Before Viewing: Questions and Activities
A Death in the Family is based on a real event in James Rufus Agee's life: the death of his father, Jay, in a car accident in 1916 when Agee was six years old. Before viewing the film, use these activities to help students think about how writers look to their personal history as a source for stories, themes, images, and ideas.
Fact and Fiction
Recall an event or experience from your own childhood when you were five, six, or seven years old. It does not have to be an important event, just one that has stayed in your memory. Write about it in one or two paragraphs, recalling as many factual details (including colors, tastes, smells) as possible. Now imagine something that could have happened to you as a child but never actually did. Tell the fictional story in one or two detailed paragraphs.
Working with a partner, read both pieces aloud and ask your partner to identify which piece is autobiographical and which piece is fictional. Is it easy or difficult to tell the difference? Why? Which is easier to write, fiction or autobiography? Why? Is it possible to write autobiography that is strictly factual?
Biography and Autobiography
Print the biography of James Agee and distribute to students. What important event in James Agee's childhood is the basis for the novel and the film? When you start reading a novel or watch the opening scenes of a movie, do you consider it a pro or a con to know that the work is based on a "true story"? Why? Does it strengthen or weaken the work if the storyteller is the one who lived through the experience? Do you think an adult reader can recall and capture what he or she thought, felt, and witnessed as a child?
Without introduction, play a recording of Samuel Barber's orchestral song Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and lead the students in guided freewriting. Listening to the music, what kind of setting -- place, year, time of day, season -- is evoked? What colors does the music conjure in your mind? What does the scenery look like? Try to picture people in this setting. What are they doing? What are they wearing? What are they feeling?
Follow up the writing by asking students to read "Knoxville: Summer, 1915," the memoir that Agee's editors placed at the front of the novel to serve as a prologue. How well do you think Samuel Barber interpreted this piece of writing? Show students the photographs of Knoxville in the photo essay on the Web site. How does Agee's description of his neighborhood, his home, and its inhabitants compare to what you imagined as you listened to the music? How does Knoxville in 1915 compare to the neighborhoods in the city or town in which you live? What is different? What is the same?
Through the Eyes of a Child
Recall the scene in the film when Rufus and his father walk by the hat store. Have students pair up in twos or threes. In each group, let one student "be" Rufus and think and act like a six or seven year old. Let the other student "be" the father or the mother (they can improvise what she might have said or felt if she had been with them when they passed by the store) and think like a grown-up. Now have one (or more) group(s) of students re-enact the scene, with both the "child" and the "adult" exaggerating what they are feeling.
Ask each of the other groups of students to write a one-or-two-paragraph description from the point of view of the character (child or adult) they've taken on about how the walk past the hat store made them feel. Have volunteers to read their descriptions out loud. Why do they disagree about whether and when Rufus should get a new cap? Note differences in tone, in point of view, and in vocabulary.
Discuss the differences between a child's and an adult's perspective. What does the child desire, and what does he fear? What about the mother and father? How are the fears of the adults and their sense of what is important different from a child's? How is an adult's perspective on an event different than a child's?
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