Rewriting a 50-year-old Classic
By Diane Ballard
America may think it knows James Agee, the iconic author of A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Michael Lofaro says “Oh no, you don’t.”
Lofaro, Lindsay Young professor of English, is the editor of the 10-volume The Works of James Agee published by the University of Tennessee Press.
“Perhaps the most important argument for this scholarly edition is the fact that James Agee is a far better writer than most people know,” Lofaro says.
Even now, more than a half century after Agee’s death in 1955, less than half of his work has been published. “The suppression, manipulation, and neglect of his texts by previous editors have produced only partial, biased, or corrupt versions of his canon,” Lofaro says. “The Works of James Agee will contain all of Agee’s work as he wrote it.”
Lofaro already has made a dramatic and notable rescue—the original manuscript of A Death in the Family, Agee’s autobiographical novel set in Knoxville. Agee died before the novel was published, and it was secretly and significantly altered by editor David McDowell, a family friend, in an effort to earn needed money for Agee’s family. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958, but as Lofaro discovered, the posthumously published version was far different from Agee’s original text.
The Lofaro version, reconstructed on the basis of manuscripts left by Agee, was published earlier this year as the first volume of The Works of James Agee series. The “new” version of A Death in the Family includes 10 previously unpublished chapters and proceeds chronologically, dispensing with the flashbacks of the original edition. The New York Times, for one, approved of Lofaro’s reconstruction.
“At last we have A Death in the Family that appears closer to the author’s original intention,” reviewer Will Blythe said. “This tidying is good in its own right, but the main reason to celebrate the publication of this version is that it serves as a fresh reminder of the wondrous nature of Agee’s prose—unabashedly poetic, sacramental in its embrace of reality, and rhythmical as rain on a Tennessee tin roof.”
Lofaro himself says the new version is “radically different” and “sure to stir critical controversy.
“I clearly prefer Agee’s version, but for 50 years, the older work has been a part of the fabric of American literature. While I may become known either as the person who resurrected Agee’s masterpiece or the one who called a classic into question, readers now have a way to make their own judgments.”
Lofaro’s interest in Agee started in 1988 when he got a call from UT Libraries’ Special Collections department. A book dealer was offering to sell the university some papers left by Agee’s editor. Special Collections contacted Lofaro because he is a manuscript appraiser, skilled in perusing letters and signatures for authenticity.
The professor says rummaging through the Agee papers was like “looking in a candy store window.” In the papers were two chapters, “Chilhowee Park” and “Enter the Ford,” that were left out of A Death in the Family but obviously intended by Agee to be part of it. The trustee of the James Agee Trust wouldn’t let the papers be published, and there was a lawsuit over the materials, so Lofaro had to suppress his interest for nearly 13 years. In the interim, he helped lead two conferences at UT Knoxville on Agee, and his work helped deepen the Knoxville community’s connection to its native son.
Lofaro restarted the restoration project in 2002 after a new trustee was appointed.
The UT Press will produce cloth-bound copies of all volumes of The Works of James Agee with a target completion date of 2015. The series will present new work that Lofaro says “clearly rises to the level of [Agee's] best writing.”
The Works of James Agee is enabled by the James Agee Trust’s manuscript archives, which are now part of the Special Collections Library of the University of Tennessee. The library has designated the Agee materials as one of only two areas receiving priority collecting emphases. All new works, rare and out-of-print works, manuscripts, and related materials are sought out and purchased as they become known or available to make the collection second to none.
Lofaro says not just A Death in the Family, but other Agee work was tampered with or suppressed to accommodate the political mood of mid-20th-century America.
“Agee was the victim of having been loved not wisely but too well,” Lofaro says. “His legacy was created mainly by friends who wanted to ensure his work would receive the attention it deserved by accentuating how it exemplified their idea of contemporary aesthetics.”Tags: Author • Creativity • Humanities