In the fall of 1961, my family moved from Greenville, South Carolina, where I was born in June that year, to a little town in east Tennessee called LaFollette, where my father had his first medical practice. LaFollette was a poor, rural community; and my father, 30 years old and just a year out of medical school, was overwhelmed, I think, by the demands of a general medical practice in such a place, at such a time. A year later, we left for Charlottesville, Virginia, where he began a pediatric residency.
I have no memories of LaFollette, though there are home movies of me waddling around in a large back yard with ducks, as well as footage of a University of Tennessee football game – the screen fills suddenly with orange. A home movie from the following year was titled “Snow in Charlottesville” – my father had written that on the little yellow box that held the reel – and to this day, when I think of Charlottesville, I think of it in wintertime. Later, we moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where my father was a pediatrician for 35 years and where my parents and two of my siblings live to this day.
We never went back to LaFollette, and the year we spent there gradually receded into the mists of family history. I grew up thinking we had not been happy there, that it had been a mistake in my parents’ calculations, a mistake they quickly corrected and soon put behind us. That is, until I went away to college.
It was 1979, fall of my freshman year. I took English Composition from Prof. Tony Abbott, who had us buy four books: William Strunk and E. B. White’s Elements of Style; William Zinsser’s On Writing Well; The John McPhee Reader; and A Writer’s Reader, edited by Donald Hall and D. L. Emblen. The class was a revelation to me; Abbott was a generous and inspiring teacher, and I loved all four of the books we used, perhaps the Reader most of all. I think I read every essay in it, even ones we were not assigned.
The second piece in the book was by James Agee; it was titled “Knoxville: Summer 1915.” It was a short piece, only four pages long, about 2,000 words divided into seven paragraphs. I don’t remember if we read it in class or ever talked about it. What I do know is that it had an immediate and profound effect on me. I thought it was the loveliest piece of English prose I had ever read.
It begins with a kind of voiceover – as if there is a scene before us, and its creator has come on stage to explain what it is:
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.
The rest of the paragraph fills in the scene: a lower middle class residential block in a southern U.S. town in the second decade of the twentieth century, a place with “middlesized 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.” It is a place where families share small talk but no deeper intimacies. The men are mostly businessmen between thirty and forty-five years old.
The second paragraph is one sentence long: “But it is of these evenings, I speak.”
Supper in such a place at such a time began at six and was over by half past, the daylight still shining softly, “with a tarnish, like the lining of a shell,” as fathers and children emerge from their houses – the children running out “hell bent” to find one another, the fathers sinking out leisurely “in crossed suspenders, their collars removed and their necks looking tall and shy.”
Last to come out are the mothers, done with the washing and drying and putting away: “When they came out they had taken off their aprons and their skirts were dampened and they sat in rockers on their porches quietly.”
But it is not of the children or the mothers that the writer wishes to speak; it is of the fathers. Thus begins the long fourth paragraph, which includes a passage describing in minute detail how fathers watered their lawns on summer evenings in Knoxville, 1915, the nozzles of their hoses set “so there was a long sweet stream of spray, the nozzle wet in the hand, the water trickling the right forearm and the peeled-back cuff, and the water whishing out a long loose and low-curved cone, and so gentle a sound.” To arrive at this compromise between distance and tenderness of spray, the fathers first let loose an “insane noise of violence” in the nozzle, but then they adjusted the sound, smoothing it into steadiness. Of course, at any one moment, different sounds came from the several hoses within earshot, but as each father adjusted his spray, the noises began to merge into unison. Amidst “these sweet pale streamings in the light,” other sounds could be heard: mothers hushing their children and locusts carrying on the noise of the hoses in a higher and sharper key, a noise seeming “to come from nowhere and everywhere at once . . . like the noises of the sea and of the blood her precocious grandchild, which you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening.”
By the fifth paragraph, the men have silenced and coiled their hoses, and one by one they leave their yards: “it has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street.” A horse and buggy go by, then an automobile, then pairs of people walking, “not in a hurry.” A street car stops and bells, its iron whine rising and fainting and rising again: “fainting, lifting, lifts, faints forgone: forgotten.” And we are suddenly in a poem:
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.
A later line in the poem always reminds me of summer evenings when I was a child, on Wilson Lane in Raleigh, in the late 1960s, when we children would meet outside after supper and play games that carried us across dozens of yards, games epic and thrilling:
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.
What follows are two of the most beautiful and moving paragraphs ever written, in my opinion – the description of summer evenings in a time and place immemorial giving way to a very particular memory of a very particular place, peopled with very particular individuals very dear to the writer.
On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.
After a little I am taken in and put to bed. 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.
James Agee wrote “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” in December, 1935, when he was 26 years old. (I give the title as it first appeared.) It was published in 1938, in Partisan Review, a New York-based journal edited by Agee’s friend Dwight Macdonald. Between the writing and publishing of “Knoxville,” Agee spent time in rural Alabama with photographer Walker Evans, a visit that would lead to the 1941 publication of his best-known work, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
“Knoxville: Summer of 1915” would later appear as the prologue to Agee’s 1957 posthumous novel A Death in the Family, a thinly veiled memoir based on the death of his own father, in May 1916, in an automobile accident, when Agee was just 6 years old. The summer of 1915, in other words, was the last summer Agee’s father was alive. It may be for this reason that “Knoxville” appealed to composer Samuel Barber, who, in 1947, while his own father was dying, wrote a musical composition for soprano and orchestra using Agee’s words.
