James Agee’s “A Death in the Family” 2.0

James Agee, who now vies with Cormac McCarthy as the greatest writer to come out of Knoxville, is most famous now for his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, which was published two years after he died in 1955. It won a Pulitzer Prize, and began with these words: “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

Based on new material found in archives at two “UTs”–the University of Tennessee and the University of Texas, Michael A. Lofaro, a professor at the former, has reassembled a version of A Death in the Family published by the University of Tennessee Press. Fred Brown has a great piece in the News Sentinel about the new book.

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Posthumously published books are always tricky. Editors cannot always know what an author wanted to say, and some editors may have a better vision of a good book than the author did in the first place. The best example of this is the writing of Thomas Wolfe of Asheville, North Carolina, in which legendary editor Maxwell Perkins supposedly carved The Web and the Rock, You Can’t Go Home Again and The Hills Beyond from a massive manuscript left by the author.

When I used to write magazine articles, it was sometimes difficult to get paid. Rather than send dunning letters and run the risk of annoying editors who might give me future assignments, I had a stack of postcards from Wolfe’s home in Asheville and would send one to the offending person with some mention of the amount. I would always end with this line: “I would appreciate prompt payment, for as you can see, the Wolfe is at the door.”

Corny, but it worked.

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This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

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