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THE TRANSIT OF VENUS, by Shirley Hazard

“They were natural and supernatural, in that blank space, like amorous figures from mythology.”

 

 

When I was a teenager, in thrall to my hormones, I couldn’t imagine a more enthralling love story than Romeo and Juliet. Then I went to college where I succumbed to English professors’ groupthink that Pride and Prejudice takes that prize. And I am still occasionally excited by the notion of re-reading all that sturm and drang about Helen of Troy.

But now that, at age 90, I have been a grown up for a few years, I submit to you, seriously, that Shirley Hazard’s novel, The Transit of Venus, published in 1980, transcends any category. It is what it is, a love story like no other as a great poem is like no other: to change it but a little, changes it altogether.

The “they” in the quoted sentence above are two lovers, Ted Tice, an astronomer, and Caroline Vail, a widow; the blank space is an airport. The sentence comes in the second to the last page in the novel and is earned by everything precedent. It names what the alert and therefore enthralled, reader has sensed from the beginning: that this story is both their story and ours, that in its fluid projection from future to past and back again, its marriage of fate and character, its straightforward prediction of the outcome, and the Olympian distance from which it told, it rises to the level of myth. In my copy, worn out by five readings – three of mine and two my wife’s – the lovers’ fates are predicted on page 12. The novel is divided into four Parts, in each of which the whole arc of the story exists, and the ending is so indirectly narrated that act of divining it is an arrow in the reader’s heart.

I’ll say no more, except that I hope you will read this novel. Don’t read it late at night or after too much wine. It requires your brightest attention. When you read the last page, stop, stay with your emotions for a few minutes, then turn the first page and start again. You will marvel at how even richer your second experience is.

Steve Davenport

 

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THE TRANSIT OF VENUS, by Shirley Hazard2022-05-18T17:35:07+00:00

MIXED METAPHORES

Every Saturday in March and April of 1946, I’d get in the back seat of our new, post-war Chevrolet, my dad behind the wheel and my mother, bundled in fur, beside him in the front, and we’d drive to some rural place in Connecticut, or Massachusetts or Rhode Island in search of a boarding school whose admissions standards were elastic enough to accept me and where, not incidentally, I’d be happy.

If I had any expectations at all about boarding school, being happy wasn’t one of them. But neither my three brothers nor I resisted the idea. Spending the high school years in boarding school was what “our kind” of people did.

Those trips were long and the passing countryside dreary.  If April is the cruelest month, March is the bleakest in New England. It was lonely in the back seat without my brothers. My older brother Henry was already ensconced in Andover and it would be several more years before my parents thought either of my two younger brothers were old enough to leave home.

The only exploratory visit I remember in any detail was at Deerfield, where I was interviewed by Mr. Boyden, the school’s celebrated founder, a jolly and avuncular person who reminded me of Santa Claus. It was clear I was supposed to like him. Maybe that’s why I disliked him. Maybe because he interviewed me rather than the other way around. I didn’t have the presence of mind to interrupt him with questions to help me decide if I’d would be happy there. For all I know, I would have, but I doubt it.

Pomfret School, at the time for boys only, in the north east corner of Connecticut, accepted me, provided I repeat the fourth form, British parlance for tenth grade. My mother delivered me there in September, 1946.

The first thing I noticed when we drove onto the campus was that the buildings were sheathed in red brick. They were beautiful, stately, even to my untrained eye. I didn’t know anything about architecture, but I sensed instinctively that this place was even more royal than those other schools, clothed in their Puritan white clapboard. This was a place for the upper portion of the upper class. Later, I learned that the architectural style was Georgian, named after 18th century British kings. I didn’t feel like a prince.

My mother and I got out of the car. We had no idea which of the buildings was the dorm where I was going to live. We stood there hoping someone would come and tell us, and it dawned on me that I’d be incarcerated here until Christmas vacation, which might as well have been forever. My mother felt the same – I knew because why else but to hide her feelings would she turn away from me? I still wonder whether if I had got back in the car, in the front seat this time, she would have got behind the wheel and driven us home.

A man in a blue suit and a white shirt and red tie hurried toward us. His black hair, lightly greased – not cool for grown-ups of the Anglo-Saxon variety– was combed straight back. “Mrs. Davenport?”

“Yes,” my mother said.

“And this is Stephen?” Turning to me, smiling.

“Yes,” my mother said again. “We call him Steve.”

“Hello, Steve, I’m so glad you are going to be with us. I’m Mr. Banks, your dorm master.” I’d heard the so. Only women were allowed to substitute that word for very. But he put out his hand to shake, and I felt better already.

