A Death in the Family (1957)
I just found this intro to an essay I never wrote and thought the quotes were worth posting.
Throughout A Death in the Family, Agee’s prose alternates between moments of simple and startlingly evocative description, as here, near the beginning of the novel . . .
He took his shoes, a tie, a collar and collar buttons, and started from the room. He saw the rumpled bed. Well, he thought, I can do something for her. He put his things on the floor, smoothed the sheets, and punched the pillows. The sheets were still warm on her side. He drew the covers up to keep the warmth, then laid them open a few inches, so it would look inviting to get into. She’ll be glad of that, he thought, very well pleased with the looks of it. He gathered up his shoes, collar, tie and buttons, and made for the kitchen, taking special care as he passed the children’s door, which was slightly ajar.
. . . and moments of unadorned psychology, as here, near the end:
I am aware of what has happened, I am meeting it face to face, I am living through it. There had been, even, a kind of pride, a desolate kind of pleasure, in the feeling: I am carrying a heavier weight than I could have dreamed it possible for a human being to carry, yet I am living through it. It had of course occurred to her that this happens to many people, that it is very common, and she humbled and comforted herself in this thought. She thought: this is simply what living is; I never realized before what it is. She thought: now I am more nearly a grown member of the human race; bearing children, which had seemed so much, was just so much apprenticeship. She thought she had never before had a chance to realize the strength that human beings have, to endure; she loved and revered all those who had ever suffered, even those who had failed to endure. She thought that she had never before had a chance to realize the might, grimness and tenderness of God.
I suppose this would put Agee’s novel somewhere in that line from modernists like Stein, Hemingway, and W.C. Williams (“No ideas but in things”) to the mid-century The New Yorker school of Raymond Carver and his minimalist disciples. What distinguishes A Death in the Family from those others, though, is the directness of Agee’s analysis and the complexity of his renderings.