the evening air of this prologue. Chapter 1 is also something of a shrine. Among those of us who lived in Knoxville and especially downtown or the Fort Sanders neighborhood, it became known simply as the walk or the walk back. The father and son transported in the light of mother-of-pearl into town to see a Chaplin movie and then the hallowed and spectral walk back home with its significant stops along the way. In this literary neck of the woods that walk might as well have been a “stations of the cross” or Stephen Dedalus making his fabled way through Dublin. A daddy and his little boy strolling through town after dark on their way home from the magic theater, through a sleepy marketplace to a speakeasy saloon, then over bridges that instilled fear as well as courage, and on to private pastoral haunts of contemplation where one could sit and look out to distant ancestral horizons as well as the starry heavens before the last few familiar blocks of your own neighborhood. A walk forever caught in time and place, and the very embodiment of what is good and innocent and mysterious between a father and son.
In this literary neck of the woods that walk might as well have been a ‘stations of the cross’ or Stephen Dedalus making his fabled way through Dublin. A daddy and his little boy strolling through town after dark on their way home from the magic theater…
Yes, an indelibly evocative beginning to the original book, even as we always kind of knew but have now truly come to see was never the author’s beginning, but more the body of a hijacked manuscript with a lovely but false head stuck on top. Indeed, a beautiful murder. But what of this ending, and why so lost?
WELL, LET US REVIEW A BIT OF WHAT EVERYBODY KNOWS. The original book, primarily edited by David McDowell, was published in 1957 to some notoriety. The brilliant young writer of scattered and unfulfilled promise who died too young (1955) receives more just acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the first time an author had been awarded this posthumously. Then a few years later Tad Mosel adapted the book for theater, and as well as winning the Tony Award for Best Play in 1961, it also won the Pulitzer. From the last sentence of the book Mosel took the phrase all the way home for the title of his play. This was all he would need of Agee’s ending as he discarded the rest for a new ending he devised. When Hollywood came to Knoxville to make the 1963 feature film of the story, they would fashion it more from Mosel’s play than the book, using both his title and his ending. This would be true from that point on with every subsequent production of the story for stage, film, and television. And while the book remains the book with its ending “intact” that’s a quick history of how Agee’s ending came to be somewhat lost.
I have always sensed that because A Death in the Family was declared ‘unfinished’ there was a general perception that the author never got to the end of his story. A life cut short, a book cut short. But that doesn’t appear to be the case at all.
Of course, this much may be quite understandable. An author’s words as well as the structure of a work would in adaptations to other mediums undergo necessary changes. Agee, who excelled in adapting books to screenplays, would certainly understand this better than most. Still, I think there’s more to this loss than just Mosel’s refitted finale, and probably again has something to do with the circumstances of editing and publishing the original book. I have always sensed that because A Death in the Family was declared “unfinished” there was a general perception that the author never got to the end of his story. A life cut short, a book cut short. But that doesn’t appear to be the case at all. No more than any controversy or comparisons of the newly restored text to the original publication have had anything to do with how did the author really wish to end the story? No, perceptions aside, I’m not aware of there ever being much if any contention or conjecture regarding the end of the novel. Out of all the deceptive statements David McDowell may well have made in his editor’s preface to the original publication “A Note on this Book” by all accounts he was telling the truth when he said, “The ending of A Death in the Family had been reached sometime before Agee’s death…” This does ring true beyond McDowell’s otherwise designs. But it may be the one statement of the editor’s preface that has been least believed or realized.
Add to this perhaps another misperception or misunderstanding, which is the notion that Agee’s book is so autobiographical it is more non-fiction than fiction, and inasmuch as the story is an accurate accounting rather than artistic invention, the ending and other turns in the story’s general progression are somehow less demanding of artistic consideration and critique. A view that keeps the focus on the author’s poetic rendering of scenes and events but otherwise disregards them as incidental to actuality and in some way less significant. And thus the end of the book is where the author stops, the death and funeral. He didn’t so much create an ending as he just stopped telling at that point, and as readers are left to wonder, if he did in fact get to his end. Following this critical line there is perhaps a tendency to pass over the ending, which comes somewhat abruptly with more confusion than resolution, and return to somewhere earlier in the book, probably the prologue or early chapters, to find the more distilled poetics and desirable tone within the story.
IN VARYING MEASURES, I think all the above have served to obscure or misrepresent, if not lose and replace, the ending of A Death in the Family. It is also plain enough to note, I would think, after this long a time and this much scrutiny to the text, and ever emerging stage, film and television productions, that there has been little focus or exposition given to James Agee’s original and only ending.
There has been little focus or exposition given to James Agee’s original and only ending. . . . It’s like the ending is somehow invisible, or at the very least unmemorable. It just doesn’t resonate with readers and critics as does the prologue and early chapters.
There have, in fact, been volumes of critical work at this point written about the book, a growing bibliography of articles, reviews, dissertations, essays, documentaries, feature-length films, biographies, and other analyses and studies. And, of course, the end of the story is sometimes mentioned, but usually just a brief mandatory touch point and a way to bounce back to other themes. It’s like the ending is somehow invisible, or at the very least unmemorable. It just doesn’t resonate with readers and critics as does the prologue and early chapters.
In Genevieve Moreau’s early and inspiring biography The Restless Journey of James Agee, after detailing and commending the editors’ difficult task of editing the manuscript, and giving some pages to each of their structured sections of the book, she gives in total only these words for the ending of the story:
“The novel ends with another walk, this time with his uncle. Again a certain tacit understanding and harmony are achieved, but (Uncle) Andrew’s words, though reassuring, bewilder the child. All he has finally been able to grasp of his father’s death is that he has been left powerless, bereft and alone.”
She then adds, “There is no certainty that Agee would have chosen this ending to the story, yet it is consistent with the book’s cyclic theme, after death rebirth and the continuity of life.”
Accepting everything the editors have served up to the reader with no questioning of their final concocted structure and layout of the author’s book, she nevertheless all but dismisses what they also told the reader about the ending of the book. And then goes further saying it has a “cyclic theme” “death rebirth,” which sounds more like the ending of Mosel’s play than the one she had just given brief description as “powerless, bereft and alone.”
TAD MOSEL DID CREATE A POWERFUL AND BEAUTIFUL ENDING for his play. He simplifies matters by making Rufus an only child. Unknown to Rufus, his little sister Catherine is still in the womb, a surprise his mother Mary chooses to keep from him. Mosel adapts this from an early scene in the book, played out in the first series of flashbacks in the original publication and Chapter 7 in the restored text, and lets this remain the whole family unit throughout the play. This is a clear alteration of Agee’s time-line and plot-line in the book, as well as Agee’s autobiographical “reality.” By doing this Mosel not only changes the family unit but makes the mother’s pregnancy a far more significant factor in the theatrical story. He uses it to not only, as Agee did, contrast the differences between the mother and the father (who would prefer just telling the boy what the pregnancy is about), but now also as a cause or opportunity for reconciling the mother and son after the father’s death. This part Mosel completely invents. Only after the devastation and epiphany of death does the mother decide to close with the child and let him feel her body and know that a baby is there who will soon join them and be part of their family. And so in the theatrical version there is a cyclic theme, an impending birth coupled with the death (which Moreau may have been mistakenly referencing). It has a lovely symmetry, and it sounds a positive note for the future of this suffering family. This is a definite remaking of the story in order to furnish it with an uplifting conclusion and to counter the sad disarray of the death that has dominated the action. Audiences can leave the theater or flip off the television with a little more hope and less confusion. Not true for the readers.
This is a definite remaking of the story in order to furnish it with an uplifting conclusion and to counter the sad disarray of the death that has dominated the action. Audiences can leave the theater or flip off the television with a little more hope and less confusion. Not true for the readers.
My father worked for the L&N Railroad in Knoxville for nearly forty years, his office on the upper floor of the old L&N Station overlooking the rail yards and the Fort Sanders community rising on the opposite hill where Agee grew up and where All The Way Home was mainly filmed. As a child in the 5th grade I remember him coming home from work with reports to the family of what the actors and filmmakers had done each day, such as the child actor Michael Kearney who played Rufus putting a penny on the track for a train to run over it. Or Robert Preston who was Jay the father playing with the little boy, both dressed in their early 20th-century clothes. On one occasion he told us of Jean Simmons, who played Rufus’s mother, calling and running after Rufus who was running away from her down the street. He said he watched as they filmed the scene over and over again. This would have been somewhere near 11th Street or long-gone 10th where the hill sloped down near the L&N yards. I later determined after watching the All the Way Home movie a few times that my dad must have been describing the climactic scene where the mother tells the boy that the surprise they had talked about was a baby inside her and that she would no longer keep such things from her son. This was the adaptation to film of Tad Mosel’s ending to his play.