Then, turning back to my mother, “I’m so sorry you had to wait here. I’d been waiting at the other entrance to greet you.”

My mother was embarrassed to have not read the instructions. “Oh! Were we supposed to enter there?”

“No matter. Let me help with the luggage.”

He and I carried my footlocker into the dorm, then down a long hall. I was sure we were headed to a huge gloomy space, like in a Dickens novel, where a whole class would sleep together.

Instead we entered a big room, flooded with sunlight. There were two beds. “You get your choice,’ Mr. Banks said. “Your roommate hasn’t arrived yet.” Then turning to my mother, “I’ve arranged some refreshments for you and Steve in my apartment. You, especially will want fortification for your drive home.” He didn’t need to add, Because you’ll be alone, away from you son. 

In his modest living room, he served us tea and little sandwiches with the crust cut off. “I’m so grateful,” my mother said, and a half hour later when it was time for her to leave, “So very glad you are Steve’s dorm parent!”

Now years later, whenever I think of Muddy Banks, whose real first name was unknown to us, I feel a rush of affection. He was incapable of anger, even when we pinned a wet sheet to the door of his apartment in the middle of the night and then made a lot of noise so that he rushed out to find out what was happening and collided with the wet sheet. Splaat! Later in the year, he fell for this again. Or did he just pretend to?

He was the French teacher. By senior year, my classmates and I were reading Victor Hugo and Guy De Maupassant in the original, and writing essays in French. I even wrote some very terrible poetry.

And on a bitter winter evening, supervising the study hall whose brown walls imprisoned the low performing students, while the winter wind rattled the windows, he caught me reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row instead of doing my homework. I was ready to hand it to him to save him from the offense of taking it from me, but he didn’t put his hand out“I love that book,” he whispered, and continued his stroll down the aisle between the desks, and I realized he too would have loved to be under the Monterey  sun, next to the blue ocean, comporting himself with carefree people who conducted their lives according to no one’s rules but their own.

Muddy Banks’ opposite was Mr. Joseph Barrelle, (pronounced  bar/ell)  the Latin teacher, whose specialty was finding reasons to flunk us. Permanently on display on the blackboard in the front of the room in large letters was the list of 13 “Flunking Matters” that would automatically earn us a grade of 45 on our day’s oral translation. You just had to begin making the mistake, just say the first word, and he would turn in his swivel chair behind his desk and rap on the blackboard with a long pointer at the specific flunking matter and tell you to shut up, and call on the next student. Everybody but the two or three boys who had a special talent for Latin lived in fear. We sat cramped in ugly brown combinations of chair and desk, each bolted to the floor, the classroom itself as rigid as Mr. Barrelle’s personality and teaching style, waiting to be called on to render into English the assigned 15 lines of Caesar or Nepos – or some other unbearably boring person who had been dead since the beginning of time. Why he thought that normal humans would be pleased to know that all Gaul was divided into three parts or give a shit where Caesar’s fucking impedimentia was stored I’ll never know.

Maybe because when I asked him that very question in those very words, he refused to explain?

Mr. Joseph Barrelle had a special hatred for me . Probably because when I entered his classroom the very first time and saw his name written on the blackboard, I said, “Good morning, Mr. Barrel.”  I guess he didn’t like being addressed as something to store vegetables in. How was I supposed to know how to pronounce his name? He didn’t answer that question either.

Mr. Barelle had a way talking that sounded if his vocal cords were in his nose, and had a strange habit of lingering on a part of a word. One day, after I’d translated a passage ineptly though avoiding flunking matters, he asked me “Davenpooorrrtt, can you swim?”

“Yeah, I can swim.”

“Gooood, because then maybe when you grow up you can get a job as a lifeguaaaard.”

“I’d rather be a lifeguard than a Latin teacher,” I said. I expected a reaction, anger, some kind of punishment, but he just rolled his eyes at the absurdity of the notion that I had any choice.

David E, the least capable of us all at accurate translation, came back from Christmas vacation of our fifth form (junior) year fortified with a trot, our word for a translation into English. Designed for the purpose of fooling the teacher, it was small enough to fit into the bigger book whose passages we were translating into English. What David didn’t know was that his trot contained passages, unfit to be read by students that had been removed from the schoolboy version. Why David didn’t notice this, I can only guess.

