Rediscovering James Agee’s Real Voice

 

Michael LofaroMichael Lofaro has spent nearly 20 years researching and restoring James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "A Death in the Family" to the version Agee intended.

Lofaro, a Lindsay Young Professor, teaches American literature and cultural studies in the Department of English. He recently completed "A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text," which is Volume 1 of the new series "The Works of James Agee," published by the University of Tennessee Press.

Agee, who was born in Knoxville, died in 1955, two years before "A Death in the Family" was published. Lofaro reconstructed the novel based on manuscripts left by Agee.

Lofaro says Agee’s editor at the time changed around the novel – dropping chapters and adding others – to appeal to what he thought the audience at the time would like.

Lofaro, a faculty member since 1975, says one of the biggest changes was to the beginning of the book. The editor deleted the original introduction, which was a nightmarish sequence on Agee’s father’s death, and substituted the flowery "Knoxville: Summer of 1915."

But this wasn’t a task that he sought out. "I didn’t have the intention of redoing ‘A Death in the Family,’" he said. "I didn’t know it needed it."

That was until 1988 when Lofaro got a call from UT’s Special Collections. A book dealer was offering to sell some papers left by Agee’s editor for "A Death in the Family." Lofaro went to look at the papers to help determine whether UT should make the investment.

As a sideline, Lofaro is a manuscript appraiser, a skill he honed while researching one of his other passions – Davy Crockett. He often studies letters and signatures to determine their authenticity.

Lofaro recalled 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 had been left out of "A Death in the Family" but obviously intended by Agee to be included.

"That got me interested," Lofaro said. "I said, ‘Whoa, I wonder how much else has been changed.’"

The answer ended up being a great deal. But because the trustee of the James Agee Trust wouldn’t let the papers be published and there was a lawsuit over the materials, Lofaro had to put off his newfound fascination for nearly 13 years. In the interim, he helped lead two conferences on Agee at UT, and his work has helped deepen the community’s connection to its native-born author.

Lofaro finally re-started the restoration project in 2002 after a new trustee was appointed.

Lofaro found some similarities between Agee and his previous work with Daniel Boone and Crockett – a group he fondly calls the "ABC’s."

"People changed the lives or works of all three men to suit their conception of what they should be," Lofaro says.

For Boone and Crockett, their personas were changed. For Agee, it was his writing.

Lofaro, who earned his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Maryland, got hooked on the frontier heroes when he watched Fess Parker portray Davy Crockett on Walt Disney’s television show in the 1950s. Visitors to Lofaro’s office in McClung Tower can see his signed photograph of Parker wearing the famous coonskin cap.

Lofaro plans nine more volumes in this series on Agee’s works. The target completion date is 2015.

"Some things take lifetimes," Lofaro said.

Michael Lofaro has also written "Agee Agonistes: Essays on the Life, Legend and Works of James Agee;" "Davy Crockett’s Riproarious Shemales and Sentimental Sisters: Women’s Tall Tales From the Crockett Almanacs;" and "Daniel Boone: An American Life." In his spare time, he enjoys giving talks about Agee, Boone and Crockett, albeit for much shorter amounts of time.

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