AS MOREAU SAYS, AGEE’S ENDING TO THE STORY is indeed another walk, only this time it’s not the father but Uncle Andrew and the boy, and a few blocks over in the Fort Sanders neighborhood going in a westerly direction away from downtown. In 1916, the year Agee’s father died, the Fort Sanders neighborhood was known as West Knoxville. It was as far as urban development had made it on the west end of town. The ruins of the Civil War fort, which was at the top of a hill and in its time a formidable and stylized bulwark of earthen ramparts, was at this later date, as Agee describes it, a waste of briers and of embanked clay. It had been the principle fortress of a blockade that enclosed the perimeter of the town. Some 50 years later it was a dissolving landscape at the edge of domestic housing. There was enough of it left that they looked out over it. This was where young Rufus and his uncle stopped, the far point of their walk, approximately six or seven blocks from where they started. Looking west from there would have been a sweeping hill gradually descending to fields and woods and rolling countryside with only perhaps a few small structures in sight. The hill, which is described on the current historical marker as having a “declivity” to the Northwest, is where the Confederate army under General James Longstreet, who had laid siege to the town for some weeks, unsuccessfully charged the Union-held fort at dawn on a bitterly cold and snowy November 29, 1863. The battle, which was said to last only around twenty minutes, was nothing short of a slaughter and devastating loss for the Confederates, resulting in over 800 casualties. It was, no doubt, a haunting place even in 1916 in its late and neglected state.
This walk up to this old battlefield after the burial of the father, the uncle who was at the funeral and the little boy who wasn’t allowed to go, and what the uncle has to say to the little boy, is how Agee ends his story.
This walk up to this old battlefield after the burial of the father, the uncle who was at the funeral and the little boy who wasn’t allowed to go, and what the uncle has to say to the little boy, is how Agee ends his story. It begins at Agee’s grandparents’ house at 1115 Clinch Avenue where the family returns after the funeral. It begins with Uncle Andrew saying “Come for a walk with me [Rufus]” but immediately follows Rufus’s little sister, Catherine, who’s sitting by herself on the front porch of the house and her perspective of watching Uncle Andrew and Rufus until they disappear down the street. She suddenly finds herself all alone, a four-year-old child sitting quietly in a rocking chair trying not to make noise as she watches the world go by. It’s that time of early evening when people are walking home from work, walking away from downtown. She sees Mrs. Dekalb across the street in her side yard, not dressed for the funeral or even respectfully inside her house but outside wearing white and going about her usual chores working her flower garden. A robin in the yard right in front of Catherine is hardly bothered by her presence and goes on pecking for worms until one is pulled from the ground and taken up in the tree to a nest of little robins that Catherine can hear chirping. Then Dr. Dekalb returns home walking up the sidewalk and into the front of his house while Catherine watches unnoticed. He soon emerges from the backdoor and joins his wife in the deep side yard with his collar off and red neck showing, much as her own father had done in the past. And all the way down the block where the next street crossed she could see other people walking home from work and going about their business.
THEN, HEARING A NOISE INSIDE, little Catherine turns her attention back to the house. She looks through the window and sees her grandma sit down at the piano. She watches as her grandma who’s nearly deaf leans her head low to the keys to play so gently that Catherine can’t hear the sound. She sees her grandpa come to the door of this room and listen and then slowly walk towards her grandma to comfort her, but change his mind and turn back quietly and walk out so as not to disturb her. And Catherine doesn’t want to be seen either, but thinking of her daddy All of a sudden she felt that she could not bear to be alone and she went inside looking for her mother. She can’t find her. She sees her grandpa out the back window in the garden and sneaks by her grandma and makes her way upstairs. There she finds closed doors.
By now her face felt very hot and she was crying. She hurried along the hallway; shut. Aunt Jessie’s door was shut. Behind it there was a coldly tender waning of a voice; Aunt Jessie’s voice; her mother’s. She set her ear close to the door and listened.
She heard her mother praying (verbatim the church prayers) until she was so exhausted she choked and Aunt Jessie again begged her “Mary, my dear, let’s stop.”
And after a moment Catherine could hear her mother’s voice, shaken and almost squeaking: “No, no; no; no; I asked you to, Aunt Jesse. I… I…”
And again, Aunt Jessie’s voice: “Let’s just stop it.”
And her mother’s: “Without this I don’t think I could bear it at all.”
And Aunt Jessie’s: “There, dear. God bless and keep you. There. There.”
And her mother’s: “Just a minute and I’ll be all right.”
And a silence.
And then Aunt Jessie’s voice, coldly tender:…and her mother’s:…
In intense quietness, Catherine stole through the open door opposite Aunt Jesse’s door, and hid herself beneath her grandparent’s bed.
This is the end of the story for Catherine and the family, the youngest child’s perspective: the world goes on unaware or unconcerned, indifferent to her father’s death if not death itself.
Catherine feels deserted and alone, a young child who would rarely be out of sight or presence of an adult. She decides she never wants to be seen by anyone again and hides even as her mother and aunt emerge from their room and go downstairs and everyone starts looking for her. She doesn’t answer their calls but rather coils up even tighter under the bed, and only when she hears them coming back upstairs and to that room does she sit up on the side of the bed with her back to them as they enter. Now with everyone concerned about where she is and rushing to her she relents and gives herself over to her mother and cries all her tears and their tears as well, as they discover she is sopping wet from having peed herself.
This is the end of the story for Catherine and the family, the youngest child’s perspective: the world goes on unaware or unconcerned, indifferent to her father’s death if not death itself, just as her own loved ones have become unaware of her. Only after Agee has gathered all the family around little Catherine in the bedroom of his grandparents’ house, does he turn back to Rufus and Uncle Andrew on their walk.
RUFUS HAD ALREADY BEEN STUNG with the isolation that Catherine feels, the sudden and shocking absence of his father, the retreat of his mother to her room, to Father Jackson, to Aunt Jessie, to the funeral where he was not allowed to go, and the body he was only able to see briefly but not allowed to touch and inspect more closely. When everyone retreats again after returning from the funeral only Uncle Andrew pays him any attention by asking him to take a walk, something he’d never asked before. Rufus is grateful and hopes he’ll finally be able to learn What all did they do out there? at the funeral, at the cemetery. But he’s also concerned because of his uncle’s silence and the angry look on his face that he may have done something wrong for which his uncle is taking him on a walk to give me a talking-to. They go on into the next block and then the block after as he holds Rufus’s hand and walks briskly a half step ahead of him but still doesn’t say anything. All the while Rufus ponders what might be on his uncle’s mind and hopes for the best. When Uncle Andrew finally does speak it is the most unlikely of proclamations.
“If anything ever makes me believe in God,” his uncle said.
Rufus looked up at him quickly. He was still looking straight ahead, and he still looked angry but his voice was not angry. “Or life after death,” his uncle said.
They were working and breathing rather hard, for they were walking westward up the steep hill towards Fort Sanders. The sky ahead of them was bright and they walked among the bright, moving shadows of trees.
“It’ll be what happened this afternoon.”
Rufus looked up at him carefully.
Uncle Andrew is the declared non-believer of the clan, and has often taken issue with his sister Mary’s pious faith, and Rufus is well aware of this. He “had never before heard his uncle speak of God except as if he disliked Him, or anyway, disliked people who believed in Him.” Rufus is astounded and perplexed to hear his uncle say such a thing, and studies him from a half step behind. They were by this time “working and breathing rather hard… walking… up the steep hill,” and it is then that Uncle Andrew tells Rufus of the miraculous occurrence he witnessed at the funeral that has given rise to his peculiar pronouncement.
“There were a lot of clouds,” his uncle said, and continued to look straight before him, “but they were blowing fast, so there was a lot of sunshine too. Right when they began to lower your father into the ground, into his grave, a cloud came over and there was a shadow just like iron, and a perfectly magnificent butterfly settled on the – coffin, just rested there, right over the breast, and stayed there, just barely making his wings breathe, like a heart.”
Andrew stopped and for the first time looked at Rufus. His eyes were desperate. “He stayed there all the way down, Rufus,” he said, “He never stirred, except just to move his wings that way, until it grated against the bottom like a – rowboat. And just when it did the sun came out just dazzling bright and he flew up out of that – hole in the ground, straight up into the sky, so high I couldn’t even see him anymore.” He began to climb the hill again, and Rufus worked hard to stay abreast of him. “Don’t you think that’s wonderful, Rufus? He said, again looking straight and despairingly before him.
“Yes,” Rufus said, now that his uncle really was asking him. “Yes,” he was sure was not enough, but it was all he could say.
“If there are any such things as miracles,” his uncle said, as if someone were arguing with him, “then that’s surely miraculous.”
Trying again to keep step with his uncle, Rufus is awestruck by this revelation. Miraculous, magnificent, he turns the words over in his mind wondering at their meaning. He feels, as his uncle has said, that it is most certainly wonderful, and because his uncle thinks so too it greatly assures him.
He could see it very clearly, because his uncle saw it so clearly when he told about it, and what he saw made him feel that a special and good thing was happening. He felt that it was good for his father and that lying there in the darkness did not matter so much. He did not know what this good thing was, but because his uncle felt that it was good, and felt so strongly about it, it must be even more of a good thing than he himself could comprehend.
He knew it was “about as good a thing as a thing could be.” He also felt “a deep breath of pride and love” that his uncle had told him instead of the others. He didn’t think his uncle would “admit it to those who did believe in God, and he would not tell it to those who didn’t, because he cared so much about it and they might swear at it, but he had to tell somebody, so he told it to him. And it made it much better than it had been, about his father, and about his not being let to be there at just that time he most needed to be there, because now it was almost as if he had been there and seen it with his own eyes, and seen the butterfly, which showed that even for his father, it was all right.”