Poor David. Did Mr. Barrelle know? Did he read David’s mind? Did he have the original, unexpurgated Latin text by memory? Why else assign 15 lines exactly preceding a section devoted to a detailed description of sexual intercourse between a politician and somebody else’s wife? David read those 15 innocent preceding lines with unusual aplomb. “Thank you, David,” Mr. Barrelle said. “You must have eaten something for breakfast that woke up your brain. Would you honor us by reading the next section?”

“Sure,” David said, smiling victoriously. Then he resumed. He got to the place where penetration was about to occur, before he realized what he was reading, and stopped.

Mr. Barrelle let the ensuing silence get louder and louder. Then in that weird nasal drawl of  his, “David, how much is 45 minus 45?”

No answer from David.

“How much?”

“Zero?”

“Yup. Zeeeero,” Joseph Barrelle said, making a show of entering David’s grade for the day in his grade book.

David,a most affable boy whom it was impossible not to like, started to cry, and Jack W, sitting in the desk behind me, murmured just loud enough for me to hear. “That prick’s gonna pay for this!”

And pay he did. Or maybe what I remember was the visualization of how we would make him pay that came to me when Jack, Win C. and I made our plan. It is hard to believe that we would not have been severely punished, maybe expelled. I still don’t know. Nor care. Real is real whether actually lived or imagined.

Jack, Win and I always got to the field before football practice started. Win, our quarterback would throw passes to me, and Jack, who starred on defense would cover me. So, that afternoon, when Mr. Barrelle took his daily walk, always cutting across the same part of the field every day at that time, as regular in his walking as in his dispensing of 45’s, there would be a very satisfying mistake-on-purpose collision.

We watched Mr. Barrelle approach us through the apple orchard that was near the field. “I hope he doesn’t notice we aren’t practicing where we usually do,’ Jack said.

“Don’t worry,” Win said. Nobody would think we’re evil enough to plan this.”

When Mr. Barrelle got to the specified place on the field, Win called the number of the pass play we had planned:  a long, banana shaped route, my favorite pattern. Jack would stick with me all the way. Everybody would understand that you can’t see somebody who’s dumb enough to get in the way of a pass pattern when two guys are fighting for a ball flying overhead.

Poor Jack! He only managed a glancing blow. I arrived an instant before Jack, and Mr. Barrelle was already flying through the air, upside down.  I wish I’d been a little more skillful in my timing so Jack and I could have equally shared the satisfaction. We kept on running for another dozen yards or so to show Mr. Barrelle, who might have been dead for all we knew, how insignificant he was when away from his Flunking Matters. Then trotted back to watch him get to his knees. “You should watch where you’re going,” Jack said in his most paternal tone.

“Yeah,” Win said. “Its dangerous out here. Did you get permission from your mamma?”

Formal practice was about to begin. We jogged to where the other players were gathered around our coach, Mr. Mansfield.  I could tell by the way he was staring at us he had seen what we’d done. We were in trouble for sure.

But Wendel Doolittle (Manny) Mansfield didn’t say one word to us about it.

A few days later, David E, and I were playing against each other in a scrimmage, David on offense and I on defense. On a certain play, David’s assignment was to block me. He missed the block and I tackled the ball carrier for no gain. “Let’s run it again,” Manny Mansfield said. Now I knew what was coming, so it was easy for me to ward David off and tackle the runner again. “Let’s do it again,” Manny said. We did, with the same result. “Nice try, David,” Manny said. “Sometimes a defensive player knows what’s coming, especially late in the game, right?” David nodded. He was on the verge of tears. So was I. “Good,” Manny said, and we did it again. Once more the same result.

“One more Time, David?” Many asked.

Please say no, I thought. I remember not hearing anything, not a sound. Our world had gone mute with tension.  But I still can’t figure why I felt the stakes were just as high for me as for David.

David nodded his head and we lined up again.

This time he collided into me harder than I had ever been hit up to that time.  He got his shoulder pads beneath my forearm shiver and ran right though me, and the runner went right on by, and now Manny was the one who was trying to hold back tears. “Nice block, David,” he said. “I’d follow you in a war anytime.”

How did he know that that David only needed one more time?

Manny never bloviated about courage and determination, never gave an inspiring speech before a game and never once talked about winning. And most important, he never raised his voice to any of us. He taught us technique.

Years later, after Manny had retired, I paid him and his wife Priscilla a visit at their home in Florida. I told him about the recent birth to my wife and me of a daughter, Elizabeth Wendel Davenport. “We call her Wendy,” I told him. Once again, Mr. Wendel Doolittle Mansfield was suddenly trying not to burst into tears while smiling. It took me a moment to figure out why: Elizabeth was the name of a beloved aunt, Wendel my father-in law’s middle name. Of course, I didn’t tell him that. I did tell him, though, what was true then and still is: how glad I was that my daughter would go through her life bearing his name.

