Tuesday, June 08, 2010

knoxville from afar

"Now is the night one blue dew..."

In the world of literature, Knoxville is represented admirably by two works: Cormac McCarthy's Suttree and James Agee's Pulitzer-winning A Death in the Family. Agee's work (and Agee himself) has been much celebrated our town in recent years- he now has a street and a park dedicated to him in his old neighborhood. Few Knoxvillians, however, have taken the time to read the book that made him such a notable native son.

It's a good book, particularly compelling if you've ever experienced the loss a family member. I know many of you don't have the time or desire to read the whole thing, but I think that everyone that loves this city should read the prologue "Knoxville: Summer, 1915". Not forced to in a high school classroom (which has made far too many people hate literature in general), but on their front porch in the early evening, listening to crickets. Because, that's exactly what the passage is about.

I was recently out of the country sitting in a bizarre tropical airport with a copy of A Death in the Family. I reread the prologue thinking about coming home. I doubt many other scruffy little cities have been so lovingly described. Sitting in the tropical heat, I was suddenly homesick for my porch swing. I wanted cool breezes and tall maple trees.

It occurred to me that the hundredth anniversary of that immortalized summer is coming up in a few years. The first time I read that passage a while back I was mainly stuck by what Knoxville had lost. Somewhere in the eighty years after 1915 our town had lost its charm, its pleasant character, its "Knoxvilleness". I think it's noteworthy that the passage was written in 1935 in New York City by a man who had left here. For a long time you had to leave Knoxville to love it.

Rereading "Knoxville: Summer, 1915" now, I realize that we have gained back something. I realize that my little house could have been one of those described by Agee. Market Square is filled with people again. One could walk through one of a half dozen neighborhoods this evening and see near the same scene as 1915 presented. I realize that Knoxville: Summer, 2015 might be the most like Agee's 1915 than it has been in a century. It makes me glad to be home.


B said...

this gave me goosebumps. good goosebumps.

The Modern Gal said...

I agree, CK!

There's a professor at UT who has done a lot of research into Death of a Family, and according to him Summer, 1915 was something that Agee hadn't even intended for A Death in the Family -- it was one of the bits added by the editor of the book after Agee's death. The professor (I think his name is Lofaro?) has since done his own reconstruction of A Death in the Family based on notes and drafts of Agee's to make it reflect what he thinks Agee wanted with the novel. Instead of Knoxville: Summer, 1915, that book has a very, very grim prologue about a man watching another man die, or something like that. It's quite the contrast.

Anyway, on beautiful nights, Agee's words always come up in my mind as I either walk or ride around Old North Knoxville or the Fort or any of the other historic 'hoods.

skweeds said...

Excellent stuff. Great to have things to remind me why I moved (and stayed) here.

Mickey said...

I've overlooked this one. It's now going on the list. Thanks, CK.