As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods: They kill us for their sport (King Lear)
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport ( James Agee A Death in the Family)
Dorset Graveyard (c) Meirion Harries
Knoxville suffered in 1863. Tucked into the Great Appalachian Valley under the Smoky Mountains and standing at the confluence creating the Tennessee River, the city has always been a staging post to the West. Around the turn of the eighteenth century, Avery’s Trace – a pioneer trail through Cherokee lands – began there. Then, in the 1850s, came a railway bringing people and prosperity .
But in the Civil War, that railway also put the city on a strategically vital route through the mountains from Virginia to the battlefields of the western theatre. Both sides needed control – and the inhabitants of Knoxville paid a high price when a Confederate army laid siege to the city. For two months, soldiers and civilians alike suffered under the guns of Longstreet’s army – until relieved by William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces.
But the Siege is only one reason why Knoxville is famous. People are another. Over the years, the city has produced and/or educated: Quentin Tarantino; the photographers Charles and Joseph Knaffi (whose image the Knaffi Madonna is still a popular Christmas card); Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s; Admiral David Farragut (“damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead”); Sam Houston (who, among other accomplishments, cleared the Cherokee out of Tennessee); and Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo.
The Knaffi Madonna (Knaffi Brothers, public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
Not as famous, but worthy of a mention is Pete Kreis – a man to be admired for taking a month off each year to race the Indianapolis 500 – where he died, aged 34. Not surprisingly, given Knoxville’s proximity to Nashville, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals, the city has also raised a host of musicians: Chet Atkins, Kenny Chesney, Don and Phil Everly, and Stick McGhee (Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee).
And then there are Knoxville’s writers – Frances Hodgson Burnett, Alex Haley, Cormac McCarthy and the extraordinary James Rufus Agee – whose pedigree, on his mother’s side, is said to have included Walt Whitman.
James Agee (A as in ‘hay’ and Gee as in ‘whiz’) was a great writer: Auden, thought his work for Fortune “the most remarkable event in American journalism”. His craft was hard-learned: a Harvard classmate and later editor of his poetry, Robert Fitzgerald, recalled that to write stories, the young Agee had to …. “conceive and feel them on his skin. He deprived himself of all the distraction that he liked—company, music, movies, and books—and lived in lean poverty” .
To secure his purgatory, he would …. “hole up in the Advocate office [Harvard’s literary magazine of which Agee was elected President] for days and nights until the job was done”. This may sound romantic but the office was at that time “a small frame building up an alley, containing a few tables and chairs and an old, leather-covered couch, all pleasantly filthy”.
Agee emerged from Harvard into the depressed 1930s determined to be a writer: “It sounds conceited; whether it is or not: I’d do anything on earth to become a really great writer” – and despite regarding employment as a “hindrance and semi-suicide”, he had to take what work he could get.
Over the years, he lost none of his resolve but his talent was spread wide: journalism for the Time empire; novels; poetry (published in the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets). He became an influential film critic for Time Magazine, made films himself and wrote screenplays – The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. To the New York Times Review of Books, his collected letters were “comparable in importance to Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up and Thomas Wolfe’s letters”.
One of his major works came from a commission to write about poverty in the south. His Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (incidentally, Jimmy Carter’s favourite book) documents eight weeks of life with three families of sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama. Walker Evans was commissioned to take the supporting images – though Agee was firm that the “photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text , are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative”.
Bud Fields, sharecropper (Walker Evans, Library of Congress)
Sharecropping was a more than miserable existence. Entire families were in thrall to the landowner who took the cotton they had to grow and pick and extracted a substantial portion of whatever else they might produce:
the work, the constant lack of money, need, leaness, backbroken work, knowledge of being cheated, helplessness to protest or order this otherwise
The Fields Family (Walker Evans, Library of Congress)
This is Floyd Burroughs. Agee and Evans shared Floyd’s shack (which belonged to Floyd’s landlord) with his family for eight weeks:
Floyd has no home, no land, no mule; none of the more important farming implements. He must get all of these of his landlord. [The landlord] for his share of the corn and cotton, also advances him rations money during four months of the year, March through June, and his fertiliser. Floyd pays him back with his labor and the labor of his family.
Floyd Burroughs (Walker Evans, Library of Congress)
Agee was profoundly affected by the dehumanising existence of sharecropping:
It is for the clothing, and for the food, and for the shelter, by these to sustain their lives, that they work. Into this work and need, their minds, their spirits, and their strength are so steadily and intensely drawn that during such time as they are not at work, life exists for them scarcely more clearly or in more variance and seizure and appetite than it does for the more simply organised among the animals…..
