Re(re)vising Agee

Interesting how the “best of intentions” usually means that the author’s wishes get ignored.
This article discusses how a book has been re-edited, following the authors notes and letters, to reclaim what the author intended. When James Agee died in 1955 he left behind a family that needed help. Enter editor David McDowell:

Friend and editor David McDowell, who was searching for income for Agee’s widow, Mia, and three children, cobbled together and published the book as “A Death in the Family” in 1957 to critical raves and popular appeal. It won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1958, won a second Pulitzer in 1961 for Tad Mosel’s adapted play “All the Way Home” and was turned into at least three major TV productions, including a PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” presentation in 2002.

Here’s where the “best intentions” comes in. McDowell edited the book, taking out chapters and even copy editors had a hand in changing the work, taking out the dialect that some of it had been written in. There is no way, of course, to know what Agee would eventually have done. Hell, if he’d lived to be 1000 he may never have published the thing. But the truth is that when work is published in this way, outside the author’s control, it’s always the authors choices that get ignored.
Ain’t that the way.
I think the really damning part is that if it hadn’t been for McDowell it may not have seen the light of day, so he can’t be blamed for reworking it. He saved some literature, the only way he knew how. He’s to be congratulated. It makes me, as an author, feel that if my wishes are to be ignored, I hope they’re ignored by someone as passionate and talented as McDowell.

One thought on “Re(re)vising Agee

  1. “It makes me, as an author, feel that if my wishes are to be ignored, I hope they’re ignored by someone as passionate and talented as McDowell.”
    ..And also someone who will make turn my work into Pulitzer-prize winning material. Otherwise, I’ll be haunting their asses.

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