Writer James Agee was 45 years old in 1955 when he died of heart failure in the backseat of a New York taxicab. His unfinished novel, A Death in the Family, was posthumously edited and published to great acclaim two years later. It’s a deeply felt autobiographical remembrance of Agee’s childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the car crash that took his father’s life when the author was six years old. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize and became the basis for a stage play, All the Way Home, that garnered a Pulitzer of its own. (The play was adapted into a virtually forgotten 1963 film starring Robert Preston and Jean Simmons.) Agee’s literary legacy—which includes poetry, fiction, journalism, screenplays and movie reviews—has since undergone endless reappraisal and academic nitpicking. It says something about our cinema-saturated era that Agee is perhaps most celebrated today for the engaging film criticism he wrote during the 1940s for Time magazine and The Nation.
Because A Death in the Family has seemingly lost its canonical luster, it’s an inspired choice for rediscovery on the American Collection branch of ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre. As with last year’s teleplay of Eudora Welty’s The Ponder Heart, filmed on location in Mississippi, this adaptation of A Death in the Family benefits enormously from location filming in and around Knoxville, Tennessee. Especially eye-catching are the mist-shrouded back roads that frame the fateful automobile excursion by Jay Follet (John Slattery) in his Model-T Ford. Additional screen time might have been allotted to the sylvan eeriness that embodies the doomed road trip. However, director Gilbert Cates (I Never Sang for My Father) can’t be faulted for preferring to focus his attention on the strong performance by Annabeth Gish (The X-Files) as Mary Follet, the character based on Agee’s grief-stricken mother.
When the novel’s Mary Follet crumbles at the news of her husband’s death, we feel Agee’s authorial presence striving to console this hologram of his mother that’s been conjured from the wounds of his childhood memories. On the page, this phenomenon is both profoundly moving and peculiarly unsettling, as if the author is literally pouring the repeated glasses of whiskey that Mary chokes down to anesthetize her hurt. Annabeth Gish’s performance in the PBS production captures a similar wellspring of haunted emotions that transcend the teleplay’s constricting earnestness. One of her finest moments lasts but a few seconds: her character’s uncontrollable tears when young son Rufus (played by an awkward child actor named Austin Wolff) asks the inevitable question, “Is Daddy dead?” Gish’s acting is strikingly naturalistic in a manner that clashes with, or at least overshadows, other cast members such as James Cromwell (Babe, L.A. Confidential), who brings his familiar stoic resolve to the role of Mary’s pragmatic father.
The script is by Robert W. Lenski, a veteran of adapting for television popular novels like Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons. The liberties he’s taken with Agee’s text are a mixed bag. An invented flourish that works nicely is giving Mary Follet’s brother Andrew (David Alford) a vocation as a landscape painter, making the character more of a sensitive Agee-surrogate than he is in the novel. We see him brushing the final touches on a work titled “Secrets of the Lawn Waters.” The painting depicts a tranquil middle class neighborhood with fathers arcing the spray of garden hoses across their front yards. It’s an ingenious allusion to the novel’s prefatory essay, “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” in which Agee describes the watering ritual in Whitmanesque intonations:
So many qualities of sound out of the hose: so many choral differences out of those several hoses that were in earshot. Out of any one hose, the almost dead silence of the release, and the short still arch of the separate big drops, silent as a held breath, and the only noise the flattering noise on leaves and the slapped grass at the fall of each big drop. That, and the intense hiss with the intense stream; that, and that same intensity not growing less but growing more quiet and delicate with the turn of the nozzle, up to that extreme tender whisper when the water was just a wide bell of film.
The production is less rewarding in its too careful avoidance of the novel’s racial themes. Gone are the slurs of the schoolboys who taunt Rufus for having a “nigger name.” The teasing remains, but it’s generic grade school bullying. Gone, too, is the exuberant black midwife, Victoria, who arrives for a visit when Mary Follet is expecting another child. A truer depiction of race—both divisive and diverse—would have honored the author’s social conscience.
If Agee’s novel is no longer held in as high esteem as it once was, it’s due in part to having been embraced more for its small town nostalgia and moral uplift than its literary merit. There’s no escaping the fact that A Death in the Family is a fragmentary work as sadly unrealized as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon and Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth. It’s fair to assume that Agee would have imposed a more compelling structure on the material than the blandly linear composite text that was assembled from his scattered manuscript pages. For all the pleasures it affords in the reading, A Death in the Family offers the tantalizing promise of greatness in lieu of its fulfillment. The PBS teleplay doesn’t aim as high as the novel, but it succeeds overall in its quiet competence and modest intentions.
– Bob Wake