Picking cotton and dragging the sack (Walker Evans, Library of Congress)
Agee describes the torture of picking cotton: “and this brilliant weight of heat is piled upon you more and more heavily in hour after hour so that it can seem you are in a diving bell whose strained seams must at any moment burst, and the eyes are marked in stinging sweat, and the head, if your health is a little unstable, is gently roaring like a private blowtorch, and less gently beating with aching blood: also the bag, which can hold a hundred pounds, is filling as it is dragged from plant to plant, four to nine burrs to a plant to be rifled swiftly, and the load shrugged along another foot or two and the white row stretched ahead to a blur …. cotton plants are low, so that in this heat and burden of the immanent sun and of the heavying sack you are dragging, you are continuously … bent very deep … and at length, in the small of the spine, a literal and persistent sensation of yielding, buckling, splintering and breakage”….
To The New Yorker, it was “a book of wonders – an untameable American classic in the same line as Leaves of Grass and Moby Dick” and provided the inspiration for Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land – his opera about a farming family in the mid-west in the 1930s.
When Agee died, the Washington Post carved his niche in the national pantheon: “He honestly does seem something close to the James Dean of American literature”. He and Dean – non-conformist, rebellious and physically striking – were indeed cultural icons (though for different constituencies and on a different scale).
Even if you have never read anything by Agee, there are two phrases that you will know: Knoxville – Summer of 1915 and also Sure on this Shining Night.
Sure on this shining night
Of starmade shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
Both were set by Samuel Barber – and Morten Lauridsen’s setting of Sure on this Shining Night may well be the Captain’s favourite song.
The prose/poem Knoxville – Summer of 1915 is a short piece written in 1938 that looks back at the love and security that enveloped Agee as a six year-old. His words evoke a gentle sound world and you join him there, passive and still:
“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. As they lie there, they listen to the night-sounds …. that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street …
People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt; a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber ….
“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 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.”
As the last paragraph suggests, this memory of a perfect evening stands on the far side of tragedy – the following year, his father was crushed to death when his Model T Ford rolled into a ditch. (Interestingly, Samuel Barber, who became a close friend of Agee, was also coming to terms with his father’s death when he wrote his music for Knoxville 1915).
James Agee as a child, with sister, mother, aunt, and grandmother, probably a couple of summers after 1915 (courtesy Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection from the Knoxville History Project)
Psychology Today describes a blunderbuss of harms blasting a child who suffers the trauma of a parent’s death: “Early parental loss is associated with negative outcomes including anxiety; depression; prolonged grief reactions; negative effects on sense of self; increased risk for suicide, substance abuse, and eating problems; difficulty with executive function; reduced quality of life; and changes to how survivors approach adult relationships.”
Certainly, Agee’s short life – he smoked too much, drank too much and died, aged 45, of a heart attack in the back of a New York cab – substantiates this forecast of despair. There were the outer signs – alcoholism; trips in and out of poverty; three wives; an obsession that compelled him to rewrite his journalism long after the articles had gone to print; a life that was always uncertain.
His inner turmoil is on display in his letters to Father Flye, a priest and beloved teacher who took the young Agee into his family. They were very close: Father Flye took the sixteen-year-old Agee on a cycling holiday in England and France and, when schooldays ended, Agee maintained the relationship for the whole of his life – supported perhaps by his mother’s remarriage to another Episcopalian Father, Erskine Wright, in 1924.
Agee’s unhappiness seeps out from these letters to Father Flye:
“I’d be very glad of a person I could trust (and afford) to do mental surgery on me … I am thirty and have missed irretrievably all the trains I should have caught”.
I am trying very hard, with mixed success, to live frugally, carefully, safely, etc. etc.… I know Mia is in a chronic kind of pain and sadness, in anxiety for me, because of my heart, and my insufficiently careful attention to it. I am out of work and out of money. The most visible and easy amelioration is through alcohol.
To the world at large, Agee was wonderful company, generous to a fault and a good friend. But he was eccentric to the point of being peculiar. He kept a goat in his flat in New York and children chalked on the steps of his building “A looney lives here”.
Agee’s sexuality was confused, to say the least. There are tales of his propositioning male students at Harvard – and the sharecroppers project that he had worked on with Walker Evans, created a relationship that is hard to interpret.
Evans is believed to have had lovers of both sexes – John Cheever claimed to be one – and then “somewhere in late 1939 Agee convinced Evans and Alma Neuman, Agee’s wife at the time, to go to bed together while Agee watched and fumblingly participated, apparently intent on studying the processes of sex”.
Belinda Rathbone suggests that “at the time, Agee’s and Evans’ love for each other was perhaps stronger than either of them had for a woman, whether or not they confessed as much to each other or anyone else. Instead of consummating their relationship directly, they made their sexual connection vicariously, through women. . . “
“The experience apparently left Agee guilt-ridden and emotionally devastated. Laurence Bergreen quotes an Agee letter to Evans: “I have caused each of you a certain amount of bother and am of course sorry and contemptuous of myself. However much you happen to like each other, good: I am enough of an infant homosexual or postdostoevskian to be glad”.
