“We are talking of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.” So begins James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family, his semi-autobiographical masterpiece, in the short prelude called “Knoxville: Summer, 1915.”
I have always felt a special connection with Agee, not just because I admire his now-seldom-read maximalist prose, but because he grew up on Highland Avenue in Knoxville, where I lived for a couple of years while my father was in graduate school and where my mother’s mother lived when she was growing up. He goes on to describe the neighborhood: “It was a little bit mixed sort of block, fairly solidly lower middle class, with one or two juts apiece on either side of that. The houses corresponded: middle-sized gracefully fretted wood houses built in the late nineties and early nineteen-hundreds, with small front and side and more spacious back yards, and trees in the yards, and porches.”
By the time my family lived there when I was a child, the neighborhood had gone down and was no longer solidly middle class. My family lived in a five-room cottage that had been built in between some of the larger, older houses. The largest of those “gracefully fretted wood houses” that remained on our block was peeling and listing, and housed a large family that often borrowed money from my father the grad student to pay their heating bill. The kids were always angling for snacks. We did still have a large back yard that sloped down to a gravel alley. Across the alley, though, was a boy named Herschel who lived with his grandmother in what was apparently a muddy trash heap. He once threatened me by swinging the body of a dead cat over his head while he yelled obscenities.
I still have fond memories of living there—playing with the Kellys, who lived across the street and whose Dad grew hens’n’chicks in big pots on their front porch; making forays down to the old-fashioned corner store where we would buy a candy bar on occasion; sailing little bark boats in the puddles in our rutted driveway. One evening a driverless car rammed into the corner of our house, its owner having left off the parking brake on the steep hillside. My brother and I were allowed out in our pajamas to see while my father murmured with the errant car owner and the tow-truck driver. Seldom outside at night, I was fascinated with the sparkling street lights.
My mother also told me that her mother had lived on Highland Avenue as a girl, and when I later became aware of James Agee’s growing up there, I wondered if they had ever met. Agee was a bit younger than my grandmother, and the Avenue is a longish street, so the answer is probably no. But as I read A Death in the Family, I felt certain that the childhood Agee described was very near to the one my grandmother experienced. He mentioned Laurel Avenue, he mentioned Miller’s Department Store—and so had my grandmother. And those places really existed and were still extant during my teenage years.
Miller’s has by now been bought out, and the neighborhood that once housed families has largely been bull-dozed to make way for hospitals, doctors’ offices, businesses, and university buildings. There are a few pockets preserved, but it is a changed landscape.
Agee’s birthday was November 27, and so it seems doubly right to remember him during the week I visited the place that affected both him and me so powerfully. He’s also been recently remembered for his nonfiction work with documentary photographer Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and for the original article that Fortune magazine refused to publish, but that will appear in the March 2012 issue of The Baffler. I know I’ll watch for it.
That Agee did not receive unqualified praise himself assures me that he was onto something and in a completely unique way that audiences were not ready for. I wish more writers were “bloated with guilt” instead of fit as fiddles with their own self-satisfaction!
“I know I am making the choice most dangerous to an artist in valuing life above art,” Agee noted. And indeed, he produced a very small body of work before he died at the age of 45. But it is some beautiful stuff. Again, from “Knoxville: Summer, 1915”:
Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.
Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes.
Content, silver, like peeps of light, each cricket makes his comment over and over in the drowned grass.
A cold toad thumpily flounders.
Within the edges of damp shadows of side yards are hovering children nearly sick with joy of fear, who watch the unguarding of a telephone pole.
Around white carbon corner lamps bugs of all sizes are lifted elliptic, solar systems. Big hardshells bruise themselves, assailant: he is fallen on his back, legs squiggling.
Parents on porches: rock and rock: From damp strings morning glories: hang their ancient faces.
The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums.
And he ends this passage: “Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”