James Agee died in 1955, at age 45. Two years later, his novel A Death in the Family was published with the help of David McDowell, Agee’s editor. The novel won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Agee, and famed book critic Alfred Kazin wrote that it was “the work of a writer whose power with English words can make you gasp.”
Today, on the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth, we have reason to re-visit (or discover) Agee’s masterpiece. Penguin Classics has republished the novel with an introduction by Steve Earle, who lived in Tennessee — Agee’s home state — for many years. (I know Earle as a hard-living songwriter and singer, but he wrote a short story collection, Doghouse Roses, in 2001.)
In the introduction, Earle writes, “[James Agee’s words] are so indelibly etched someplace inside of me that I couldn’t reach to rub them out even if I wanted to. And I never want to.”
About a year ago, A Death in the Family created buzz because literary scholar Michael A. Lofaro of the University of Tennessee edited A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text. The New York Times praised Lofaro’s volume, which opens with an entirely different scene. Will Blythe wrote:
At last we have A Death in the Family that appears closer to the author’s original intention. This tidying is good in its own right, but the main reason to celebrate the publication of this version is that it serves as a fresh reminder of the wondrous nature of Agee’s prose — unabashedly poetic, sacramental in its embrace of reality, and rhythmical as rain on a Tennessee tin roof.
I assume that the new Penguin edition is the original, McDowell-assisted text. You can read an excerpt here, then tell us: What are your thoughts on re-releases of classic books? Is there a reason to re-package something that’s already great? I think it’s exciting when an older book gets fresh attention. I haven’t read A Death in the Family, but now I think I might.