Rereading & Agee Revisioned

A Restoration of the Author's Text (Collected Works of James Agee) Cover 

Rereading has been the topic of numerous essays and books.  Anne Fadiman edited an anthology of essays about rereading, entitled Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They LoveOr there’s Wendy Lesser’s Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering

I was reflecting on this topic the other day when a woman in my book group, Edythe, gave me a recent New York Times article, “Agee Unfettered,” about a new interpretation of James Agee’s classic novel A Death in the Family.  Because Agee’s book was assembled and published after his death, it makes perfect sense that another scholar would want to revisit the work and envision and interpret it.  But in reading the article, each editor’s visions sound very different, not surprisingly. For one, in the new version, published by University of Tennessee press and edited by Michael A. Lofaro, the book starts in an entirely different way than that of the David McDowell edited book published in 1957.  The first version begins with the lyrical “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.”  That section is in the new version, just simply placed deeper in the novel.  It also sounds as though the new opener presents writing not included in the former, a passage more strange and unsettling.  Here is how the article describes it: 

Certainly, the two editions of the novel couldn’t start more differently. While the McDowell version opens with the famous prologue, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a free-floating evocation of a summer dusk in that Southern city, so beguiling in its rhythms that Samuel Barber set it to music, “A Death in the Family” now begins with a nightmare in which the grown-up protagonist drags the decomposing corpse of John the Baptist through the streets of that same Knoxville. The rotting body is treated with the lyricism Agee normally lavishes on men watering their lawns in the twilight. When John’s head goes rolling down the street, the protagonist feels an agonizing tenderness. “He could not endure to chase and corner and trap it as if it were some frightened animal but gently shoring its escape with both hands, trying by the gentleness of his hands, without speaking, to assure it that it need not fear him, slid both hands beneath it and lifted its cold and gritty weight as if it were a Grail.”

So what is a book group to do?  Can and should we read the new version?  Has anyone ever done something like this?  What if more versions and interpretations keep coming out?  Which do you choose?

I also have to say, UTenn should totally have tried to come up with a more compelling cover. 

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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