As Evans put it later, Agee “was blind in the heart and in the genitals”.
[The sources for this section are: Belinda Rathbone Walker Evans: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin 1995) and Laurence Bergreen James Agee: A Life (Dutton 1984) quoted by William Todd Schultz in Off-Stage Voices in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”: Reportage as Covert Autobiography American Imago Vol. 56, No.1 Spring 1999. Johns Hopkins UP]
The trauma behind Knoxville – Summer of 1915 found full expression in his last work – A Death in the Family – the Pulitzer-winning novel though which Agee relives in excruciating detail the death of his father. Writing in The Southern Literary Journal, George Toles picks up the psychological impulse pushing Agee’s writing:
“Sometimes when the hurt has more to do with parental absence than with suffocating presence, one dreams one’s way home in order to close up emotional gaps—to impose warmth on spaces one can no longer bear to leave empty. One gathers up all the family love (and family intentions to love) that one remembers and fashions desperately tender images of the world by their reflected light.”
For George Toles – “to a greater degree than any other writer I know of, Agee lives in his emotions and has no capacity to think about things in unemotional terms”.
His emotional ‘fashioning of tender images’ emerges in A Death in the Family as he (who is called Rufus in the novel – Agee’s middle name) describes sitting with his father late one evening as they pause on their way home across town:
“He was just not in a hurry to get home, Rufus realized; and, far more important, it was clear that he liked to spend these few minutes with Rufus …. and, during the ten to twenty minutes they sat on the rock, [Rufus felt] a particular kind of contentment, unlike any other that he knew. He did not know what this was, in words or ideas, or what the reason was; it was simply all that he saw and felt. It was, mainly, knowing that his father, too, felt a particular kind of contentment, here, unlike any other, and that their kinds of contentment were much alike, and depended on each other.”
…. “and as he watched his father’s face, Rufus felt his father’s hand settle, without groping or clumsiness, on the top of his bare head; it took his forehead and smoothed it, and pushed the hair backward from his forehead, and held the back of his head while Rufus pressed his head backward against the firm hand, and, in reply to that pressure, clasped over his right ear and cheek, over the whole side of the head, and drew Rufus’ head quietly and strongly against the sharp cloth that covered his father’s body …”
But the novel is not just about recollected or imagined emotions – Agee also gives a precise, detailed account of place and people:
“They turned aside into a darker street, where the fewer faces looked more secret, and came into the odd, shaky light of Market Square. It was almost empty at this hour, but here and there, along the pavement streaked with horse urine, a wagon stayed still, and low firelight shone through the white cloth shell stretched tightly on its hickory hoops.”
“You both understand what has happened to Daddy, don’t you. That something happened in the auto and God took him from us, very quickly, without any pain, and took him away to heaven … And you understand that when God takes you away to heaven, you can never come back … And someday, if we’re good, when God comes for us, He’ll take us to heaven too and we’ll see Daddy there and all be together again, forever and ever …. But when we see Daddy today, children, his soul won’t be there. It’ll just be Daddy’s body. Very much as you have always seen him. But because his soul has been taken away, he will be lying down, and he will lie very still”.
In this compulsion to drill down into minute detail, Agee was much influenced by James Joyce. For one commentator, Keith Williams, A Death in the Family and Agee’s earlier novel The Morning Watch together “combine into a kind of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Southerner”.
Agee would have been pleased: Father Flye once said (to Victor Kramer) – “Jim wanted to do the impossible. He wanted to write like Joyce … recording the wonder of the ordinary, yet he also sought to do what Proust accomplished in Remembrance of Things Past.” (Agee would have been less pleased to know that, like Proust, he would die before completing his work – leaving others to assemble the material on his desk and publish).
Gay Street, Knoxville 1915 (courtesy Robert J. Booker and KnoxNews.com)
But you don’t have to read A Death in the Family through the lens of modernism or Psychology Today. Charles Aiken, writing in the Geographical Review, is interested in Agee’s “succinct description” of the urban environment . . . [His] desire for exactness was so important that Agee even obtained the times of dusk, sunset, and full darkness in Knoxville for May 18, 1916, the day on which his father died. The geographical accuracy of the book is so keen that anyone who reconstructs Knoxville of 1915-16 can follow the characters as they move across the real urban landscape.”
Aiken contrasts the Knoxville of 1915 with its changed self seventy years later. By then, Agee’s neighbourhood had become a battlefield for preservationists facing a growing pile of dilapidation. Many of the wooden houses had been torn down and replaced with apartment buildings (as happened to Agee’s own home). In 1983, the ‘gracefully fretted wood houses” were no longer neat, single-family dwellings but were decaying shells occupied by a transient population – only four of the eleven remaining houses were owner-occupied.