We had other fine teachers: Mr. Cooper Ellis, the owner of many tweed jackets adorned with leather patches at the elbows, an open model T car and a contagious love of literature, would make a big show of guzzling Milk of Magnesia to sooth his ulcer whenever we said stupid things in class. Mr. Henry, our history teacher, referred to always as the Little Red Hen because his political opinions were  too far left of Hitler’s to be acceptable to royals, marched around his classroom, a long pointer on his shoulder like a rifle. It had a bicycle bell on it, which he would ring, then prod a student in his chest, asking “and what do you think Mr. Steve?” No classes I took in college or graduate school were as exciting as the Little Red Hen’s and Coop’s

Late in my fifth form (junior) year we got the glorious news that Mr. Barrelle would resign in June – “to pursue other opportunities.” We were surprised. He seemed to us to be the most powerful person on the faculty.  I was on the staff of the school newspaper in charge of writing headlines, our method for which was to write several versions on the blackboard so everybody on the staff could see them and suggest improvements. But when I got to the blackboard to write the headline for the article about Mr. Barrelle’s resignation, I was surprised to discover my mind was blank. After several minutes I still hadn’t written anything. Mr. Ben (Benny to all of us) H., the faculty adviser to the newspaper, celebrated for his quick intelligence, sauntered across the classroom and stood next to me. “What are you working on?”

“Mr. Barrelle’s resignation.”

“How many spaces are allotted?

“Nine.

“Well, that’s easy, he said, without an instant of hesitation. JOE BLOWS.

“Amazing!” I said. I couldn’t have come up with that in less than a year.”

He shrugged.

“But you aren’t gonna allow it, are you?”

“Hell no.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Good! Glad you’re learning how things need to work.”

“Yeah? Mr. Barrelle didn’t think I was learning anything. He kept telling me the only thing I was going to be good for was lifeguarding.”

“Really? A life of sun, surf, pretty girls in bathing suits? Sounds okay to me – except in the winter.”

“And I always said I’d rather be a lifeguard than a Latin teacher. We were a broken record. Both of us.

“Oh, poor Joe,” Mr. H said.  “I wonder what was eating him?”

Latin was required only through our 5th form year. The last thing I wanted was another year of Latin. I didn’t sign up.

I had no way of knowing that Joe Barrelle’s replacement, Mr. David B—a chain smoker who therefor was known immediately to everyone as Butts – would turn out to be so different from his predecessor. Gentle, funny, a brilliant story-teller, who made the relevance of Latin to the mastery of English vocabulary and sentence structure clear, he brought the classical Roman world alive. I’d made a big mistake.

Years later, when I was teaching English at Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, CT, he joined our faculty where he was equally as effective as he had been when, as a much younger person, he’d been at Pomfret. We became good friends. One day over coffee in the faculty room, he challenged me: could I think up a more stunning example of a mixed metaphor every day than he could? We’d find a time to compare and declare a winner, sometimes with advice from anybody who happened to be listening. He usually won. We got more and more competitive as the weeks went by and spring approached.

David died long ago – gone to that place fine teachers go to teach the angels. But whenever I think of him, he’s as alive as ever. I’m in my classroom together with teenagers, the most supple minds on earth. Each time, I remember trying my best to reveal a different beloved story, play, essay or poem. But what David does is always the same. He opens the door, sticks his head in, waits for me and the students to notice him. “I have many irons in the fire I, he announces, “and they are all bearing fruit.” 

Then he closes the door and disappears.

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MIXED METAPHORES2022-06-09T23:46:46+00:00

A Weekend I Wish Had Never Happened

I went to a very prestigious, excellent boys-only boarding school deep in the woods of New England, graduating in 1949.  The school was covered in ivy, both the real kind and the metaphorical.  We wore blue blazers, grey flannel pants and ties to classes and to every meal, even to breakfast which was required and was served so early that in the  winter it was still dark. The crest on the breast pocket of the blue blazer said Certa Viriliter. Translation: Strive manfully. Everybody knew – because everybody took four years of Latin, of course. But I liked to tell innocent visitors it meant Drive carefully.

