star-clipart-02.gifstar-clipart-02.gifA Death In The Family

By: James Agee

About The Author:

James Agee

James Agee was born on November 27, 1909 in Knoxville, Tennessee. His father was Hugh and his mother was Laura Whitman Tyler. He was an American author, journalist, poet, screen writer, and film critic.When Agee was just six years old his father past away, which later was his inspiration to write the book, A Death In The Family. In 1928 he attended Phillips Exeter Academy where he was president of The Lantern Club and editor of the Monthly where his first stories, poems, and plays were published. After barely passing his high school courses, he was accepted to Harvard University's class of 1932. He accepted and became the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Advocate. After graduating he wrote for the Time and Fortune magazines. He also critiqued the film, The Nation, as most people know him for. In 1957 he wrote A Death In The Family, which was an autobiographical novel and won the posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It was also turned into a film and was aired on PBS, June 19, 2002. He was also the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He died on May 16, 1955 of a heart attack at the age of 45. He died two days before the anniversary of his father's death (Rufus James Agee 1909-1955).

Plot Synopsis:

A Death In The Family by James Agee is an outstanding novel that follows the Follet family through a difficult time. Jay and Mary Follet live in Knoxville, Tennessee with a son, Rufus, and a daughter, Catherine. Jay and Rufus decides they would like to go on a trip to the movies. "Well, spose we go to the picture show" (Agee 11). They go even though Mary disapproves. On their way home they stop at a bar, where Jay brags about his son's ability to read better than he could at that age. After a couple of hours at the bar, they return home. When the kids are asleep Jay receives a phone call, very late at night around three in the morning from his brother, Ralph. Their father has been very sick lately and Ralph calls to tell Jay their father is dying because he had experienced another one of his heart attacks. "But O Lord God, hit looks like the end, Jay" (Agee 23). Ralph is an alcoholic and has a tendency to exaggerate. Jay decides to go to the family farm just in case Ralph is telling the truth and their father's illness has gotten worse.


When Jay has left, Mary is having trouble falling asleep because all she can think about is Jay and his father. "She would doze a little, wake and listen to the dry silence, doze, wake again sharply, to the thing that troubled her" (Agee 47). The book now expands on Mary Follet's character by describing how she feels about the whole situation. "She thought of her husband, driving down on one of the most solemn errands of his life, and of his father, lying fatally sick, perhaps dying, perhaps dead at this moment (she crossed herself), and she could not bring herself to feel as deeply about it as she felt that she should, for her husband's sake" (Agee 47). Once the kids have awakened Mary prepares breakfast for them and tells Rufus and Catherine that Jay went to see Grandpa Follet and will not be home until late. She then explains to Rufus and Catherine why their father had to leave. "Grampa Follet is very sick. Uncle Ralph phoned up very late last night, when all of us were asleep. Grampa has had one of his attacks" (Agee 53). Hannah Lynch, Rufus's great aunt, then calls Mary to ask if Rufus would like to go shopping with her that day. Rufus decides he would love to go shopping and meets Hannah at her house after school. The highlight of the trip is the purchase of a hat. Hannah allows Rufus to pick out a hat he wants and she would get it for him. Rufus is over joyed and picks one out and is excited to show his dad, Jay, when he arrives home.

Jay arrives at the family farm after driving for some time and becomes very angry with Ralph because Ralph had
exaggerated once again. His father was still sick, but not in the condition where he was about to die. It then turns to Ralph's point of view. Agee describes how Ralph was constantly drinking and has come to realize that no one respects him because he is always drunk.

18.jpgThe day has come that Jay is suppose to arrive home, but instead Mary receives a phone call from a man. "After further silence the voice said, 'There's been a slight- your husband has been in an accident" (Agee 103). The man on the phone tells her that Jay has been in a serious accident. He then asks her to send a male from the family to Powell Station immediately. Mary hangs up quickly and dials the number to her brother, Andrew, and tells him the news of the accident and informs him that he will need to head out to the site of the accident. Andrew brings along a family friend, Walter, and on the way to the site he drops of Aunt Hannah to keep Mary company. While Mary waits for the arrival of Aunt Hannah, she prepares tea and a bed just in case Jay is well enough to come home. Once Andrew, Walter, and Aunt Hannah arrive to the house, Andrew assures Mary that he will call as soon as they know anything. Andrew and Walter then set off to the accident leaving Hannah there with Mary. Mary starts to babble on about her worries and her thoughts about the accident while Hannah listens and drinks tea. As time pass they began to worry more and more.