Rufus is joined with his uncle now, and for the moment has gained some footing against the onslaught of confusion and despair his young mind and heart have had to confront these few days.
This was grace pure and simple for Rufus, and only such a miracle could bring it, and only such a perceptive eye as Andrew’s could witness it. Rufus is joined with his uncle now, and for the moment has gained some footing against the onslaught of confusion and despair his young mind and heart have had to confront these few days. But it was not to last for long. As they continue to walk up the hill and Rufus visualizes and contemplates this miracle, this blessing of assurance, his uncle’s thoughts return to what probably gave him his earlier look of anger. Not only has Andrew lost the person in the family that he most respects and with whom he most identifies, but he has had to endure a lot of ritualistic formality that he does not respect and for which he has little patience. For the sake of the family he abides and endures this, but by now his emotions are very vulnerable. All of his contempt for Father Jackson and hatred of the Church boil up in him and he has a terrible outburst.
“And that son of a bitch!” Andrew said.
He was not quite sure what it meant but he knew it was the worst thing you could call anybody; call anybody that, they had to fight, they had a right to kill you. He felt as if he had been hit in the stomach.
“That Jackson,” Andrew said; and now he looked so really angry that Rufus realized that he had not been at all angry before. “Father Jackson,” Andrew said, “as he insists on being called.
“Do you know what he did?”
He glared at him so, that Rufus was frightened. “What?” he asked.
“He said that he couldn’t read the complete, the complete burial service over your father because your father had never been baptized.” He kept glaring at Rufus; he seemed to be waiting for him to answer. He looked up at him, feeling scared and stupid. He was glad his uncle did not like Father Jackson, but that did not seem exactly the point, and he could not think of anything to say.
“He said he was deeply sorry,” Andrew savagely caricatured the inflection, “but it was simply a rule of the Church.
“Some church,” he snarled. “And they call themselves Christians. Bury a man who’s a hundred times the man he’ll ever be, in his stinking, swishing black petticoats, and a hundred times as a good a man too, and ‘No, there are certain requests and recommendations I cannot make Almighty God for the repose of this soul, for he never stuck his head under a holy-water tap.’ 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.
“I tell you, Rufus, it’s enough to make a man puke up his soul.
“That – that butterfly has got more God in him than Jackson will ever see for the rest of eternity.
“Priggish, mealy-mouthed son of a bitch.”
They were standing at the edge of Fort Sanders and looking out across the waste of briars and embanked clay, and Rufus was trying to keep his feelings intact. Everything had seemed so nearly all right, up to a minute ago, and now it was changed and confused.
THE NEWFOUND GRACE that Rufus mused upon is shattered by Uncle Andrew’s sudden and effusive tirade. Rufus is stunned, and more than a little confused, He felt as if he had been hit in the stomach. What’s more he realizes that his uncle’s anger is not just directed at the priest and the Church when he was talking about everybody bowing and scraping and hocus-pocus . . . but about all of them and that he hated all of them. He’s sure his uncle hates his mother and great aunt and all those who participated in the funeral service. He talked about them as if he’d like to spit in their faces. But Rufus struggles with how this could be when he knows his uncle loves them too and that he is always good to them.
When he’s with them he’s nice to them, he even likes them, loves them. When he’s away from them and thinks about them saying their prayers and things, he hates them. When he’s with them he just acts as if he likes them, but this is how he really feels, all the time… But how can he love them if he hates them so? How can he hate them if he loves them?
It is a stopping place, reaching a far end, and a turning point… but a disturbing and seemingly unresolved finish for many readers.
Agee has him turn it over in his mind for a page and a half trying to understand how his uncle can be so divided between love and hate. It’s an impenetrable issue for Rufus. He wants terribly to understand but he’s too afraid to ask, and now his uncle is saying nothing more. They were at the top of the hill. They had stopped walking and talking as they looked now across the devastated Fort engulfed in silence, one in loss and anger and one in loss and confusion. They were at a place where there is nothing more to say, though Rufus’s heart and mind all but screamed with questions and feelings and images.
He wished he could ask his uncle, “Why do you hate Mama?” but he was afraid to. While he thought he looked now across the devastated Fort, and again into his uncle’s face, and wished that he could ask. But he did not ask, and his uncle did not speak except to say, after a few minutes, “It’s time to go home,” and all the way home they walked in silence.
And there it ends. Agee gives this walk with Uncle Andrew’s revelatory and angry discourse and Rufus’ internal reflections and deliberations six pages to unfold and conclude itself and the book. Not so much a climax but a surprising and odd crescendo to what has gone before. It is a stopping place, reaching a far end, and a turning point, at least in the physical action and setting of the story, but a disturbing and seemingly unresolved finish for many readers.
AND YET, HOW CAN SUCH A DYNAMIC AND BRILLIANT SCENE be so lost on readers and critics alike? In the original publication it is easily the most passionate scene in the book, laying open the heart’s intractable sense of loss, the brain’s defiant quest to discern and judge, and life’s amazing potential to present the inexplicable. Two characters exposed as nowhere else in the story. Agee has the artist telling the child about the miracles of life as well as about the great war of the soul, and he has him do this while walking up on an old battlefield.
Agee has the artist telling the child about the miracles of life as well as about the great war of the soul, and he has him do this while walking up on an old battlefield.
Traditionally, art exposes the world to the miraculous, the ineffable, the beauty otherwise missed in conventional views. But also, traditionally, art divides, it screams out and turns a mirror on that which is false or deceitful. Andrew performs both these functions. He is the artist in the family, and he is the one capable of seeing the miracle and relating it. But the artist here is damaged, the miracle doesn’t outweigh the lie he also sees, and the lie returns with a vengeance and makes the artist puke up his soul. But artists are often damaged, and puking up their souls is their truth. Andrew was not lying to the child, but he was confusing him and hurting him with his truth. And the miracle gets lost. Having done this, he shuts himself up and returns to silence.
This was Agee’s ending. It is poignant and dramatic, even poetically symbolic, but coming after such an elegant and elaborate literary beginning followed by four distracting time shifts, the ending arrives unexpectedly, somewhat confused and unresolved, if for no other reason than the child is so confused and unresolved. I have only recently heard a local novelist demur of “the way that book ended.” And yet the ending is beautifully composed with great clarity and purpose. Agee intends for the child to be confused and his father’s death to be unresolved, and for the artist to now be silent, both his uncle and himself who is telling the story.
WHAT THE ENDING IS NOT is the bookend to an “idyllic reverie,” as Lofaro described McDowell’s altered beginning, but rather perhaps the appropriately designed conclusion to the text Agee apparently intended. One comes to see that without Agee’s dramatic “dream introduction” at the front of the story, which not only connects with the passion and mental drama and religious conflict of Agee’s ending, but also provides again some grace and assurance for Rufus and at long last some resolution with his father, the ending is that much more lost and incomplete and despairing a forecast. And that is just how it feels in the original publication. Without the dream introduction none of young Rufus’s many questions are ever answered, and there is no understanding or resolution between him and his father, no uplifting note or particular hope. As Moreau says, Rufus “has been left powerless, bereft and alone,” and minus the dream introduction that’s the way he stays. An ending, one might say, quite the opposite of Tad Mosel’s positive symmetry. But if the restored text with its bizarre beginning was Agee’s intention, then he had his own positive symmetry, even if told through a dark dream. Whereas, in the original publication, there’s no hope at the end even if the beginning is a precious and reverent dream filled with light.
Even though this dream introduction or Dream Sequence is rather gruesome, it is at heart and in essence a redemption story with a positive life-affirming act at its end.
Hugh Davis refers to this dream introduction as the “Dream Sequence,” a title taken from earlier essays by Victor A. Kramer, who I believe came upon this part of the manuscript in the special collections of the University of Texas. Even though this dream introduction or Dream Sequence is rather gruesome, it is at heart and in essence a redemption story with a positive life-affirming act at its end. It provides the main character with a certain understanding and absolution that he has sought all his life. The main character, the man, is the same third-person child (Rufus) as in the book proper, only now grown up.
ON NOVEMBER 20, 2009, AT THE LAUREL THEATER, originally a church here in Knoxville that sits atop the hill where the civil war fort was located, I gave a public reading of Agee’s dream introduction from the restored text. I sat at a table on the theater’s stage, had the house lights dimmed and lit a lamp and read the 10 typewritten pages of the dream story, taking about 30 minutes. Except for Michael Lofaro, who was present in the audience, I believe this would have been the first witness of this material by most all of the few hundred people present.
He determines to carry the body to a better place to rest than this. And he knows a place, the outcropping of rock at the edge of the Fort Sanders neighborhood where as a young boy he would sit with his father, the place they felt closest to each other, and where they sat the night before his father died.