Now that the school is co-ed, I don’t know what the crest says – or would if the students still wore blue blazers. Work hard, everybody doesn’t have the same panache. The faculty was superb; learned, passionate about their subjects, caring. Even then, I understood that some of my schoolmates were cared for more faithfully in loco parentis by these tireless people who taught four classes every day, then found the energy to coach sports, direct plays, advise literary magazines and newspapers and parent dorms, than they were by the real parents at home. Those teachers’ lives were clearly not their own. Most of them were men. I’m still grateful for the rigorous curriculum they delivered to us. Some of them had very attractive wives, the subject in that monkish boyhood world of much lurid speculation and sexual fantasy.

Most of us were WASPS whose families had been in America for many generations. Our fathers all worked in offices and wore suits with vests; our mothers all stayed home in nylon stockings,  civilizing the family, running the house, doing charity work. We had one Italian, zero African-Americans, and several Jewish kids, one of whom was named Jerry. He pretended not to mind being referred to as Jerry Daju, any more than I minded Steve the Tree because I am tall.

During the summer vacation before my senior year, I dated a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. In our house my father, seventh generation Yale, Skull and Bones, required us to come to dinner in a shirt and tie – just like at school. When I picked my girl up for our dates, her dad would be eating supper in his undershirt. But in the navigation of that summer world, away from boarding school, my girlfriend was the sophisticate, not me.

In my senior year I invited her to the autumn prom weekend, the two highlights of which were the football game on Saturday afternoon, against our traditional rival, and the formal dance on Saturday night.  I’m sure now, though I was too naïve to notice then, that of all the girls who came to that weekend, my date was the only one who attended a public high school. She was the only one who had to travel any cultural distance to be comfortable in a school which was also the students’ home, and where there was only one gender, where the teachers were called masters, almost everybody was wealthy and dressed all day every day as if they were going to a wedding or a funeral. I’m sure she was the only girl in attendance that weekend so may years ago who had never set foot in a country club or a yacht club and who didn’t have a parent who’d graduated from college. She went to mass every Sunday morning with her family; we went to an Episcopal chapel every evening, where the lectern was supported by a white marble statue of a knight in armor, kneeling with his sword in one hand and his helmet in another.

I was a football player, so I handed her off for the duration of the game to a friend. I like to imagine that she and he enjoyed each other’s company as they watched the game in the pouring rain. She felt shy and unsure of herself in this strange world; and he felt shy because, not being an athlete, merely a good musician and fair poet, he was of low rank. I am sure, though, that my date, who generally watched football played before large crowds on Friday nights in a stadium, wondered how such mediocre football as we played on a field next to an apple orchard could generate so much passion. She didn’t know the spectacle she was witnessing had as much to do with sibling rivalry as sport: two branches of the same royal family fighting for honor.

At the dance, though, my girl was a star. Not only was she a beautiful young person, she was clearly the best dancer on the floor. My friends, especially the stags, danced with her a lot. They would saunter out from the outskirts of the gym, trying their best to look like Cary Grant, and tap me on my shoulder, “May I cut in?” they’d say. I was very proud of myself –as if her beauty and her grace were my creation, but near the end when there were only so many dances remaining, I shook my head and said, “No you can’t. This was so long ago that boys held girls close when they danced. If you were in love – or thought you were – which is just as much fun and a lot more convenient- dancing was an exquisitely romantic and sensual experience.

After the dance, she and I took a walk. The rain had stopped and it was warm, but it was too wet to sit down. So, clever me, I led her to the auditorium, where as I predicted no other couple would think to go. Alone together in there, still glowing from the words of love songs we had danced to, we did a lot of hugging and kissing. Our world was a chaste one. Hugging and kissing was all we dared – and was enough.   Then I took her to where she was staying, which happened to be the Headmaster’s House. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how she felt staying in a house so large it could have contained several of the one she lived in. Nor how the word headmaster would ring in her ear. I was supposed to have her there by 1am. I was vaguely aware it was past that time when we walked in.

The headmaster had steely blue eyes and grey hair, parted exactly down the center. Think a sober F Scott Fitzgerald grown tall and stern. But I’d been around long enough to look right through that stern look and see his kindness underneath. But my date had not. So, when, just as I gave her a final kiss at the foot of the stairs, the headmaster appeared in an elegant bathrobe at the top of the stairs, she must have been appalled. And when he said, half way down, still towering over us, and pointing to his wrist watch, “Davenport, you are 43 minutes late. Where have you been?” I’m sure she was. She had no idea we were late. She would not have permitted it.

