Places: A Death in the Family

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1957

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: 1915-1916

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Knoxville

*Knoxville. Death in the Family, ATennessee city that is the novel’s main setting, as the home of Jay and Mary Follet and their two children. The novel begins with a short section titled “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” a poetically evocative description of summer evenings that breaks into free verse. After supper, as daylight fades and children run around yelling and playing, relaxed fathers, collars removed and shirt cuffs peeled back, are outside watering their lawns with hoses. This scene competes with the natural sounds and sights of locusts, crickets, frogs, and fireflies, which gradually increase as the night comes on. One by one the men coil their hoses and retreat inside their homes. Not even the man of the house–husband, father, and breadwinner–can hold back the night. Thus the short descriptive section serves as a poetic foreword to the whole novel, which develops the effects on a family of its father’s sudden death.

The opening section also introduces a subtheme of the novel–the social and cultural tensions between the Follet and Lynch families. Jay, Mary, and children live in a lower middle-class neighborhood of similar houses and families, and the Lynches (Mary’s parents, brother, and aunt) live nearby in a slightly older middle-class neighborhood. The middle-class way of life is identified with the city, and the Lynches, who are comfortable, somewhat cultured, and Roman Catholic, assume that their own way of life is the desirable norm. To them, people outside Knoxville are merely hillbillies.

The Lynches admire Jay for having raised himself out of his background (though at first they are aghast when Mary marries him). Jay himself, thoroughly domesticated by the time of the novel (and even cured of a drinking problem), seems to share his wife’s and her family’s middle-class outlook. Yet every now and then he has to slip himself a drink, and he sometimes finds himself gazing north toward the mountains of his birth and feeling something missing from his life. To some extent, Jay appears to fill this void through his relationship with his young son, Rufus, who idolizes his manly father.

It is probably Jay’s manly qualities that attract Mary to marry him. However, her middle-class assumptions and religion make her want to tame those very same qualities in him. In general, the women in the novel seem to take to middle-class life, and its ally religion, more readily than do the men. Even the Lynch men chafe against religion and priests, while the Lynch women embrace them and submit. Like middle-class life, Catholicism is associated more with the city in that part of Tennessee. In the novel, then, the city is the locus of the good life, a stage that expands women’s possibilities but that may constrict men.

*LaFollette

*LaFollette. Small Tennessee town in the mountains about forty miles north of Knoxville that is the home of the Follet family, whose name links them to the place, LaFollette at the time was primarily a trading center for farmers from the nearby Powell River Valley. To the Lynches, LaFollette epitomizes backwardness, as do the Follets who live there: Jay’s drunken brother (an undertaker), their shiftless father, and their downtrodden mother. Jay’s ties to his family and the place finally claim him: A speeding driver, he dies in an automobile accident at Powell Station on the way back from visiting his supposedly sick father.

*Appalachian Mountains

*Appalachian Mountains. Range that includes the Cumberland Mountains around LaFollette and the Great Smoky Mountains east of Knoxville. People living in these rugged mountains are so backward that they are romanticized in the novel. The Follets make a pilgrimage to the family home in the Cumberlands, and Jay takes his family on a scenic tour of the Great Smoky Mountains. Out of touch with modern times, the mountain people exemplify a seemingly idyllic life close to nature and the land, a definite alternative to the middle-class norms of Knoxville. Thus the mountains create a certain ambiguity in this autobiographical novel (Jay’s young son, Rufus, seems to be based on Agee), perhaps an ambiguity that the author felt about his own background.

Sources for Further StudyBarson, Alfred T. A Way of Seeing: A Critical Study of James Agee. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.Bergreen, Laurence. James Agee: A Life. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984. A fascinating biography that discusses A Death in the Family. Many fine photos.Doty, Mark A. Tell Me Who I Am: James Agee’s Search for Selfhood. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981. An interesting study of Agee’s search for selfhood, in which the remembrances in A Death in the Family play a major role.Folks, Jeffrey J., and David Madden, eds. Remembering James Agee. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. Essays and recollections by people who knew Agee, including his widow.Kramer, Victor A. James Agee. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Covers all of Agee’s work including a lucid and insightful discussion of A Death in the Family.Lofaro, Michael A., ed. James Agee: Reconsiderations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995. Collection of essays that considers the Agee legacy; extensive consideration of A Death in the Family and of Agee’s narrative techniques.Madden, David, and Jeffrey J. Folks, eds. Remembering James Agee, 2d ed. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997. The twenty-two essays in this book touch on every important aspect of Agee’s life and work. They range from the reminiscences of Father Flye to those of his third wife, Mia Agee. The interpretive essays on his fiction and films are particularly illuminating, as are the essays on his life as a reporter and writer for Fortune and Time.Moreau, Geneviève. The Restless Journey of James Agee. Translated by Miriam Kleiger. New York: William Morrow, 1977. A sensitive portrayal of Agee and his work.Spiegel, Alan. James Agee and the Legend of Himself: A Critical Study. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998. Important study of all of Agee’s work; in-depth consideration of A Death in the Family, including discussion of the book as a transcendental novel infused with a sacramental vision.
Categories: Places