When it begins the man is walking down a street and neither he nor we the readers know where he is, only in some town or city and it’s the noon hour and very hot. At first, the man thought that it was one of the streets of Chattanooga between the two depots, but now he began to realize that he was back home, in Knoxville, for he could see that the broken street thickened, far ahead of him, into the busiest blocks of Gay Street. The man is back in his hometown but not the Knoxville of his youth or the Knoxville he remembered from visiting in the mid-’30s. This is a modern, more current towards the middle of the twentieth century Knoxville. He sees up ahead of him some kind of violent scene going down and he walks right up in the aftermath of a mob killing a man and leaving him battered and naked across the sidewalk. He recognizes the victim to be John the Baptist, and though he sides neither with the brutal and light-triggered crowd or the loudmouthed…old ranter in what he suspects has been the killing of a zealot, he determines to carry the body to a better place to rest than this. And he knows a place, the outcropping of rock at the edge of the Fort Sanders neighborhood where as a young boy he would sit with his father, the place they felt closest to each other, and where they sat the night before his father died. The man risks being attacked by the mob himself having shown pity for the dead man, but he is determined to follow through with his simple act of veneration for the dead who died bravely and manages to carry the bloody and broken body away. All the while he reacts and reflects on all sides of this religious conflict, the partisans, the heroes, the neutrals. He knew he was no longer on any side, no longer capable of any sufficient conviction and that The only possible faithfulness is faithfulness to the best you can understand at the time. Carrying the dead body through the streets he gets turned in the wrong direction once but then remembers his way and proceeds toward his destination. He sees familiar places and others that have changed. He doesn’t much like the changes. Even the heat and sunlight of the weather was different, it was the weather of a bigger, worse, proud and more foolish city. And then the weather changes; all of a sudden it is frigid cold and the streets are covered with snow, and the man is himself naked, as naked as the man he dragged. The dead man’s mutilated corpse starts to rot and decompose, especially the head, and because of the rank smell the man can no longer stand to carry it but drags it by the heels, leaving a trail of grime in the snow. It was quite a task for the man, his feet, which by now were cut and bleeding as well as frozen, gave him back a sense of courage, difficulty, and dignity, so that he felt gravely cheerful, and knew there was a smile on his face. He passes a lot of curious people as he pulls the body over the same streets he used to walk with his father when they were coming back from town, and he was intensely interested in them because they were so uninterested in what they saw. It wasn’t as if they did not see at all; without exception they saw this naked man dragging this naked corpse through the thin snow; they looked, with some interest…But their interest was so strangely out of ratio to the thing they were looking at… these were all such well-meaning, comfortable, nominally safe and civilized people, and that was what made their casualness so amazing, so amusing…and suddenly he heard his soul exclaim within him… “This could only happen in Alexandria!” But instantly he was aware that it was better even than that: for it was happening in Knoxville, in East Tennessee…and if this could only happen in Alexandria, then this was Alexandria now. He finally crosses the Asylum Avenue Viaduct to his old neighborhood and his heart is warmed to see the vacant lot with the outcropping of rock and the young tree beside it, all unchanged from when he was a boy. But just as he’s crossing the street to it, dragging the rotten corpse by the heels, the damaged head bumps down from the curb behind him and falls off the body. He stops in the street and tries to gather the head up into his hands, but it recoils from him, no longer exactly a head. It was a heavy rondure of tough jelly and of hair and beard and the hair sprang wild and radiant from his center where, meeting his eye, was one organ, so disfigured, that it was impossible to know whether it was a bloody glaring eye, or a mutely roaring mouth. And that’s when he wakes up. That’s when we all know it has been a sleep dream.
Awake, he lays in bed so heavy and so still that it takes him a while to consider the dream. He realizes it was about his father, that John the Baptist was his father in the dream. He doesn’t want to get too hung up on analyzing the dream, but takes it at face value for its obvious symbolism. He knows the mob committed the murder, but it was him who let the head fall off. I’ve betrayed my father, he realized. Or myself. Or both of us. He feels that even if they could talk, they could never come at it between them, what the betrayal was. He doesn’t think trying to further analyze the dream would reveal anything that he didn’t already know, but he does feel very certain that the dream was telling him He should go back into those years. As far as he could remember; and everything he could remember; nothing he had learned or done since; nothing except (so well as he could remember) what his father had been as he had known him, and what he had been as he had known himself, and what he had seen with his own eyes, and supposed with his on mind. To go back into those years was to write it, to bring it back in words, to tell the story. He had his mission, which he knew he had been coming to all his life. The dream had brought him to this, but also clued him in on how to go about it. He would tell the story as he had dreamed the dream, for its own sake, without trying to interpret; and if the journey was made with sufficient courage and care, very likely that of itself would be as near the answer as he could ever hope to get.
And then, as if in affirmation of this understanding and resolve, while still in the spell of the dream and memory of his father, he suddenly has a ghostlike visitation with his father there in the room. His father is not visible but clearly visible to the imagination, and his presence much more than imagination, a silent but almost unendurable power and aliveness. His father is older, the age he would have been at that time had he continued to live, a strong, brave, sad old man, who also knew the dream, and no more knew or hoped ever to know its meaning, than the son. The visitation is brief, they don’t speak but are in each others’ presence for a time, the man and the father who also knew the dream. They come to an understanding between them, an understanding beyond the betrayal and loss they had both felt, and all was well at last…It might never be fully understood, but it would be alright from now on. From now on it was going to be alright. And with the smile he remembered as a child his father fades away. The man is alone again, but that was no harm, for in a way in which he had been alone for so many years, he knew that he would never be alone again.
AND THERE IT ENDS, the Dream Sequence, Agee’s introduction to his novel, a far more complex and nuanced tale than I can begin to indicate here. A Burroughsian nightmare and Shakespearian visitation that ends in grace and redemption for James Agee, and a new battle plan for a final quest, to go back into those days and write the story of his childhood and his father’s death. And if he does this with sufficient courage and care, very likely that of itself would be as near the answer as he could ever hope to get. This would be Agee’s ultimate union of life and art, which he had struggled with all his writing life.
In The Making of James Agee we learn, for the record, from Agee’s Jungian psychoanalyst, Frances Wickes, that Agee did in fact have this dream and discussed it at length with her. She also says he wrote some of the book while there at her house. If so, one might wonder if he was writing this part of the book, the dream story introduction.
The real news here is that Agee apparently intended to start his book with this dream introduction.
From the perspective of reading fictional prose, it is generally unessential that one knows the author’s sources or inspiration for the material, but only whether and how the material works as a piece of writing. However, from the biographical point of view, which is at the heart of this literary work and subsequent discussions of the original and restored versions and their history, it is of note that this dream, much as the story in the book proper, was an actual part of Agee’s life. And, consistent with the story proper, he made it into his third-person fiction.
The real news here is that Agee apparently intended to start his book with this dream introduction, at least according to his notes and outlines, as well as the full manuscript left at the time of his death. This dream story, this nightmare and visitation, was the key inspiration, the pivotal impetus, for Agee to start writing his story, and he apparently wanted to include this significant event as part of the story, as an introduction that serves as an explanation of and reason for what follows. Agee would begin at the end of his story before starting again at the beginning with his earliest memories of his father and mother and of being a child. As he notes in his outlines as well as correspondence during this time, he would then continue his story chronologically from his earliest memories until his father’s death and the day of the funeral. That was the book he intended, at least at the time he wrote what he wrote of the book and made notes for its structure. It’s more of a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man approach, only with this surreal dreamscape drama as a prelude to that.
SO, MY LONG CONSIDERED WONDERMENT of Agee’s ending to his story has now been dragged into a rather shocking new light. It is the ending to a considerably different book, a finale scene that connects to a whole different and previously unknown beginning and movement of a story. And, chronologically speaking, it is the end of the story.
And this is what McDowell changed. McDowell changed the beginning and a lot of the middle, and Mosel changed the end. Each removing some of the darker, more violent and emotionally violent parts of the story, and nearly all of the religious conflict that’s very much at the heart (and far ends) of the restored version. Mosel was only working with the book McDowell had published. Perhaps he sensed something uneven in the ending, out of balance with the story as put together by McDowell. Or maybe it was just too severe or difficult a scene for the play he wanted to write. Regardless, he changed the ending and created something more in line with the beginning of the original publication, closer to the loving nature of the child/parent relationship, especially as felt in the “Knoxville: Summer 1915” prologue. One might consider whether his ending better fit the book McDowell had edited than did Agee’s ending. Perhaps All the Way Home was a more appropriate and appealing title as well?
And who would fault Mosel, whose play was so successful and helped keep Agee’s name and work alive, continuing in yet a new medium at that? This is even truer of David McDowell, whose efforts on behalf of Agee were remarkable by any imaginable hope. It was an absolutely daunting task to resurrect a writer who at the time of his relatively early death had no major works still in print, and questionably had no major works at all, and who was generally viewed as having wasted his time and talent, and then to bring him back into great consideration and renown as well as commercial success. Beginning with McDowell’s supervision and guidance as editor and first trustee of the estate, James Agee was to become an author who only after his death had (1) a previously unpublished book win a Pulitzer, as well as celebrated adaptations of it for theater and film, (2) another book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, long out of print, published again and become a best selling cult favorite and “American classic,” inspiring a new generation and garnering him the oft repeated title of the father of New Journalism, (3) screenplays and film reviews selected and published in two large volumes and held to be required reading for all serious students of film, garnering him the oft repeated title of America’s first great film critic, (4) volumes of both his selected prose and poetry published, (5) a documentary film Agee themed around his life and work nominated for an Academy Award, (6) two earlier rejected articles for Fortune and Life magazines now published as individual books, (7) all his major works collected in the American Library series, and subsequently (8) the earlier legend and image of his squandered and misplaced brilliance shifted more towards that of the quintessential modern writer who did significant, sometimes highly awarded and often ground-breaking work in every major field he worked in: poetry, journalism, criticism, screenwriting, fiction and non-fiction.
