A Death in the Family

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A Death in the Family
First edition cover
AuthorJames Agee
CountryUnited States
Published1957 (McDowell, Obolensky)
Media typePrint (hardcover)
Pages339 pp

A Death in the Family is an autobiographical novel by author James Agee, set in Knoxville, Tennessee. He began writing it in 1948, but it was not quite complete when he died in 1955 (with reputedly many portions having been written in the home of his friend Frances Wickes).[1] It was edited and released posthumously in 1957 by editor David McDowell. Agee's widow and children were left with little money after Agee's death and McDowell wanted to help them by publishing the work. Agee won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958 for the novel. The novel was included on Time's 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.[2]


The novel is based on the events that occurred to Agee in 1915 when his father went out of town to see his own father, who had suffered a heart attack. During the return trip, Agee's father was killed in a car accident. The novel provides a portrait of life in Knoxville, Tennessee, showing how such a loss affects the young widow, her two children, her atheist father and the dead man's alcoholic brother.

New version[edit]

University of Tennessee professor Michael Lofaro claimed the version published in 1957 was not the version intended for print by the author. He discussed his work at a conference that was part of the Knoxville James Agee Celebration (April 2005). Lofaro tracked down the author's original manuscripts and notes and has reconstructed a version he says is more authentic. Lofaro's version of the novel, titled A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text, was published in 2007 as part of the 10-volume set The Collected Works of James Agee (University of Tennessee Press). Lofaro is also the author of Agee Agonistes: Essays on the Life, Legend, and Works of James Agee (2007).


According to Lofaro, McDowell altered the original text in a number of ways:

  • Removed the original opening, a nightmare scene, and instead started the novel with "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," a previously published short work of Agee's that was not intended as part of the novel.
  • Altered the order of the book, which was intended to be chronological.
  • Some chapters were removed.
  • Some chapters were chopped up.
  • Some chapters were moved and presented as flashbacks.
  • The number of chapters was changed from 44 short chapters to 20.


The novel was adapted into All the Way Home, a 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tad Mosel.

The movie All The Way Home (1963) was adapted by Philip H. Reisman, Jr. from the Agee novel and the Mosel play. It was filmed in the same neighborhood where Agee grew up in Knoxville. Produced by David Susskind and directed by Alex Segal, it stars Robert Preston, Jean Simmons and Pat Hingle.

A live version of the play aired on television in 1981 starring Sally Field and William Hurt. It was broadcast live on NBC from the Bing Theatre on the campus of the University of Southern California.

A TV movie filmed in Tennessee and starring Annabeth Gish, aired on PBS in 2002.[3]

Samuel Barber wrote Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947, revised 1950) on commission from the American soprano Eleanor Steber, who had asked for a work for soprano with orchestra.

William Mayer wrote an opera based on the novel; it premiered in 1983.[4]

Knoxville the musical (2022) written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, is a "universal coming-of-age story about family, faith and love—and the boy who will grow up to write it. With a sweeping musical score blending folk, bluegrass and ballads." 2-time Tony winner Frank Galati adapted Knoxville's book and directed the musical. Knoxville was in rehearsals for its world premiere at the Asolo Repertory Theater in Sarasota, FL but was forced to stop because of the pandemic. It came to the stage as part of their 2021-2022 season in April to May 2022.


  1. ^ http://rs5.loc.gov/service/mss/eadxmlmss/eadpdfmss/2010/ms010257.pdf[bare URL PDF]
  2. ^ Grossman, Lev; Richard Lacayo (16 October 2005). "All-Time 100 Novels: The Complete List". Time. Archived from the original on October 19, 2005.
  3. ^ escaped (26 March 2016). "A Death in the Family (TV Movie 2002)". IMDb. Retrieved 26 March 2016.
  4. ^ ArmsServices. "Subito Music Online Store". Retrieved 26 March 2016.

Further reading[edit]

  • Paul F. Brown, Rufus: James Agee in Tennessee, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press (2018), 422 pages. ISBN 1621904245.
  • Kenneth Curry, "The Knoxville of James Agee's A Death in the Family," Tennessee Studies in Literature XIV (1969), Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, pp. 1–14.

External links[edit]