Monday, December 3, 2007

Lost Chapters of "A Death in the Family"

The other day in the Post Office I ran into U.T. English professor Michael Lofaro.

Renowned as a Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett scholar, Michael mentioned that he has recently culminated five years of editing work with the publication of A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author's Text (UT Press).

[Click here for a story on how Lofaro came to piece together the original manuscript.]

As Knoxvillians know, James Agee's original manuscript had been reworked by a friend of Agee's after Agee's sudden death in 1955. Four of many "lost chapters" appear in this month's Harper's under the headline "Enter the Ford."

Knoxvillians will delight in many descriptions of 1913 Knoxville, such as that of riding the open streetcar from Gay Street downtown out to Chilhowee Park for the fair, where Agee's father takes offense at an imagined slight by a carnie, which initiates a long, priceless series of whupass-type exchanges like the following:

"If you're lookin for trouble," the man said, "just say the word, cause there's plenty here that's paid to find it."
"Just if you want it," daddy said. "If you want it I'll give you all I got. You and them too. Way you talked tother Satdy you was looking for it."

The lost chapters present a new element to the novel -- that of "daddy's" new Ford as an alluring, yet ominous addition to the idyllic world of Agee's childhood. At one point Laura, the mother says, "... something dreadful is going to happen, Jay. Something irreparable. To our family. In that auto."

We also see an early example of road rage, as a speeding, honking, begoggled driver on Highland Avenue roars by a horse and buggy and then Jay's Ford, toppling the family to the side of the street, then looking back with a grin.

"Why you crazy God damn son of a bitch I like to bust yer f---- God damn jaw!" And his door was already wrenched open and one foot was out before he realized the uselessness. "I swear to God I could kill a man like that," he said. "I mean it. I could kill him and it'd be a pleasure to."

Some things haven't changed too much on Knoxville's roadways.

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