James Agee was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1909. After his father died when he was six years old, his mother sent him to attend St. Andrew's school, where he cultivated a strong appreciation for the Anglo-Catholic Church. He then attended Philips Exeter Academy and Harvard University. Agee wrote A Death in the Family shortly after his marriage to Mia Fritsch, just before his sudden death on May 16, 1955. He never finished the work before his death. The novel was published two years after his death, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

A Death in the Family is an unusual novel in that it is both a detailed remembrance and an archetypal depiction of events within any family. It is about marital love and loss, the need for religious faith, and the conflict between urban and rural characteristic of America at that time. It is also (and perhaps more important) Agee's documentation of his life when he was four, five, and six years old.

The novel is autobiographical in the sense that it is about the death of Agee's father. However, it is also an important exploration of the city-country conflict that has characterized American experience from post-Civil-War days through the twentieth century. When Agee was born, Knoxville was rapidly becoming an urban center, yet it was still highly rural compared to the New York City where he spent his later years. A Death in the Family documents a period when many American lives were still determined by both rural and city backgrounds of their families. In writing the novel, Agee not only attempts to capture the relationship between himself and his father, but also to evoke a time when his family was in a state of tension between the rural past and the urban future.

Putting together a composite manuscript of A Death in the Family was a difficult editorial task, as Agee died before completing the final revisions for the novel. His manuscript contained variant material that fell outside the principal narrative and that he had not yet decided how to incorporate. The editors decided to put the unfinished sections in is at the end of each division within the work, rather than all together either at the beginning or at the end. This choice on the part of the editors has been a point of discussion by critics of the novel; some have thought it presumptuous to insert these passages at random junctures, as we have no way of knowing what Agee himself would have done.

There is considerable evidence to support the claim that the twenty chapters comprising the basic linear narrative of the novel were only a part of a much longer autobiographical work Agee was planning—the sequential narrative would probably have formed the concluding portion of a projected longer novel. Agee left behind some twenty pages of notes to indicate that he was planning an extensive autobiographical recollection of his childhood, and only some of these memories appear in the published iized sections. In addition, it is likely that a section titled "Dream Sequence" would have made a more fitting prologue than the "Knoxville: Summer 1915" piece. Regardless of editorial intent, the work stands as a landmark autobiographical novel and a timely exploration of the conflict between America's urban and rural heritage.