How is it possible, I mean, seriously, how is it possible that I have never read this classic novel by James Agee? That in 4 years of high school taking every possible English-type class, 4 years in college as an English major, and 2 or 3 years in graduate school as an English/creative writing major, no one ever put Agee on a reading list? I don't get it.
I hear my father; I need never fear. I hear my mother; I shall never be lonely, or want for love. When I am hungry it is they who provide for me; when I am in dismay, it is they who fill me with comfort. When I am astonished or bewildered, it is they who make the weak ground firm beneath my soul; it is in them that I put my trust. … I hear my father and my mother and they are my giants, my king and my queen, beside whom there are no others so wise or worthy or honorable or brave or beautiful in this world. I need never fear: nor ever shall I lack for loving-kindness.
A Death in the Family is, truly, an American classic. In this beautifully lyrical, autobiographical novel, Agee presents the life of the boy Rufus. Rufus is a cherished son in a tiny family with a big extended family. Preceding the novel is the stunning narrative piece called "Knoxville: Summer, 1915." This piece is a slow, dreamy observation of a summer night in a neighborhood from a child's perspective. The novel then opens with the happy life of the Follet family. They are working class people, and Mary and Jay adore each other and their two young children. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles are also central to the family dynamic, and together they make up Rufus's world.
The book is sectioned between straight narrative and Rufus's stream-of-conscious observations. The thoughts of Rufus were heartbreakingly beautiful. I'm not sure I've ever read a more apt description of the happiness and security that comes with being in the midst of a loving, stable family. Agee's narrative writing is simple but powerful; his "Rufus sections" are pure poetry. The combination is staggering.
But Rufus's perfect world must inevitably end. One hot summer night, Jay Follet take a late-night drive to his dying father's bedside north of Knoxville, and on the way home he has a fatal car accident. The rest of the novel dances between Mary's coping, funeral preparations, and the viewpoint of Rufus and his baby sister Catherine. It's all devastating, and like Mary, the reader hopes there has been some mistake.
I have to wonder if I love this novel so much partly because it takes place in Knoxville. I love thinking of Agee's old city, and do certainly delight in watching a Shakespeare performance on the same Market Square that Agee details when Rufus buys his first cap or driving by James Agee St. up on the UT campus. But regardless of place, this is southern literature at its best.