Both the work and his reputation as a writer outlive earlier versions and interpretations.
In truth David McDowell can never be thanked enough for his dedicated work, his good strategy, and his great commitment to Agee’s legacy. Even if he was perhaps guilty of misconduct as an editor, as to some degree was Robert Fitzgerald, and though perhaps not in a professional sense probably Father Flye as well. All of whom as editors in the interest of their good friend Jim, James, or Rufus, felt it permissible to either literally rewrite parts of his work, hide or destroy or remake other works. Or, as has been suggested of Agee’s friend, Dwight McDonald, interpret him in published essays to suit his own cultural-political-artistic views. But Agee has prevailed beyond them, and with great thanks to each of them. His work outlives them, and both the work and his reputation as a writer outlive earlier versions and interpretations. And, it is, of course, entirely appropriate for further information and research and evaluation to be brought into this historical mix.
REGARDING A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, we can now see there was a secret history that began with McDowell’s editorial preface and continued with his trusteeship of the estate, then went further through two other trustees and the dissimilation of the author’s manuscript and accompanying papers before they were eventually brought back together. After McDowell’s death apparently some of the manuscript and materials went with the Agee estate while some stayed in his personal papers, and still other parts went to the University of Texas. The manuscript remained divided in these three locales until the third trustee, Paul Sprecher (married to Agee’s oldest daughter, Deedee), brought it all back together and to the University of Tennessee Press. At that time under the editorship of Michael Lofaro, and assistant editor, Hugh Davis, the manuscript was “restored” with accompanying notes and related documents, along with all extant versions, editions, drafts and published variations of the text over time. So, beginning with the secrecy of McDowell, and then the division of the manuscript and author’s notes to different places, the knowledge of the full manuscript and author’s intentions was not generally known until recently. The original publication was in 1957, and the publication of the restored text was in 2007, a period of 50 years.
The knowledge of the full manuscript and author’s intentions was not generally known until recently.
Lofaro says “McDowell’s version of A Death in the Family was far more a construct of its editors than its author and a radically different book.”
There are some significant differences in the two versions. Besides seven missing chapters, and later drafts of earlier ones that were used (all previously unseen and undocumented material), as well as correctly transcribed words and phrases from the difficult handwritten originals, there are also these changes: (1) The Dream Sequence “Introduction” to the story is removed. (2) Also, a major section of the beginning of the book proper is removed and the story begins at a new place. (3) Some of that edited material from the book proper is brought back into the middle of the story in two separate italicized sections as flashbacks in time. (4) Except for Rufus and his father Jay the real names of the characters are changed from Agee’s manuscript. (5) The short prose piece “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” published in the Partisan Review 19 years earlier and not part of the manuscript, is put at the front of the book as an italicized prologue with the ‘of ’ removed from its title. And (6) the title of the book, A Death in the Family, may have been the editor’s and not the author’s. These changes are obviously significant, and especially when you weigh in the considerable difference in subject matter and writing styles in the front pieces of the two versions, and the removal of the time shifts. It does make for a “radically different book.”
One can only imagine David McDowell’s thinking at the time he was editing A Death in the Family, what he himself called “probably the most reckless piece of editorial judgment I ever made.” Had he only done what he claimed in the editor’s preface, “A Note on this Book,” I don’t think he would have considered it the “most reckless…judgment…ever.” By saying this alone, he may have been acknowledging at a later date that he did in fact do more to the manuscript than what he allows in his editorial note.
Both Lofaro and Davis conclude that McDowell’s editorial decisions were driven by marketing and trying to position Agee in a more current modernist literary trend. Perhaps so. It was after all his position, not only as the book’s editor but also as the trustee of Agee’s estate, to manage it in the best way he could to support Agee’s family.
With what was his varied and extensive professional experience in the publishing world I’m sure David McDowell had a keen marketing sense of the literary climate for fiction and an eye for whatever might enable the book’s success. If he had the manuscript in the form that Lofaro and the estate suggest he did, then he did at least change it for some reason. But even so, one still has to look first and closely at the manuscript itself to see what options and choices the text offered McDowell for any possible editing or reshaping.
Following what he claims in the editor’s preface, one would have to say McDowell had a rather short book in hand. Not counting what he called “several scenes outside the time span of the basic story,” the manuscript would have been closer to a novella than a novel in size. What McDowell refers to as the “time span of the basic story” is just a couple of days, from the evening before the accident through the funeral. The scenes he uses that take place before this “time span” he has in italicized flashbacks. One wonders, could he not have just placed those “several scenes” in the chronological order that Agee’s notes and outlines say he intended and in that way they would fit in a continuous “time span”? McDowell says it “seemed presumptuous to try to guess where he (Agee) might have inserted them,” but wouldn’t one consider trying them chronologically?
He also says he had “seven odd pages” that they couldn’t fit anywhere. Was this the dream introduction? It’s a little more than seven typewritten pages, but like the “several scenes” doesn’t fit his “time span” either.
Lofaro suggests that McDowell rather than Agee may have given the name to the manuscript, as nowhere in Agee’s notes or letters or on the manuscript does he refer to the book by that title. If McDowell did give the title to the book, as opposed to Agee, this title would have put the focus on that shorter “time span” instead of the longer chronological story. It seems the answer to this question is a toss-up, as there appears to be no place Agee uses the title and its origin is otherwise unknown except to take McDowell’s word on it. The title does sound like an Agee title, such as when he first wished to call Let Us Now Praise Famous Men the plainer and more documentary-like Three Tenant Families.
IF McDOWELL DID HAVE THE FULL “RESTORED” MANUSCRIPT IN HAND and was aware of the author’s intentions, then he did embark on a rather “reckless piece of editorial judgment” in order to purposely create a “radically different book,” to quote both him and Lofaro. Even by his own account, to decide to divide up some “several scenes” into two sizable sections and put them in a couple of different places in the story as flashbacks is already stepping firmly into the creative process for an editor. He plays this down saying It seemed presumptuous to guess where he (Agee) might have inserted them. And so, McDowell says, It was finally decided to print these in italics and put them after Parts I and II. From what one gathers from the restored version, McDowell also made up the divisions of “Parts I, II, and III,” perhaps it would seem in order to accommodate that placing of the flashbacks. Nowhere in Agee’s notes does he designate Parts I, II, or III for the story.
Maybe McDowell didn’t want to re-introduce Agee to the world with this morbid and messy nightmare prelude, this mutilated John the Baptist dead daddy dream.
Again, if McDowell had the full ‘restored’ manuscript in hand and was aware of Agee’s intentions for the book’s structure, why did he alter it in such a major way? If, as Lofaro and Davis conclude, he thought breaking up the chronological progression of the story with time shifts would give it a more modernistic feel and make it more marketable, that only explains part of the changes. If Agee intended to begin the book with the dream introduction, which happens in the future of the story proper, then there was already a time shift. Did McDowell perceive something wrong with this time shift as it was, or just think it was not very marketable? One could suspect he thought the dream introduction would not be so appealing to general readers, that it was too brutal, too anti-religious, anti-people, anti-Knoxville or the South, all of which Agee expounds upon to varying degrees in the piece. Maybe McDowell didn’t want to re-introduce Agee to the world with this morbid and messy nightmare prelude, this mutilated John the Baptist dead daddy dream. He might have wondered what is my dear genius friend Jim thinking? Or, as well, he may have felt the long impressionistic child’s perspective at the beginning moving in its slow progression was not engaging enough for readers to begin the book proper. We don’t know. But, whatever else he may have thought, I tend to believe McDowell was thinking, above all else in his editorial considerations, how could he manage to include “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” in the book.
“KNOXVILLE: SUMMER OF 1915” was one of Agee’s more successful literary works during his lifetime. It was originally published in the Partisan Review in 1938 and later, also in his lifetime, successfully adapted for opera by Samuel Barber. It was an exquisite and unusual piece of writing, already proven to be popular and adaptable, and it was Agee’s first great literary visitation to his childhood home and family. It was in some ways a five-page prose-poem of the manuscript’s novel-length book, a shorter and different take on much of the same subject set one year before the death of his father, when life was “idyllic.” And though it’s missing the actual death, it does allude to it in the one prayer-like phrase remember them kindly in the hour of their taking away. I believe McDowell felt that if this piece could begin the book, be a prologue to the story proper, the book would have its greatest appeal and potential for success and acceptance on all levels. In his editorial choices I think this was the priority and shaped his other changes.
Still, it wasn’t that simple a fit. “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” actually did not connect well with Agee’s manuscript. For one thing he apparently already had a prologue to the story, the dream introduction.
