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Giving Agee's 'Death' a new life

A university professor has restored texts to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

January 30, 2008|Duncan Mansfield | Associated Press

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- "A Death in the Family" won the Pulitzer Prize a half century ago and became an American literary classic, but it was not the book James Agee wrote.

"It wasn't what Agee intended. At least, it isn't the manuscript that he left when he died," University of Tennessee professor Michael Lofaro says.

More than two dozen chapters were eliminated, broken apart or rearranged in the posthumous editing of Agee's homage to his childhood in Knoxville in the early 1900s -- a story punctuated by his father's death in a car crash.

Now, in the first volume of a planned 10-volume set of Agee's collected works and letters, the University of Tennessee Press has published a more richly detailed and chronological narrative that may be truer to Agee's plan. The result could be a revelation to readers puzzled by the book's jumbled italicized flashbacks and incongruous prologue -- the poetic and previously published essay "Knoxville: Summer of 1915."

Under the original edits, Agee's father became less of an individual and more of a universal parent. And a succession of copy editors turned a deaf ear to Agee's keen sense of "East Tennessee" dialect. In one of hundreds of entries, "bran new" became "brand new," for example.

The result of several years' research by Lofaro, the new "A Death in the Family, A Restoration of the Author's Text" carries the approval of the Committee on Scholarly Editions of the Modern Language Assn. and the support of the Agee family trust.

How different is the new book? Lofaro found 16 chapters to insert before the first chapter of the Pulitzer winner -- 144 pages in a revised edition of 356 pages.

"I don't think the current book would have been selected by the Book of the Month Club, which was part of its early penetration into people's consciousness," said Paul Sprecher, family trustee and husband to Agee's oldest daughter, Deedee Agee. "But I think it is a fuller story, a more honest story and I think it is more what Agee had in mind. It is less sentimental. It is a little wrenching."

Numerous classics have been reissued posthumously, in expanded forms, in recent years, including Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" and Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie." Scholars have differed whether the new editions improved upon the original publications.

Agee, the pioneering film critic, screenwriter ("The African Queen"), poet and journalist ("Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"), died at 45 of a heart attack in a New York City cab in 1955. His greatest fame came after his death, beginning with the publication of his untitled story of his early life. He had worked on the novel for years. It was nearly done, written in pencil on stacks of unnumbered, yellowed pages.

Friend and editor David McDowell, who was searching for income for Agee's widow, Mia, and three children, cobbled together and published the book as "A Death in the Family" in 1957 to critical raves and popular appeal. It won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1958, won a second Pulitzer in 1961 for Tad Mosel's adapted play "All the Way Home" and was turned into at least three major TV productions, including a PBS "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation in 2002.

But McDowell left a different story -- maybe even a better one -- on his editing desk.

The first hint came in 1988 when McDowell's son sold a box of his father's papers to the university. "I went over and looked at the stuff, and there were two substantial chapters in Agee's hand that nobody had seen before," Lofaro said. "And I went, hmmmm. . . . " (Those two chapters were published by Harper's magazine in December. They were titled "Enter the Ford," referring to his father's car, and "Chilhowee Park," a park in Knoxville).

The find began Lofaro's long search for Agee's original vision, as lawsuits over ownership of the papers loitered in the courts, finally resolved by Sprecher's appointment as Agee trustee in 2002.

Lofaro acknowledges being motivated by McDowell's claim in an editors' note that still appears at the front of every copy of "A Death in the Family" that Agee's book "is presented here exactly as he wrote it."

The evidence in the Agee archives at the University of Texas in Austin, the trove at Tennessee and materials still with the Agee trust suggests otherwise. Lofaro found drafts, revisions, outlines and letters in which Agee described how the book should flow and what it should contain.

"It was patently clear he had jiggered it," Lofaro said of McDowell, though the effort was "done with the right intentions" to make money for the family, expose the world to Agee's masterpiece and "to keep the memory and legend of James Agee on a certain track."

A key change was a new introduction. Instead of McDowell's use of the bucolic "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," Agee had written a surreal nightmare in which the author finds himself as an adult back in Knoxville carrying the dead body of his father. There are images here that resonate through the rest of the book.

The other was a clear desire to tell the story in sequence. McDowell cut several chapters of Agee's earliest memories, then fashioned bits and pieces of them into two flashback chapters -- an aesthetic device Lofaro believes would have been popular at the time.

Yet Agee apparently planned a more straightforward approach.

In a letter to his mother, Agee wrote simply: "I am trying to write a short book, a novel, beginning with the first things I can remember, and ending with my father's funeral."

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