Primary Intent: James Agee
Using primary manuscript materials at the Ransom Center, scholar Michael Lofaro has recently published a restored version of James Agee's memoir A Death in the Family. The nearly-complete memoir was pieced together and originally published after Agee's death by his literary executor David McDowell and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Fifty years later, Lofaro has taken a second look at the primary manuscript materials of the novel and put together a new version, re-tooling the structure of the book by making it chronological.
Here, Lofaro writes about what it was like to work with Agee's papers at the Ransom Center to write his book A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text.
Restoring Agee's memoir from his primary manuscripts was a detective odyssey that occupied two decades. In 1988, when I saw the collection of the papers of David McDowell, the editor and publisher of the novel, purchased by the other UT (Tennessee), it contained two major hitherto unseen chapters of Death. I thought that I might now unlock the mystery of that Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The Agee Trust was unwilling, however, to grant permission for any publication, so my research remained on hold from 1994 until the advent of a new trustee in 2002.
For fifty years, although suspicions were raised, no one could dispute the editors' claim that the work published two years after Agee's death was essentially "presented here exactly as he [Agee] wrote it." The bulk of Agee's original manuscripts at the Ransom Center, McDowell's original typescript of these materials, and a series of Agee's plans, outlines, and notes, however, all corroborated significant alterations to what was indeed a nearly finished manuscript, one that was longer and structured differently than the published version of 1957. The kindness of the Center in providing photocopies and a good deal of time then spent in Austin unraveling Agee's intent—his tiny, crabbed, always seemingly unsharpened pencil strokes that often inscribed 800 words unto unnumbered sheets of cheap, five-and-dime-store paper could be frustrating—eventually resulted in the restoration of the original text.
Agee's introduction is a nightmare rather than a reverie; there are thirteen "new" chapters; the text is chronological and has no flashback chapters; and young Rufus now develops a deep and caring interaction with a father who is more present than absent from his life. In many ways Agee's text is a new novel. The restored edition allows you to read both it and the McDowell version adapted from it and to enjoy making your own judgments about the two books.
Michael A. Lofaro is Lindsay Young Professor of American literature and American and Cultural Studies at the University of Tennessee. He is the general editor of The Works of James Agee (10 volumes), and is editing Boone, Crockett, And Black Hawk: Visions of the American West in 1833.