Home Books 'A Death in the Family': An autobiographical novel

'A Death in the Family': An autobiographical novel

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There is this brilliant scene in “The African Queen” where Humphrey Bogart gets soused and when he’s passed out Katherine Hepburn pours out all his Gordon’s gin into the river.

The movie itself might be slightly far-fetched—I doubt a drunk and a missionary could sink a German ship—but it’s beautifully written and the acting, as you might imagine, is beyond perfection. Hepburn and Bogart belong on that boat together. 1 Bogart’s diatribe in that scene is scathing and witty, a combination that only great writing and great acting can pull off.

The C.S. Forester novel was adapted to the screen by James Agee. Of course, a great deal of the movie is Forester’s words, but it was Agee who brought the book to life in a movie many believe was one of the best of the 1950s. A hard-drinker and smoker, Agee would eventually die of a heart attack when in the back of a taxi, two days before the anniversary of his own father’s death. This fact is important because his novel, “A Death in the Family,” is an autobiographical account of his father’s death and the wounds it inflicted on his young mind. 2

Agee’s last novel, which won him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize—alliteration unintentional—is set in Tennessee in 1915. Jay Follet is a kindhearted family man who receives a call from his drunkard brother and is informed that his ailing father probably won’t make it through the night. Follet drives up to his father’s home only to find that the old man isn’t near death. On his way back home, Follet is in an accident and dies instantly.

“You’ve got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice. You’ve got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of a howl about it. You’ve got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they’ve come through it and that you will too. You’ll bear it because there isn’t any choice—except to go to pieces. You’ve got two children to take care of. And regardless of that you owe it to yourself and you own it to him… When something rotten like this happens. Then you have your choice. You start to really be alive, or you start to die. That’s all.”

The book is riddled with these highly personal, fiery speeches that only a young man who experienced his father’s death in real life could relay.  Though only seven when the accident happened in real life, there is no question that Rufus, Jay’s son, is cut straight from Agee. There is a special kind of sadness in the pages of this book and though I did think it could have been shorter, there was an honesty in the writing that kept me from putting it down. 3

“People can only get through these things by being blind at least half the time.”

On the back cover of the book there is a description that says “Agee creates an overwhelmingly powerful novel of innocence, tenderness, and loss that should be read aloud for the sheer music of the prose.” Though this might be hyperbolic, I think it’s evident he had a poet’s mind. He only published one book of poetry, but there is a swiftness and meter to the book that shines through, especially in the sections where Rufus is coming to grips with losing his father. Rufus understood, via his uncle, that perhaps his father was not a religious man, known for being pragmatic and loving without having the Lord in his corner. There is something great about a novel set in 1915 and a man sort of shunning the church. This was a very subtle part of the novel, but nonetheless important considering the book is based around death, the after-life, the way we console ourselves during the grieving process. Where one man turns to God, another faces death straight on without faith in God. For Agee, the writing of this book had to have been a cathartic process.

There is a profound passage near the end of the novel where Agee describes, though Rufus’ eyes, the pallbearers carrying the casket from his grandfather’s house into the hearse. Agee describes the scene meticulously and I read it over three times and this passage is, as “The New Yorker” noted about most of the novel, “wonderfully alive.” It seems that Agee had said good-bye to his father from a distance and I wonder whether this is also how he viewed his spirituality, something in the distance, unknown, perhaps unneeded. 4

Agee died at just 45 and left behind a hefty body of work that included poetry, film reviews, articles, short stories, and novels. It is said that “A Death in the Family” is his seminal work. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my favorite book about death, “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann. Though obviously different in many ways, the overall theme of death radiates through both. And both novels were written relying heavily on personal experiences. It’s safe to say when I think of novels about death, Agee’s won’t be far behind Mann’s.

“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 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.”

Notes:

  1. My all-time favorite Bogart quote is “The whole world is about three drinks behind.” God, that man was tremendous.
  2. I found it coincidental that they also both died in automobiles.
  3. In Agee’s defense, there aren’t many books that I believe couldn’t use a good chopping.
  4. Pure conjecture on my part, perhaps because this is how I view my own spirituality.