What to do when a writer dies before completing his novel?
No doubt this is a question that editors and publishers must face more often than they wish. Since writers tend to write their entire lives, until their deaths, most leave uncompleted manuscripts. Do you publish what’s there? Hire a ghost writer to finish it? Or drop the project? Most of the time, I imagine, dropping the project is the only option. But the editors of James Agee’s A Death in the Family made the decision to publish his novel, and in so doing, they gave us this remarkable, Pulitzer Prize winning novel.
James Agee (1909–1955) is best known for his work in movies. Along with John Houston, he wrote the screenplay to The African Queen. He wrote movie reviews for Time and The Nation. Though his life-long work is not intensive, he dabbled at all literary forms–poetry, nonfiction, fiction, and screenplay. After attending Harvard University, he wrote a poetry collection, Permit Me Voyage, and with photographer Walker Evans, he published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a nonfiction book about the lives of Depression-era sharecroppers. A Death in the Family, an autobiographical novel, is his most important contribution to American fiction.
As the title reveals, A Death in the Family tells the story of a family struggling with grief. Though the point-of-view shifts between the various family members, it is though the eyes of six-year-old Rufus Follet that we mostly experience this novel. Faced with the sudden lost of his father, Rufus strives to understand this loss and how it changes his role in the family. We follow Rufus as he learns about his father’s death, as he adopts the new role of caring for his younger sister, as he ventures out in the world as the fatherless boy, and as he suffers an epiphany about the nature of death. The style is stream-of-consciousness. Though I love this style, because of the texture it gives in character sympathy, I often find it a difficult style to read. Not in this novel! The stream-of-consciousness passages flows well with Agee’s lyrical prose. I found myself in empathic bound with Rufus, as if I were the character on the page a not a reader. When Rufus was happy, I was happy. When he was angry, I was angry.
Agee’s death forced some editorial decisions. The editors added a prologue, “Knoxville: Summer, 1915.” There was also two long passages whose intended placement they couldn’t guess. They chose to place these passages at the end of Part One and Part Two, so they serve as transitions from one part to the next. In my opinion, these passages represent the best writing in the novel.
It is impossible to guess what changes Agee would have made in this novel if he had lived to complete it. Would he have ever considered it finished? I suspect that it was incomplete only in his mind. It reads like a completed novel. And one that I recommend you read.