But move on forty years and the city is gentrifying. Agee’s own neighbourhood looks smart but the soul has moved out – But when we see Daddy today, children, his soul won’t be there. It’ll just be Daddy’s body. Most of the houses now are in multi-occupancy by students from the nearby Tennessee University – and while this has ensured survival for the fabric of the wooden houses, the gentle sounds of Knoxville 1915 are nightly buried by thumping block parties.
And gentrification comes at a price. The inner city is clean and desirable – because the poor have been pushed into the deprivation of the edges. But overall crime rates are high: City-Data.com reports the 2020 crime rate in Knoxville as 1.8 times higher than the national average – higher than in 95.9% of America’s cities. Knoxville’s current homicide rate is 18.7 per 100,000 people compared to Tennessee’s average rate of 9.9 and a national rate of 6.5. Drug abuse is rampant: the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation calculates that there are at least 800 active meth labs across Tennessee on any given day – a drug whose demand is linked to the high rates of opioid abuse in the state.
Here, then, in this city with frayed edges of inequality, is a tragedy larger than the death of Agee’s father: for those who no longer cling to the belief that America is egalitarian, Knoxville – Summer of 1915 is a threnody.
FILMS AND MUSIC
Agee was also a visual person and this is a rare venture into filmmaking – with two others he was a cameraman filming poverty in East Harlem – In The Street
Agee also wrote the “commentary” for a film that was just pipped for an Academy award – The Quiet One directed by Sidney Meyers – https://youtu.be/DcwS0wNvouQ?feature=shared
Aaron Copeland’s The Promise of Living from The Tender Land (arranged by John Williams) – https://youtu.be/bLM_YTnmLto?feature=shared
Stick McGhee (Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee) – https://youtu.be/g0lmX06odhw?feature=shared
Biographical film by Brian Helton: Agee: The Life and Work of James Agee (includes a surprising interview with Jimmy Carter)
James Agee’s voice in an audio letter to Father Flye – Vintage ASMR James Agee “Letter To A Friend” – https://youtu.be/J9s7MySSPXw?si=4uJWgPfZZJiNwS0W
Live recording of Leontyne Price singing Knoxville: Summer of 1915 – Leontyne Price canta “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”
Download of manuscript of Sure on this Shining Night available here – https://tile.loc.gov/storage-services/service/music/songinamerica/200035580/200035580.pdf
If you watch only one of these films, then perhaps this one – Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—Revisited
James Agee’s books, poetry and other writings
Related to Walt Whitman – Was James Agee related to Walt Whitman? » MobyLives (mhpbooks.com)
Sure on that Shining Night is excerpted from a longer poem – Description of Elysium published in Agee’s 1934 poetry collection Permit Me Voyage published as part of the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
Robert Fitzgerald James Agee: A Memoir The Kenyon Review , 1968, Vol. 30, No. 5 (1968)
Boring from Within: James Agee and Walker Evans at Time Inc by Jeff Allred Criticism, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Winter 2010) Wayne State University Press
James Agee in the Office by Donal Harris – https://doi.org/10.1632/pmla.2012.127.4.766 published online by Cambridge University Press
“Practically an American Home”: James Agee’s Family Solitudes by George Toles The Southern Literary Journal Vol. 25, No. 2 (Spring, 1993) University of North Carolina Press
The Cinema According to James Agee by James Naremore New England Review Vol. 35, No. 2 (2014) Middlebury College Publications
The Transformation of James Agee’s Knoxville by Charles S. Aiken Geographical Review Vol. 73, No. 2 (April 1983) Taylor & Francis Ltd.
“The Unpaid Agitator”: Joyce’s Influence on George Orwell and James Agee by Keith Williams James Joyce Quarterly Vol. 36, No. 4 (Summer, 1999) University of Tulsa
Undergraduate Research Journal Volume 19 Article 12, 2015 Musical and Cultural Significance in Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” by Danielle E. Kluver, University of Nebraska at Kearney – https://openspaces.unk.edu/undergraduate-research-journal
Interpreting Agee’s Life-Long Longing Reviewed Work(s): Agee Agonistes; Essays on the Life, Legend and Works of James Agee by Michael A. Lofaro; James Agee, A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text by Michael A. Lofaro Review by Victor A Kramer The Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 2, Special Section on Katherine Anne Porter (Spring 2009) The Johns Hopkins University Press
Bay Area Reporter October 25th 2005 by Jim Nawrocki James Agee finally gets his due – https://www.ebar.com/story.php?ch=arts_&_culture&sc=books&id=222568
Off-Stage Voices in James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”: Reportage as Covert Autobiography William Todd Schultz, American Imago Vol. 56, No. 1 (Spring 1999) Johns Hopkins UP
How The West Was – Walker Evans by Janet Abrams (Frieze March 6th, 1994)
And, of course, Wikipedia – https://donate.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ways_to_Give