This choice did present problems and potential problems for McDowell in that it was a previously published and established work and was obviously not part of the new manuscript. Because of this there would always be the literary as well as professional question of whether it should be used again here, not reprinted as part of a collection of Agee works but as an integral part of a new work. And, if making the choice to use it, how well would it work alongside the new, longer story. If it could transition well enough and be more than just an obvious and possibly forced addendum at the front of the book, then over time this would play well for its inclusion. Over time this could be where the piece belonged, and mainly where it came to exist. You have to figure all this to be part of McDowell’s thinking and decision making in whether to use the Knoxville piece in the original publication. He would gamble that the beauty of the piece and its thematic connection to the story would outweigh its history and its dissimilarities from the manuscript. And I think his saving grace in this strategy was that the book was officially “unfinished.” It was as if to say the manuscript was incomplete, and adding this prologue would perhaps in some way complete it. This would at least provide McDowell some cover by circumstance for inclusion of the piece.
Still, it wasn’t that simple a fit. “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” actually did not connect well with Agee’s manuscript. For one thing he apparently already had a prologue to the story, the dream introduction, and to add a second one would present a clumsy structure and disjointed progression, especially considering the contrasting differences in the material.
If the grisly nature of Agee’s dream introduction weren’t factor enough, this would give McDowell even more rationale to replace it with the earlier piece. And had this been the extent of his revisions it would have presented an interesting transition of the two texts in that the Knoxville piece ends with the sleepy child being carried into the house to be put to bed and Chapter 1 of the restored text begins with the child waking in darkness in his bed. McDowell could have made a clean swap of the two and there would have been a continuity of setting and action between the Knoxville piece and the story proper. This would also have kept the beginning and chronological progression of Agee’s text and story intact.
However, this transition still had problems. Even with the dreamy commonality of the sleepy child being carried to bed and the child later awaking in bed, they don’t flow well together. One ends in what is like the reverence of a first-person prayer and the other begins in a third-person spell of wonder and fear. They both are slow-moving, contemplative narratives of somewhat similar but different natures coming from different perspectives. Because of their similarities, their differences make an inexact and bothersome juxtaposition moving from first person to third. Plus, the former is a boy of five years and the latter a much younger child. If this wasn’t evident at first it soon would be as the story lingers in the impressionistic world of the younger child’s perspective. McDowell must have considered this, and it’s here we can check out his priorities and choices.
Otherwise, as far as one can tell, there is nowhere an indication that James Agee ever intended to start the story proper where it begins in the original publication.
In order to best accommodate “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” as a new beginning for the whole work, he would not only take out the dream introduction but also go much deeper into the manuscript to begin the book proper at what is Chapter 17 of the restored text. Otherwise, as far as one can tell, there is nowhere an indication that James Agee ever intended to start the story proper where it begins in the original publication. But one would think he did — reading the editor’s preface — as there is everything to affirm it and nothing to suggest otherwise. But, for whatever reason this transitional choice was made (and we know it was not Agee’s choice), let us say, it is magical. Beginning the story at this point creates an amazing if accidental transition from the Knoxville piece.
It immediately connects to the Knoxville piece because it begins in the same physical setting with the same characters and at the same time of evening. It’s not the same time of evening as when the prologue ends, which is after dark on a blanket under the stars, but rather the time of evening when the prologue mainly takes place, that early evening just after suppertime: first twilight gloaming moving towards night. This transition doesn’t attempt to be so exact as to continue the same evening of the Knoxville piece, which Chapter 1 of the restored text may have appeared to do had it directly followed it. This transition clearly makes a new beginning and on a different evening.
In this way, it connects and resonates with the plurality of that renowned opening phrase of the Knoxville prologue We are talking now of summer evenings… McDowell’s Chapter 1 opens with At supper that night, as many times before… It is a different night, a night as many times before, another of those evenings. Only, on this night, rather than after supper the children run out to play in the yard and the father and the mother follow after them as in the prologue; this time at supper the father and son decide to walk downtown to see a movie.
The Knoxville prologue is essentially a first-person reverie of long ago summer evenings, and the story proper begins in the third-person activity of one of those evenings. We now hear the father and mother speak for themselves rather than through a distant narrator. We now know the child’s thoughts. It is a sort of double beginning that feels natural and suits its subject and storyline. It feels as if the prologue and the new Chapter 1 were very much designed in literary heaven for each other. This transition would accomplish for McDowell the task of making “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” merge with the longer manuscript while still acknowledging it as a literary entity unto itself. Now, its similarities connect it and its dissimilarities work in tandem with the story proper. Just as surely as McDowell edited the word of out of the title of the prologue and renamed it, he reclaimed the piece as part of this novel.
The only problem is a full first third of the book has been cut out, and where is the story now stranded, and can this be remedied?
EVEN THOUGH THE NEW CHAPTER 1 of the story takes place where the father and son have their longest, most varied and intimate time in the story, the great bulk of the action that establishes their relationship is lost by cutting out so much of the time the father is even present in the book. I think in an attempt to compensate for this, and the otherwise brevity of the book, McDowell would take some of the edited material and bring it back in the two distinct flashback sections. Still, even separating it into two sections, he couldn’t return all the missing chapters in these flashbacks without those sections becoming too lengthy an interruption for the progression of where the story now begins and ends. So, certain chapters and parts of the story he would simply leave out. These flashback sections would also be italicized just as the prologue is italicized, and this would again help to connect the prologue to the overall story. The flashbacks also help establish memory and going back in time as a working force in the story, again tying in with the prologue’s first-person looking back.
I suppose, as has been suggested, the shape and structure of this edited manuscript would give it more of a modernist look, definitely more a look of fiction, and this along with having “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” kick it all off would make it more marketable. But again, I tend to believe McDowell thought these were the necessary and available changes to accommodate the Knoxville piece at the front of the book and as a more integral part of the story.
Many . . . would consider what McDowell edited together to be a masterful literary movement of a story.
Many, let us say most, who have any interest at all, and certainly those who determine who’s awarded Pulitzer Prizes, would consider what McDowell edited together to be a masterful literary movement of a story, and not miss what’s not there. At least that was McDowell’s hope, and it would appear he was right. Still, — like Lofaro says at the beginning of his essay Idyll or Terror? — “If you were ever a bit confused the first time you read Agee’s novel, you were not alone and had good reason for such confusion.” So, there will be different schools of thought and appreciation on these variations and versions.
We know that David McDowell was a friend of James Agee. Even before they met when Agee came back to visit St. Andrew’s school, “Rufus” Agee was a hero to the young McDowell who followed in Agee’s boyhood footsteps at St Andrew’s studying with Father Flye and hearing of the previous celebrated student whom his classmates nicknamed Socrates. We can guess that McDowell was honored and challenged to be the editor of Agee’s book, a man whom he admired and whose prodigious talents were beyond his own. But can we know for sure how closely McDowell was working with Agee on the book, or if he was at all when Agee was alive? And can we know for sure if he in fact had the full intact manuscript? It seems likely if he was working in any formal way with Agee that he would have been aware of the author’s text and basic thoughts on the work. To follow the editor’s preface it almost sounds like he only viewed the work after the author’s death, gathering what pages could be found, as opposed to already holding the manuscript and being in much communication with the author. Where were all these other pages, other chapters, the dream introduction, and Agee’s notes at this time if not in the editor and trustee’s possession?
OBVIOUSLY, AUTHORS AND EDITORS WORK TOGETHER IN DIFFERENT WAYS. Thomas Wolfe gave great latitude to Maxwell Perkins to gather and shape his manuscripts. Other authors like Joyce probably would not let an editor near his work. Ezra Pound would say accept no criticism from anyone who hasn’t created a masterpiece, or something like that. In this period we find ourselves today, 2019 of the exploding age of communications (or miscommunications), the big bang of technological connectivity and digital manuscripts, with printed material from books to newspapers going the way of the dinosaurs, I would guess that most literary authors would generally adhere closely to the advice and judgment of their editors and publishers. James Agee generally did not. He wasted a few years and probably the morning tide holding off on his sharecropper book. The Great Depression came and went, as did some of his political sentiment, and a new World War began by the time it came out, but he waited until he had the manuscript he wanted and he walked away from one major publisher in order to keep what he had. The story of his childhood and the death of his father were as sacred and important to him as any work in his life. For better and for worse we can just figure that he alone would decide how this story would be told. I don’t see him giving up that artistic control just to court some potential market or to coalesce better with any current literary trend. Agee was happy to work in the most current and marketable of mediums — film, television, journalism, criticism — but even in these more collaborative and compromised mediums he was often pushing the forms and contending with editors and directors. For a major literary work of this personal magnitude, and his first full-length novel as well, I do not believe for a moment he would have accepted McDowell’s editorial changes, and I also believe that McDowell knew this.
The story of his childhood and the death of his father were as sacred and important to him as any work in his life… I don’t see him giving up that artistic control just to court some potential market or to coalesce better with any current literary trend.
Lofaro suggests, “While a questionable decision, it would simply be regarded as a choice within the posthumous purview of the editor-trustee if he (McDowell) had not so strongly asserted that he had not altered Agee’s text in any appreciable way.”
