KNOXVILLE — James Agee’s “A Death in the Family” has been a staple in American literature for 50 years, but it was not the same novel that the author intended to publish.
University of Tennessee professor Michael A. Lofaro restored the novel to reflect the manuscript Agee left completed at his death. “A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text” is Volume 1 of the new series “The Works of James Agee,” published by the University of Tennessee Press. It will be available in bookstores in early December.
Lofaro, general editor for the series, is Lindsay Young Professor of American Literature and American and Cultural Studies at UT. The associate general editor is Hugh Davis, a lecturer in the Department of English who earned his doctorate at UT.
“A Death in the Family” is a novel about Agee’s childhood and his father’s death. Agee grew up in Knoxville.
Agee died in 1955, and his editor-publisher brought out “A Death in the Family” in 1957 after significantly altering the author’s original manuscript. “A Death in the Family” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
The beginning of the reconstructed novel is vastly different and replaces the well-known reverie called “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” with an intense nightmare sequence. The reconstruction puts the novel — this time including 10 deleted chapters — in Agee’s intended chronological order instead of reorganizing multiple chapters into random flashbacks.
Four of the unpublished chapters will be printed in the December issue of Harper’s under the title “‘Enter the Ford’: Lost Chapters from ‘A Death in the Family’ by James Agee.”
Like many people, Lofaro first read the novel in high school, and he recalls being confused by the story.
“My problems with the narrative at 14 were the result of the radical posthumous revision of Agee’s text by his editors to increase the book’s salability in 1957. Agee’s original version of ‘A Death’ begins with a nightmare in the narrator’s adult present and presents the ensuing story as a unified and chronological series of memories that range from his first recollection to the aftermath of his father’s funeral. For me, it represents Agee’s highest artistic achievement,” Lofaro said.
Lofaro worked on the reconstruction for more than five years.
“I clearly prefer Agee’s version, but for 50 years the older work has been a part of the fabric of American literature,” Lofaro said. “While I may become known either as the person who resurrected Agee’s masterpiece or the one who called a classic into question, for the first time readers now have in their hands a way to make their own judgments.”
“The Works of James Agee” is planned to be a 10-volume set. This first volume, a critical edition of Agee’s “A Death in the Family,” also includes an explanation of how to read the first published version of the novel from the restored edition, Agee’s draft variants of chapters and other important related manuscripts, his unfinished letters to his parents and the complete documentation of the reconstruction.
Lofaro is the author and editor of several books including “Agee Agonistes: Critical Essays and Celebrations of the Life and Work of James Agee” (2007), “James Agee Rediscovered: The Journals of ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’ and Other New Manuscripts” (2005) with Hugh Davis and “Daniel Boone: An American Life” (2003).
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