“OH, are we late? I’m sorry. I must have lost track of the time,” I said, with the insouciance only the privileged can muster.  I had nothing to worry about. He was too kind and too well bred to name, right there in front of my date, whatever penalty was ascribed in some ancient ledger somewhere to this particular dereliction. That would happen later, man to boy – if he didn’t forget. He wouldn’t kick me off the football team, or add a damning note to my college applications. I would have to wait table for an extra week, or rake some leaves. The rule I’d broken was the kind you felt proud of getting away with if you did, or chagrined for being dumb enough to get caught. I hadn’t cheated on an exam or stolen something from a dorm mate. “Get to bed, young lady,” the headmaster said, sounding fierce. I’m sure it was his way of expressing his relief that she was home, safe in his house. He had a daughter of his own. She moved past him and fled upstairs. I never saw her again.

She left the next morning, on the first train out, long before the weekend was scheduled to end. When I telephoned her, her sister answered the phone and told me not to call again. Home on Christmas Vacation, I went to her house and knocked on the door. Her sister came to the door and told me to please, just go away. “Tell me why,” I said, hoping that she would say that her sister left because she was disgusted with me for getting her in late, but I knew she wouldn’t. My date had been humiliated, made to feel small, less worthy than her hosts. There was no way she felt she would ever be included, even if she wanted to be.

Needless to say, the school, co-educational now, is vastly more diverse than when I attended it. We do make progress after all. It is probably unnecessary to point out, but worth pointing out anyway, that the more diverse the school is, the more energy needs to be focused on including everybody in the community so that no one will ever feel the way the lovely young woman who was my girlfriend for a very short time felt on that weekend long ago

A Weekend I Wish Had Never Happened2022-05-18T17:38:28+00:00

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, BY JAMES AGEE, PUBLISHED IN 1938

There are two tragedies associated with this Pulitzer Prize winning novel: the death that is central to the story and the fact that the novel had to be published, and the prize awarded, posthumously. Agee’s fatal heart attack, in a taxicab on the way to his doctor at age 45, silenced one of the finest American writers of the 20th century. You may have read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with photographs by Walker Evans, documenting the lives of sharecroppers during the great depression, and if you are of a certain age, you may have watched Humphry Bogart in The African Queen, screenplay by James Agee, and I guarantee that anyone who has read his short story, A Mother’s Tale, will never forget it.

A Death in The family is autobiographical. When Agee was six years old, his father was killed in a car accident on his way to visit his father, James’ grandfather. In the novel, Jay Follett is killed trying to get home from a visit to his father on time to say goodnight to his six-year-old son Rufus and his younger daughter Catherine.

The great value of of this novel is that it engenders a level of empathy for the grief of the survivors that is both uplifting and so harrowing that this reader could read only a short section at a time. I gave myself recesses not available to Jay’s wife Mary, her two children and other members of the extended family. When we say to a grieving friend, “I wish I could share your burden,” we are saying we are willing to participate in your tragedy, to suffer and do that heavy lifting. Well, here’s the opportunity to do these things, at least vicariously – just read the book.

The genius of A Death in The Family comes not from telling about the accident that kills Jay Follett – that is told indirectly by those who go to the site of the accident and figure out how it happened- but instead, by telling of the emotional impact on Mary, the two children, especially Rufus, and others in the family, citizens of a small town in Tennessee. Via Agee’s lyrical prose, often italicized for that heightened intensity we see also in much of Faulkner’s writing, we can feel what Mary and her children feel. We join Mary and her aunt through the long night to find out whether Jay was just seriously injured or dead, and we are there with her when his death is confirmed, and with her too in the morning when she tells her two children who want to know where their father is. We are allowed an intimacy with the mind and heart of a six-year-old boy as Rufus gradually absorbs the brute fact that his father is gone from him forever.

For years A Death In The Family stayed on my bookshelves unread. Who needs to read about a death in a family? What’s there for us to learn after experiencing that loss ourselves, firsthand? Now I feel blessed to have finally read it. To be as empathetic as this book allows us to be is to find our better selves, and to feel the love for the lost father and husband and for each other that Mary, Rufus, Catherine and various aunts, uncles and grandparents feel confirms the immeasurable value of each person’s life. There is value in the paradox that the random, meaningless death of her husband that causes Mary to question her religious faith and confirms her brother’s apostacy, is made to be uplifting by a writer’s interpretation of his own experience.

Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, John Dunne said in a famous sermon long ago in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It tolls for thee. James Agee said this too, without sermonizing, in A Death in The Family, one of the great American novels.

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY2022-05-16T22:17:17+00:00
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