I don’t think McDowell thought it would be as smooth as that. I don’t think he felt quite that much assurance in his purview. And I think he was right. Exactly why he would conceal the extent of his editorial changes we can’t say, but probably because they were so significant and he wanted to avoid further scrutiny and judgment and possible controversy. Complications could easily arise, and something of that nature could impede a smoother introduction of the book. He would prefer the public to just know it was “unfinished” but was all Agee with only a little necessary structuring, rather than chance any distracting considerations, comparisons or further explanations. I don’t doubt that he may have felt he was improving the book, whether in market potential or as a literary work. And I don’t doubt that he did improve the book’s initial market potential, and possibly as a literary work as well. Regardless, it was a gamble he made and it was a gamble that paid off. As long as he hid well enough what he had done he could well enough get away with it. His editor’s preface, “A Note on This Book,” became his first line of defense, a statement that may have been designed to conceal more than reveal what had happened.
Given the liberties McDowell may well have taken with the manuscript and deceptive statements made regarding those liberties, one could wonder if he did not himself establish that the book was unfinished when Agee might have considered it more or less complete with only those last copyediting stages and minor corrections to go. But I don’t think that’s the case, not exactly. On May 11, 1955, just five days before Agee died, he wrote in his last letter to Father Flye (which was found after Agee died, stamped, sealed, and in the outgoing mail on his mantel), “I plan to take the summer off and finish my book.” So, I believe Agee had what he thought was an unfinished book, although who knows what more he intended for it at that time. And as McDowell correctly points out in his preface, “How much polishing and rewriting he might have done is impossible to guess, for he was a tireless and painstaking writer.”
Perhaps it was, as many have generally thought, a completed manuscript that Agee just wanted to fine-tune a little before calling it finished, that it was essentially done. Lofaro contends it was a far more complete manuscript than what McDowell lets on, and even McDowell, regardless of the shape he claims the manuscript was in, calls it “a near perfect work of art.” One might now wonder what part he felt he played in perfection? Either way, by his death James Agee had produced a great piece of fiction that no one seems to think needs further polishing or rewriting.
But are both versions great fiction? Is one better than the other? Is McDowell just market savvy or does he know how to shape Agee’s story better than Agee?
TO ME, THE DIFFERENCES IN THE TWO VERSIONS are so significant, so radical, one can hardly be a close student of Agee’s work, and specifically A Death in the Family, and not be gobsmacked by this revelatory discovery regarding the novel. It’s almost unfathomable that there would be this rather alternate universe of the same story. Somewhat like the contrasts in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchmen, but that was a case of two different books where the author was working a subject in contrasting ways, whereas this is one and the same book (and in great measure the same text), the author treating the subject in only one way.
To me, the differences in the two versions are so significant, so radical, one can hardly be a close student of Agee’s work, and specifically A Death in the Family, and not be gobsmacked by this revelatory discovery regarding the novel.
And yet, I have heard almost no discussion of it locally, and I was only recently made aware of an earlier article in a major publication that drew some comparisons of the texts. Other than Lofaro and Davis’s academic treatises on the subject, and standard announcements of these, I have heard next to nothing from local literati, scholars, or fans of Agee’s. Even when initiating conversation on the subject and detailing some of the contrasts, the reticence to acknowledge or talk about it has been surprising. People who have long been devotees of Agee and this novel in particular generally dismiss the new manuscript out of hand with little to no explanation. Perhaps they don’t trust the messenger or the message, doubting the new manuscript to be what is claimed, or else pass it off as a standard situation where an editor has removed a certain amount of material to tighten up and simplify a manuscript, which is not the case. McDowell both removed and added material, but on the whole his editing made it a far more complex and possibly “confusing” manuscript. No, it is as though people are afraid someone will take away Agee’s Pulitzer, or somehow take away what they have come to love. Neither of which will happen.
Besides the aforementioned, the only person I’m aware of who has given much reflection on this in print is Steve Earle, the grammy-winning songwriter and recording artist, and of late, poet, short story author, novelist, playwright and actor, who has had the clearest statement I have seen so far (and in far fewer words than I labor here). In Penguin’s recent edition of the original publication Earle is tasked with writing the preface. In it he professes Agee to be “the greatest writer the state has ever produced (Tennessee Williams being from Mississippi),” and says of Agee’s writing, “I’ve read everything. . . . Still, for me, it’s all about A Death in the Family.” He addresses both the original and restored versions of the novel, concluding that the restored version is “stunningly crafted,” “illuminating,” “darkly elegant prose,” “a scholarly triumph and a must for Agee addicts,” “every passage yet another testament to what a genuine literary badass Agee was,” and that he will “probably read and reread it for the rest of my life,” “But I still like the old one better.”
THE OLD ONE BEGINS WITH “KNOXVILLE: SUMMER 1915,” and as Steve Earle says of those words, “they are so indelibly etched someplace inside of me that I couldn’t reach to rub them out even if I wanted to. And I never want to. Those words include: We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.” He goes on to say, “God help me, but I simply cannot imagine this book not beginning with those words.”
Those opening lines . . . were what we knew best of the novel, what most represented the novel to us, and what was most beloved of the novel.
For those of us who came of age after the book was published this was the only place those words existed, the only place we knew them. Those opening lines as well as a few other lines in the Knoxville prologue were what we knew best of the novel, what most represented the novel to us, and what was most beloved of the novel. To consider another version of the book, regardless of the brilliant new work it presented and regardless of the fact that it may have been what the author intended, if it didn’t include the Knoxville piece, would be to change what we most treasured about the book. Simple as that, “Knoxville: Summer 1915” is A Death in the Family to most everyone, and seemingly almost no one wishes to consider the book beyond this. Even if it is James Agee himself who had other ideas about what this most important work of his life should be.
And further, as Steve Earle says, “I have never been a fan, for instance, of posthumous box sets issued by record companies containing one alternate take after another of the same tune. Charlie Parker knew which was the best take of ‘Passport,’ for fucksake and he intended that the outtakes stay in the can.” But this may be where Steve Earle is a little off the mark, the original publication of A Death in the Family was a posthumous box set put together by the record company. And not the version for fucksake that James Agee may have thought best. Or so it would appear.
PERHAPS MUCH OF OUR DISCERNING TASTE has to do with what we are first presented, as in “what did you see first, the movie or the book?” One might consider Agee’s much loved Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an oddly structured and difficult book for the general public, that was deemed “a distinguished failure” when first published and quickly went out of print, only to reappear some 20 years later (after Agee’s death) to great renown and influence and commercial success, and called an American classic. What if McDowell had been around to edit Famous Men?
Let’s say he dropped Agee’s presumptuous Preface, and the dramatically self-absorbed Preamble, and the introductory poem and political slogan, had a nice fat section for Walker Evans’s photos in the middle of the book (where photos usually are), and put the table of contents back at the beginning (where it usually is), kept All Over Alabama and the Country Letter, got rid of about half if not all of the excessive Colon section, kept most of Part Two: Some Findings and Comments, got rid of the absurd diatribe and interruption of INTERMISSION: A Conversation in the Lobby, kept most of Part Three: Inductions, got rid of Notes and Appendices and On the Porch: 3, and then got it published in a timely fashion when the Great Depression still held a grip on the nation. The book might have been received far differently, seen immediately as brilliant commentary illuminated by brilliant photography, and become an award-winning document and milestone of journalistic prose representing that era of our country’s history. A reception that might have changed the course of Agee’s life, bringing renown and means for his creative abilities and allowed him to pursue more the direction all his colleagues seemed to feel he needed to be pursuing all along rather than slogging it out with magazines and criticism and chasing Hollywood.
One could imagine that a more formal and streamlined version of Famous Men might still have delivered the stunningly beautiful and penetrating essence that the original book embodies. It could still have served its subject honorably, while still breaking new ground in docu-journalism. And if published in a more timely way one could speculate that its initial publication might have established itself more with the public much as it did a couple of decades later in its longer more unusual form. Had that been the case, and today someone discovered this longer more unusual manuscript, complete with the author’s notes and outlines detailing his wild symphony-like structure for the book, and a restoration of this was published and presented to us, what would we think of it? How absurd would it seem to us with its excessive pretense and rants and cultural and political digressions, its somewhat incoherent structure? Would we not miss the shorter more direct book we originally read and loved as preferable? And, commendable as the restoration might be, generally pass it off as a brilliant but over-the-top work where the editors were doing the author a great service?
Let me say, if that had been the case, I certainly hope and believe I would have been thrilled to discover this new and outrageous Famous Men manuscript, with all its excessive brilliance and further glimpses into the mind of Agee. Like Steve Earle I’m sure I would “probably read and reread it for the rest of my life,” but also perhaps always prefer the original because it was what I knew and loved, the work that had changed my life at one time.
ONE CAN ONLY WONDER IF THE RESTORED VERSION of A Death in the Family had been the original publication, how might it have fared at that time? Would it have had a similar reception as Famous Men, going quickly out of print only to be heralded later when time and timing caught up to it?
One can only wonder if the restored version of A Death in the Family had been the original publication, how might it have fared at that time?
