Set to Rights

By Elizabeth Davis

Like many youngsters who grew up in the 1950s, Michael Lofaro enjoyed watching Fess Parker portray frontiersman Davy Crockett on television.

Eventually his interest in Crockett and Daniel Boone led him to a career teaching and researching early American literature and folklore. Lofaro keeps an autographed photo of Parker wearing the famous coonskin cap on a bookcase in his office at UT Knoxville.

These days, Lofaro, Lindsay Young Professor of American Literature and American Studies, is more widely known for restoring James Agee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Death in the Family.

The veteran professor 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.

The novel was altered significantly by editor David McDowell, a family friend, in an effort to earn needed money for Agee’s family. But Lofaro’s version has been completely reconstructed on the basis of manuscripts left by Agee.
Agee died in 1955, 2 years before A Death in the Family was published. The author grew up in Knoxville, and his father’s death is the focus of the novel.

Lofaro says he didn’t set out to vindicate Agee. “I didn’t have the intention of redoing A Death in the Family. I didn’t know it needed it.”

Lofaro first read the novel in high school—as many students still do—and he recalls being confused by the story.

“I clearly prefer Agee’s version, but for fifty years the older work has been a part of the fabric of American literature,” he says. “While I may become known either as the person who resurrected Agee’s masterpiece or the one who called a classic into question, for the first time, readers now have in their hands a way to make their own judgments.”

Lofaro’s work on Agee started in 1988 when he got a call from UT Libraries’ Special Collections department. A book dealer was offering to sell the university some papers left by Agee’s editor.

Special Collections called Lofaro because he is a manuscript appraiser, a skill he honed while researching Davy Crockett. He often studies letters and signatures for authenticity.

Lofaro says 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 were left out of A Death in the Family but obviously intended by Agee to be part of it. “That got me interested,” Lofaro says. “I wondered how much else had 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 suppress his interest for nearly 13 years. In the interim, he helped lead two conferences at UT Knoxville on Agee, and his work helped deepen the community’s connection to its native son.

Lofaro restarted the restoration project in 2002 after a new trustee was appointed.

He says McDowell altered the novel—dropping chapters and adding others—to appeal to what he thought audiences of the time would like. Lofaro wanted to restore the novel to the version Agee actually intended. One of the biggest changes comes at the beginning of the book. The editor deleted the original introduction, which was a nightmarish sequence of Agee’s father’s death, and substituted the flowery “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Lofaro plans nine more volumes in the series that will encompass Agee’s other work. The target completion date is 2015.

As a twist, Lofaro found some similarities between Agee and his previous work with Boone and Crockett.

“People changed the lives or works of all three men to suit their conception of what they should be,” he says. For Boone and Crockett, their personas were changed. For Agee, it was his writing.

Other books by Lofaro are 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.