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The Morning Watch Paperback – June, 1980

4.4 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Avon Books (Mm) (June 1980)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380005697
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380005697
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 4.1 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #574,058 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By John H. Flannigan on October 7, 2006
Format: Hardcover
James Agee's short novel "The Morning Watch" shows how, by 1950, Agee had matured as a writer and thinker. For all of its stunning beauty and sensuous description, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" (1941) lacks the cohesiveness and careful planning that distinguish "The Morning Watch." The latter work shows Agee writing at the height of his powers and treating a story, set during Holy Week in an Episcopalian boarding school closely modeled on Agee's own St. Andrew's, that resonates with deep religious feeling and sharply observed memories. The first two sections of "The Morning Watch" show the strong influence on Agee of James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist," but, if anything, Agee's depiction of a young boy's undergoing spiritual torment is more believable and more sharply written than Joyce's account. The third and final part of "The Morning Watch," set in the early morning hours of Good Friday, is a beautifully-conceived reworking of Christ's passion as experienced by three young boys who have played hooky from school and who learn their own capacity for blood lust and tolerance for violence. Agee's fondness for children and animals and his deep love of Scripture are vividly evoked in this last section.

"The Morning Watch" is short--under 125 pages--but it is an unforgettable introduction to Agee's magisterial novel "A Death in the Family" (published posthumously in 1957) and a gem of a novel in its own right. It is easy to see why Flannery O'Connor so enjoyed "The Morning Watch" when it was first published, for Agee's clear-eyed understanding of his characters' fascination with violence and their coming to terms with their own possibilities for greatness would motivate many of O'Connor's own characters.
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In Agee's Pulitzer-prize-winning, autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, he tells the devastating story of his father's death in an auto accident when Agee was a young boy. The Morning Watch, a slim novel, takes place six years later. Many readers view it as a sequel to A Death in the Family.

It is the story of a young man at an Episcopalian boarding school during a few hours on Good Friday, 1924. The boy and fellow students are awakened to sit vigil in chapel late at night. During this time, the boy wrestles with the concepts of his religious teachings, the meanings of the rituals and the depth of his faith. "But how can you say things when you only ought to mean them and don't really mean them at all?" Much of the book takes place in the narrator's mind as he struggles to maintain focus on his prayers and fights the distractions of the world around him and the wanderings of his mind. In the end, he experiences what is not quite an epiphany, but more of a deeper understanding by imagining the experience of Jesus in the last moments before his crucifixion.

The final part of the novel follows the boy and his schoolmates after the vigil as they sneak out and down to the river for a swim. There, they find and brutally kill a sunbathing snake. Although this is something that might fall into the realm of "normal" for young boys, and although the narrator does nothing to stop it, he is guilt-laden. Something has clearly changed inside him.

A Death In the Family is a very personal and important book for me, so when I read Daniel Woodrell's recommendation of The Morning Watch in the notes for Winter's Bone, I immediately ordered it. Even more so than A Death In The Family, this is an introspective book. On the surface, very little happens.
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It is interesting that this book may well have been influenced by Agee's early adolescence. He is quite insightful as to the deep desire to be spiritually fit while at the same time being influenced by the carnality of his peers. I suppose I could have done without the foul language of the one character, but all in all I was impressed. The book is short, a quick read.
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For all those who thought that James Agee wrote only two real books, this one, "The Morning Watch," should come as a real treat. This book, based on Agee's time at the Episcopalian St. Andrews School in south-central Tennessee in the 1920s, is in a way a sort of sequel to Agee's classic "A Death in the Family," even though it was written in 1951, quite a few years before that.
Assuming that the young boy in "A Death in the Family" was closely based on Agee (which he was), and that the young boy in this book was as well (which he was) then this is basically the story of that same boy continued. In "A Death in the Family" he was just a little kid. In this one, he's twelve, but he's obviously the same person, and he frequently references his father's death which is described just as it was in "A Death in the Family." Obviously, that death was a central event in Agee's life, and much of his writing was about trying to come to terms with it.
Also in this book is a fictionalized version of Father Flye, Agee's close friend and the star confidante of the terrific collection, "Letters of James Agee to Father Flye."
This book is wonderful, even though in premise it's merely another account of growing up Catholic, which it seems the world has had its share of. It covers only a single morning at a Catholic boys' school, from waking up, to going to mass, to being tortured by the combination of religious guilt and hormonal inclinations, to ditching school to go to a swimming hole, to a horrific denouement that, although unbearably brutal, ties the book together in amazing ways and ends it with a feeling.
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