When I think of “modern” American literature in 1957, the year A Death in the Family was published, that was also the year Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published. And just the year before in ’56, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was published and probably was still in court for censorship in ’57. William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was legally banned then but still at large. So there was at least a whole other “modern” shift in literature taking place at that time as well as what McDowell was playing for. They weren’t winning Pulitzers, but they were already shaking the gates and far from being cultural clichés at that point. Who knows, had Agee’s restored version of the novel been published then it may not have won a prize for fiction but might have found a whole new and different audience. With its surreal dreamscape drama kicking it off, leading our rather noir modern young writer protagonist to have his awakened visitation with its almost divine instruction to go back into those years and tell the story, not unlike Kerouac’s vision in the clouds to go moan for man, who knows what kind of connection the book might have made? And after the dream introduction the novel follows two common influences of both writers, beginning properly in a Joycean manner of earliest memories and song and language before coming into a more Wolfean landscape, Southern even Appalachian, small town and country, two sides of the family, and an early 20th-century domesticity that details Agee’s own you can’t go home again. There very well may have been an appreciative audience waiting for it with a whole different view of a whole different book. The wide readership that came to Famous Men shortly after this might easily have embraced the restored version of the novel as well.
No way to know how that might have gone, but one thing for sure that would have been different is a lot of speculation and questions that have been asked about Agee over the years since his death would have been answered right away, because the restored version offers a previously unknown late-in-life perspective from Agee regarding his complicated feelings on religion, his hometown of Knoxville, his father’s death, his lifelong search for a father figure, and what writing the book meant to him. All things that have been wondered and pondered over the years, questions that have swirled around him that he addresses in the dream introduction. In this and other ways the restored version is a treasure trove, a great discovery. And it certainly offers insights into Agee’s thinking about This Book, as he referred to it, what it meant to him, why he must write it, and how he must go about it, his breakthrough in doing that. The dream introduction is like a Dead Sea Scroll of Agee’s Knoxville. Appearing as it has only recently, it’s almost like Agee coming back from the dead in this dream and walking the ghost streets of Knoxville on a final battlefield with all his old demons and fears. Being brave at last like his father and making the best choices at the moment, and all the while expounding on these gaps in our understanding of him. This was a totally unexpected and out-of-this-world gift to those who have followed the man and his autobiographical connection to literature. And it puts a whole new and incredible light on the book that he spent a lifetime coming to write.
AS IT WAS, THIS DISCOVERY WOULD HAVE TO WAIT. McDowell took the book in a different direction. Steve Earle says, “Maybe it was McDowell’s belief that the world, or at least the American public, wasn’t ready to drag the body of John the Baptist down the street until his head came off. That it was the loving remembrance of his father’s death that was at the heart of this story.” If this was McDowell’s thinking, he would appear to have been correct in this assumption. Success alone, not to mention the love bestowed upon the original publication, would seem to exonerate all his decisions. I believe “the loving remembrance of his father’s death” is “at the heart” of both versions, but the original publication with its absence of the dream introduction and its inclusion of the Knoxville prologue stays more in the direct vicinity of that loving remembrance, even if it does edit most of the father out of the book.
But then, Tad Mosel’s celebrated play took it even further in that direction, the All The Way Home direction. And Hollywood’s All The Way Home with Jean Simmons’s portrayal of the mother took it even further. For a while the prize-winning book and play and feature film publicly defined Agee to a larger audience. It was as though they had dressed him up and pinned a Pulitzer on his chest. Locally, his name began to be jostled about in unusual pockets of civic pride. I wondered when some Better Homes and Gardens of Knoxville was going to start enlisting loving quotes of his to sell subdivisions. Or maybe just name a subdivision, All The Way Homes. A few more years of biographies and UT-hosted conferences and more attention to Agee’s personal life, and his always changing image has come more into balance.
WHATEVER DIRECTION McDOWELL MAY HAVE SENT THE BOOK, one of his accomplishments was to catch James Agee up with time. Agee was always a little ahead of his time. Just as Famous Men was only recognized two decades after its publication for the groundbreaking document it was, most of Agee’s notoriety has come only after his death. McDowell took perhaps Agee’s best piece of creative writing, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” already published 19 years earlier, and published it fresh as new with the new novel, featuring it as the first thing a reader comes to in the book. This seemed to do the trick, to begin the magical shift of catching the world up to Agee. Here was the high literary work that everyone had hoped and waited for Agee to create, a masterful full-length novel. The unforeseen event in the story was that it wasn’t the ailing grandfather who dies but the father, the healthy young father is the death in the family. The added dimension to this autobiographical story is that it’s not the young father who dies but his son, the son who is telling the story. Life and art doubling up to make a unique and timely tale, A Death in the Family. And thus Agee’s early and untimely death served as some sort of promotion to the book’s publication. All this brought a full attention to Agee and to the excellence of all his work, further helping to catch him up with time. From that point on everything seemed to click into place, a new light shown on every medium in which he had worked. In fact, any and everything he had written was suddenly being scrutinized and elevated to publication, the poetry, the prose, the film reviews and screenplays, his letters, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men back on bookshelves, stray essays or fragments of writing all being collected, and previously rejected articles for magazines now made into books of their own. All spawning a whirlwind of biographies and critical studies on him and his work. At the time of Agee’s death Dwight McDonald had characterized him as a James Dean of literature, and 50-something years later Steve Earle is writing the preface for Agee’s novel.
Among the new works and discoveries has been John Wranovics’ Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer, and the Lost Screenplay. The barely rumored screenplay Agee wanted to write for Chaplin to bring back his Little Tramp character in a post-nuclear war setting was found and published. Wranovics also details much of Agee’s time in Hollywood working with Chaplin and Huston, among others, as well as some history of their connection to the “Red Scare” period. In Ross Spears’s Academy Award-nominated docu-drama Agee, he interviews Agee’s wife Mia, who mentions the film idea Agee wanted to write for Chaplin. But she says it was only a couple of pages and never completed. This single reference along with a passage in one of Agee’s letters to Father Flye mentioning he had hung out with Chaplin “30-50 nights” were previously the only information I was aware of regarding their friendship and possible collaborations. One could envision (as I did) a play with a number of short scenes, each a different night where the two are hanging out and talking about everything in the world. But then, through Wranovics’s excellent research, we are all treated to so much more of their history and working relationship, as well as the actual screenplay that Agee did complete and that was found in Chaplin’s estate.
BUT, AS STEVE EARLE SAYS, “for me, it’s all about A Death in the Family.” And no other discovery since Agee’s death, from his papers or the estate or other sources, has so far been more astounding to me than the full manuscript of the novel. To think that the author had some fairly clear idea of what he wanted this work to be that is so significantly different than what the editors professed and published is a major discovery, and is immediately a study of the whole unedited manuscript and what it is. Even if, as McDowell suggests, Agee may have wanted to polish or rewrite more, or as Hugh Davis suggests, Agee might never have called it finished, what we have is what Agee did write. Jack Neely said, we’ll never know what he might have ended up writing, and this is true. But at one point, at least, he was writing what he wrote, and apparently had a concept for what it should be, with supportive notes, outlines, and correspondence.
The missing chapters are, of course, a joy to check out. There’s more of the father in the book, more details of the family and their relationship, and more of the neighborhood and Knoxville’s environs like Chilhowie Park. But, the dream introduction along with the new beginning to the novel proper is a whole other literary study to consider. If McDowell’s edited version with its first-person Knoxville prologue turning into the third person (Chapter 17 now Chapter 1) beginning of the story is a literary transition made in heaven, then Agee’s intended transition from the action and image-filled dream introduction to the very still darkness of a child’s nighttime room is a transition made somewhere between Dante’s hell and Joyce’s high tower. Agee’s introduction begins in a dream in the bright noonday sun, and the beginning of the book proper begins awaking from a dream in darkness. After the very active and dramatic and adult dream introduction it is a severe but smooth transition into the quiet nighttime stillness of a child’s dreamy world of personified darkness and the street gaslight’s reflection on the curtains that breathe like a sea creature. There is great power and beauty in this transition; the vivid struggle of the dream creates a place for the isolated wakefulness of the child to follow. And from there, from James Agee’s very earliest memories of being alive, of knowing his body, and of knowing his father and mother, he begins his story, remembering what he can of himself and his father and family through those few short years before his father’s tragic and unexpected death. This, apparently, was the literary transition that Agee conceived and created.
We still have the original publication glowing like a beautiful summer day come to that time of evening ready to take a walk in the light of mother of pearl, that sweet gloaming of twilight to darkness to stars always there waiting for us to open the book to that enchanted narrative. But we also now have this somewhat longer, stranger “restored” version of Agee’s novel as well, this crazier darker more dramatic and more modern skeleton key to the literary and psychological and surreal Agee. One does not eliminate or eclipse the other: they are both with us, and for this I am very grateful. As far as I’m concerned the evolution of this book, how it all came to be when it came to be and how we find ourselves now with this recent unfolding of the story, all happened perfectly. The two versions may beg for comparisons, but actually we do not even have to make a choice of one over the other. We have them both, and they are both the same story, each offering some part of the story the other does not have. Nothing has to be lost, anymore.
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