Below is a 1989 recording of Barber’s work, performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, provided by Nonesuch Records.
Agee became a favorite writer of mine after I read “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”; and it wasn’t long before I learned that his father, on the night he was killed in 1916, was driving back to Knoxville from LaFollette, Tennessee, where he had grown up and where his father still lived. Biographers have made much of Jay Agee’s backwoods origins, especially when compared to Agee’s mother, Laura Tyler Agee, who was from a well-educated and artistic Knoxville family. But Jay Agee was no yokel; his father-in-law once said of him that no man needed a college education less.
I know the connection between me and Agee, via LaFollette, is tenuous at best – but when I was young and an avid reader, and wanted to write like the writers I loved, it felt like a benediction of sorts. I thought that perhaps when I was a small child, I might have driven with my parents through Agee’s old neighborhood, on the way from LaFollette to Knoxville to see a UT football game, taking the very route that Agee’s father had driven the night he died. It gave me reason to read Agee’s other works – though, to be honest, the very things that made “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” so special to me – the lyricism, the long lovely sentences, the outbreak of poetry – can make Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family practically unreadable at times.
I have returned to Agee occasionally in the intervening years, as I did recently when writing a blog post about his friend and collaborator Walker Evans. In any case, it was with pleasure that, in early September of this year, I visited East Tennessee for the first time in 50 years – to give a talk at UT. While there, I was determined to visit the scene of “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” Internet searches revealed that the house Agee lived in in 1915 was on Highland Avenue near 15th Street, but I learned that it had been torn down some years ago. Still, I wanted to see the neighborhood.
There were no planned activities the morning of the second day of my visit, so I took off from my hotel near Old City, downtown, and headed west on Clinch Avenue. Near the University, in the Fort Sanders neighborhood, I found James Agee Street (formerly 15th St.) and James Agee Park.
On the sidewalk in front of the park there’s an inscription from Agee: “To those who in all times have sought truth and who have told it in their art or in their living.” It’s from the dedication to his 1934 book of poems Permit Me Voyage.
But on Highland, I couldn’t find any marker showing where the Agee house had been. I saw a couple of empty lots and one modern-looking apartment building; I wondered if the Agee house had been on one of those sites. I asked five different people if they knew which lot James Agee had lived on: a house painter, someone reading on their porch, and three people walking around. They all asked me the same question back: “Who?”
When I returned to my hotel room, I found this video on YouTube, in which Knoxville author Jack Neely shows clearly where the Agee house had been.
Maybe the lack of a marker for the house is a sign of a more general failure in our culture to memorialize our histories and mark our landscapes with meaning. But the fact is that Knoxville has named a small park and a street after Agee, and there’s a prominent historical marker near the UT campus:
Still, I can’t help but see irony in the fact that for a writer so attuned to place and time, perhaps the most famous place in all his writing – with the exception perhaps of the rural Alabama county of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – has gone unremembered.
On the other hand, the more I read “Knoxville,” the more I think it’s less about place and time than about language itself, both its power to (re)create and its failure to help us when we most need it. In the piece, Agee uses verbs of speaking, telling, and talking repeatedly. He begins the essay with the line, “We are talking now of summer evenings . . .” In the second paragraph he writes, “But it is of these evenings, I speak.” The fourth paragraph names precisely the topic of this speaking: fathers hosing their lawns on summer evenings. And in the sixth paragraph, he asks,
Who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night?
Finally, the last paragraph ends with Agee’s childhood complaint about his family, that they won’t tell him who he is. Maybe “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is a piece, in other words, not about Knoxville, 1915, but about the eternal disclosures and silences of our world, about speaking and telling, about not speaking and not telling, about how intensely we want to re-create in words the worlds we hold dear and yet how little those worlds tell us when we do so.
For all its noises, then, its sounds of hoses and locusts and street cars, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” is ultimately, perhaps, about questions that have no answers and voices that carry no meaning, “like the voices of sleeping birds.” In the end, it’s not so much an attempt to recreate in words a place and time now lost to us as it is an attempt in words to bless what we have here and now, in those times and places when and where we do come together: in gentleness, in quiet, and in gratitude.
James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” was originally published in Partisan Review, August-September, 1938. It later appeared as the prologue to A Death in the Family (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1957).
Other works consulted for this blog post include Laurence Bergreen, James Agee: A Life (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984) and Agee: His Life Remembered: A Documentary Biography, edited by Ross Spears and Jude Cassidy (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985). A two-volume collection of Agee’s work appeared in 2005 from the Library of America, edited by Michael Sragow and including Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, shorter fiction, film writing, and selected journalism.
For my blog post on Walker Evans’ 1938 photographs of East 61st Street, New York City, click here.