A UT professor has restored “A Death in the Family,” one of the most well-known novels in American literature. English professor Michael Lofaro has spent the past five years working to restore James Agee’s classic account of the death of Jay Follett and its effect on his family.
Although it took several years to complete, Lofaro said the work was “clearly worthwhile.”
“Agee was a careful and intense reviser of his own work who regularly fought editorial change,” he said. “I wanted his voice to be heard as he intended.”
After Agee died in 1955, editor David McDowell acquired his letters, notes and other writings on the novel and published it after extensive changes to the original.
“When Agee died, he left his third wife and three young children only $450,” Lofaro said. “McDowell altered the final manuscript to make it more marketable as a piece of late high modernist prose and thus provide the family with much-needed income. And he succeeded.”
Hugh Davis, lecturer in the English department and associate general editor of the restored novel, said McDowell’s alterations changed the story’s focus.
“When he prepared Agee’s manuscript for publication, McDowell changed it into more of a universal meditation on grief than a story of Rufus’ (Follett) relationship with his father ... by omitting chapters that dealt with the relationship,” Davis said.
UT’s library purchased the letters, notes and other writings from McDowell in 1988. Among the papers were two completed chapters of “A Death in the Family.” The missing chapters had never been published.
“This led me to investigate the other original manuscripts held at the Ransom Center of the University of Texas,” Lofaro said. “It immediately became clear that the novel McDowell published two years after Agee’s death and that won the Pulitzer Prize was not what Agee had intended.”
According to Lofaro, McDowell added a light introduction to the piece while omitting the “very different, dark and disturbing” original introduction. He also deleted more than nine chapters, printed draft versions of other chapters and altered the time sequence of the novel.
Lofaro said Agee’s working notes included several outlines for the novel. Lofaro used those outlines, along with “internal evidence” from the chapters, to chronologically arrange the novel.
The restored novel is part of a 10-volume set, “The Works of James Agee.” The set will include letters, short prose, film criticism, poetry and two volumes of screenplays, among other works.
“‘The Works of James Agee’ will both correct the profound bias, selectivity and errors of previous editions and will include a wealth of new material ... that will make the present edition a valuable resource for scholars, students and general readers,” Lofaro said.
Davis said the most rewarding part of the project was being involved in the “critical rehabilitation of an important author.”
“I hope that the restoration of ‘A Death in the Family’ will lead to renewed interest in Agee’s other works,” Davis said.
Lofaro said, “I hope what is, to my mind, a new novel provides people with as much enjoyment as (its) reconstruction ... gave me. You can read both Agee’s novel and McDowell’s version of it from my edition and decide which you like best.”
The restored novel has been published and can be purchased from UT Press.
Professor restores Agee novel
Published: Tue Dec 04, 2007