Andrew then returns back to Mary's home with important news. "Oh, don't hit me; and before he could speak he heard her say, thinly and gently, 'He's dead, Andrew, isn't he?' and he could not speak, but nodded" (Agee 132). Andrew had delivered his news that her husband had died in the crash. He explains that on his way home a cotter pin fell out of the steering mechanism of his car, and that when he hit a rock in the road he lost control. His head was thrown forward onto the steering wheel, causing a concussion that was instantly fatal and likely painless.
To find out how the Follet family deals with this tragic news read the book!smiley-face.jpg

For the whole book online go to:,M1


What worked? thumbs_up.jpg
Many elements in this book put together made it work. James Agee does a great job on describing each character by how they act throughout the book. It showed alot of historical context through the way they characters related to each other. It does not just tell the audience what the character is like, but it allows them to read and interpret each character themselves. This book also worked because it described every little detail, so the readers could understand what the author was trying to get across and could feel every emotion and thought the author had.

James Agee also does a great job at showing the relationship between family members and how they cope with a death in the family. It showed the relationship from the beginning when everything was fine and going good and all of a sudden it takes a drastic turn for the worse. Agee displays in the book how one little incident can change everything and relationships between family members. This accident that happens in this book makes it a more compelling and eye catching read that keeps the readers want to keep reading.

What Didn't Work? thumbs_down.jpg
There were not many problems with this book, but there were things that could have been improved. First of all, the author had died before he was able to completely finish the publication of A Death In The Family, so the publishers had to put the book together in the way it made most sense to them. The publishers also added some additional information to the book to tie it all together. "Knoxville: Summer, 1915," (Agee, 3), was a part of the opening section that the publishers had added to allow the story to flow. This did not work because the book was not entirely Agee's words.

Secondly, this book was also kind of confusing because it kept switching view points. It went from following Jay's point of view to Mary's point of view, which would get the readers confused easily. The way it jumped from points of views made the reader have to stop and think about what they are reading to understand that it is now in another's character point of view. Those were the main points that did not work in the book, A Death In The Family.

Why read A Death In The Family?


I would definitely recommend reading A Death In The Family because each chapter has something new and excited that happens. A lot of people are also able to relate to this story and can understand how each character is feeling. The way Agee builds up the story makes the reader want to keep reading and not put it down. It is also a great book for people who like to read about historical times. Agee brings you back in time by showing the readers the relationship between children and adult. In conclusion this book would be great for everyone!

Why is this book outstanding?

This book is considered outstanding for many reasons. First off it has an incredible plot. He uses a situation that could really happen for the readers to be able to relate to. It shows the audience that anyone is able to overcome any situation even as tragic as a death. Secondly, the characters are described with every detail, so you can fully understand how they feel about the situation. This book is also great because it has the ability to weaving in symbolism. The way the butterfly lands on Jay's coffin symbolizes that all the characters must cling on to hope, so that they can cope and move on from the death. This is a crucial, but subtle way to do it. Finally, the way he incorporates the character's personality into what they are doing makes it outstanding. He ties everything together so perfectly that it is hard to deny this book to be anything less than outstanding. That is why A Death In The Family is an outstanding book and is also put on the outstanding book list.

Literary Works:

book_clipart_3.gifThis book is called A Death In The Family. It is written by James Agee. It was published in July 1998 by Vintage Books U.S.A. This book in particular could fit under multiple genres such as autobiography, fiction, and classic because it uses a mixture of bother real life experience and made up information. Agee also incorporates symbolism in his book. He uses personal and spiritual. Agee uses mainly different points of view. He switches points of view between characters throughout the book ("A Death In The Family").

Reviews Of The Book By Others:

"An utterly individual and original of the most deeply worked out expressions of human feeling that I have ever read." New York Times Book Review

"It is, in the full sense, poetry....The language of the book, at once luminous and discreet...remains in the mind." New Republic

"People I know who read A Death in the Family forty years ago still talk about it. So do I. It is a great book, and I'm happy to see it done anew." Andre Dubus, author of Dancing After Hours and Meditations From A Moveable Chair

Work Cited:

"(Rufus) James Agee (1909-1955)". IHAS: Poet. 5 Mar. 2009.
"James Agee Biography". Book Rags. 2005-2006. 5 Mar. 2009.

Agee, James. A Death in the Family. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Inc, 1967.

"A Death In The Family". Powell's Books - A Death In The Family by James Agee. 18 Mar. 2009.

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