The Unread Book Project: A Death in the Family

James Agee + Family

It has taken me three weeks to crawl my way through James Agee’s A Death in the Family. Crawl as in slowly, gradually pulling myself through and over the dense landscape of words and pregnant prose.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning book is set in Knoxville, Tennessee in the early twentieth century. Woven with themes of loss, religion and memory, it is an autobiographical account of the death of Agee’s father and its effect on his family when he was a young boy.

That may explain the excruciating detail of the book—I felt, often, as if I were a fly on the wall, pacing back and forth while the characters interact and respond to what is happening around them. Each breath, each movement, each thought becomes a mountain of words as heavy as the grief. The story is Agee’s memory, and the slow-motion of its tragedy is as weighted in his heart as it is on the pages of this book. “The mere attempt to examine my own confusion would consume volumes,” Agee once admitted himself.

That is not to say that the story is not delicious in its detail—it is just a little too rich for my taste.

Photo: James Agee as a boy, pictured in 1915 with, from left, his grandfather Joel Tyler, his grandmother Emma Tyler, his sister Emma Agee, his uncle Hugh Tyler, and his mother Laura Agee. The photograph is from an album that belonged to Hugh Tyler, which is now in the East Tennessee History Center’s McClung Collection, found online at the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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The Four Agreements

The Unread Book Project
Book #3: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

Click here to purchase a copy of A Death in the Family or The Four Agreements.

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4 thoughts on “The Unread Book Project: A Death in the Family

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  1. Very thoughtful and succinct review of the Agee classic: explains why I probably should have read the book, and didn’t.

    Recently I read a book — also nonfiction and experiential — that affected me as this did you. It unrolled in what felt like actual time, in excruciating detail —and yet precisely because of that, gave me what felt like an actual experience of living with an autistic child. The woman who wrote it, Clara Claiborne Park, recently died in her ’80s. Her autistic daughter has achieved far more than could ever have been imagined, but the tale behind that is told in The Siege, An extraordinary book, an experience I don’t expect to go through again for quite a while, if ever. But so valuable —

    1. It is “an experience,” isn’t it? This act of living someone else’s life through the written word. Clara Claiborne Park’s book sound fascinating – thank you for sharing!

  2. You read this through the nastiest weather of the century? Courageous woman! But, obviously it had some redeeming values, since you didn’t toss it across the room! The photo seems to reflect your description. As they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

    1. Yea, I don’t know if it was courage, dedication to a cause, or the stubborn gene I inherited. Believe me, I was tempted to “toss is across the room” several times, and even wrote half of a “I’m Sorry I Can’t” post! Happy it is behind me, and looking forward to the “light reading” of The Four Agreements.

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