notes by Chris Myers
Composed 1947. First performance: April 9, 1948, Eleanor Steber, soprano. Boston Symphony conducted by Serge Koussevitzky, Boston.
The beginning of 1947 was a difficult time for Samuel Barber. He was happy to have returned to civilian life after his wartime service, but his father and aunt were both in failing health. That January, he encountered James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”, a short essay which would eventually become the preamble to the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family. Agee’s poignant look back at his childhood struck a chord with Barber, and when soprano Eleanor Steber commissioned a work from him in February, he immediately decided to set it to music. The piece came to him very quickly and was completed on April 4.
James Agee’s essay is a dreamy, conversational, almost improvisatory piece of prose reflecting on summers spent with his family at their home in Tennessee. The author claimed that he wrote the stream-of-consciousness text in less than 90 minutes and made only minor revisions to it once it was complete. In the course of the essay, Agee shifts between viewing the world as an adult and seeing it through the eyes of his five-year-old self. He affectionately describes his parents and his artist uncle and musician aunt, both of whom were very close to him. While the text superficially yearns for the “golden years”, it is suffused with an inescapable adult knowledge of the frailty of life. Written in 1938, with the world on the verge of the Second World War, and reflecting back to 1915, when the nation was struggling to avoid the First World War, Agee seems eager to cling to innocence as long as possible even while recognizing the inevitability of its loss.
The text resonated strongly with Steber, who commented, “That was exactly my childhood in Wheeling, West Virginia.” For his part, Barber was struck by the uncanny similarity between his and Agee’s childhood: both were five years old in 1915 and were raised by loving parents and an artistic aunt and uncle (for Barber, the composer Sidney Homer and contralto Louise Homer). The composer later wrote to his uncle, “It reminded me so much of summer evenings in West Chester, now very far away, and all of you are in it.” Barber’s Aunt Louise would pass away on May 6, 1947. His father, to whom the composer dedicated Knoxville, followed on August 12.
The piece begins with a theme that we will come to associate with the comfort of home. A gentle triplet figure in the orchestra brings to mind the image of rocking chairs on the porch, mirroring the text’s description of people “rocking gently and talking gently”. Throughout Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Barber looks to the text for his melodic cues in this way, using word painting to create atmosphere and emphasize words. We hear the horses’ “hollow iron music on the asphalt”, and the unhurried pace of passersby “talking casually” is reflected in the singer’s delivery of the words.
Knoxville’s structure closely follows the free, dreamlike flow of Agee’s prose. The composer referred to the resulting piece as a “lyric rhapsody”, and it can roughly be described in rondo form, with the tranquility of childhood memories interrupted by two episodes.
First, the gentle and casual evening is disrupted by the clattering onomatopoetic modernity of “a streetcar raising its iron moan, stopping, belling and starting, stertorous.” The orchestra moans, bells, and growls along, and the sparks and “iron whine” are given musical portrayal which slowly fades as the streetcar passes. As the narrator’s father appears to drain and coil the garden hose, we can still hear it fading into the distance.
We return to the opening image of people rocking and talking on the porch. This time, though, it’s no longer abstract people, but the narrator’s parents. As the family gathers together to lie on quilts in the backyard, Agee’s mind wanders, and the comfort of the “home” theme is interrupted again—this time by a slow recognition of mortality. As we meet each member of the family, the music grows in intensity, mirroring the author’s affection for his uncle and aunt, father and mother. The melody crescendos to a heartfelt plea that God will “bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father…” in trouble and at their death, and we realize that the music of the introduction was, in fact, a foreshadowing of this climactic benediction.
The gentle rocking theme returns and attempts to regain the innocent happiness with which it began, but it never quite manages. It does, however, achieve a calm acceptance which seems both more profound and more fulfilling. This soliloquy, which began as a naïve and blissful remembrance of the golden years of childhood, ends with acknowledgement of the frailty of life and the realization that, while home may always be welcoming and comforting, it “will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”
Copyright © 2015 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
In the minds of people around the world, many of whom have never been to Tennessee, many of whom have never set foot in North America, many of whom don’t even speak English, the word “Knoxville” will be forever associated with the Summer of 1915. That’s thanks to Knoxville-born author James Agee, who wrote a poetic and almost universally resonant memoir called “Knoxville: Summer 1915”—but maybe even more so to composer Samuel Barber. One of the two or three great American composers of the 20th century, Barber never lived here, but his 1948 soprano composition uses Agee’s text as a sort of libretto. It’s one of his most famous pieces, a classic of modern vocal composition, performed regularly all over the world.
But it was kind of a sleeper of an essay, with a story unlike any other work of short prose. Its history surprises even those who can quote passages from memory.
Over a period of 20 years, it evolved from an obscure prose poem in an intellectual magazine in New York into an classic of modern literature known around the world. We’re revisiting Agee’s most famous piece on the centennial of the particular summer he remembered so vividly.
In the mid-1930s, Agee, then known primarily as a poet and slightly off-the-rails young magazine journalist, homesick perhaps for the first time in his life, wrote a short essay, or vignette, or whatever you want to call it, recalling a time when he was just 5 years old. It was perhaps the last summer in his life when nothing was wrong. He wrote about Knoxville in a summer just 21 years earlier, mainly in terms of sound. He had a good memory, and a good ear.
James Agee as a child, with sister, mother, aunt, and grandmother, probably a couple of summers after 1915
When he wrote “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” he was just 26 and had not lived in Knoxville for more than a decade. He was born in 1909 at 1115 Clinch Ave., at the home of his mother’s parents, the Tylers. The Agees lived there for a couple of years before moving just over the hill to 1505 Highland Ave. His 38-year-old father, whose name was also James Agee, died in a car wreck on Clinton Pike in North Knoxville in May 1916. About three years later the widow moved with her son James and his little sister, Emma, to Sewanee, Tenn., where the future author enrolled in St. Andrews, an isolated Episcopal school. Agee returned to Knoxville in 1924, and attended Knoxville High School, a very different place. For more than a year, the teenager lived back with the Tylers on Clinch Avenue, in a tiny house behind the main home, the artist’s studio his Uncle Hugh had built.
In 1925, when Agee was not quite 16, his mother moved him to New Hampshire, where he attended Phillips Exeter Academy before enrolling at Harvard. He settled, as much as he ever settled anywhere, in the New Yorkarea, where he was known as a poet and magazine journalist, writing mainly for Fortune magazine.
By early 1926, when patriarch Joel Tyler died, the remarkable Agee-Tyler clan was dispersing from Knoxville. Hugh Tyler, the most widely traveled of all of them, returned to Knoxville for a couple of years in the early ’30s to work with Charles Barber on architectural jobs, but after that Agee’s only Knoxville relatives were cousins he didn’t know well. Even his little sister, Emma, ended up in New York, working as a copy editor for Time.
Agee wasn’t always nostalgic about Knoxville. At Phillips Exeter, he wrote satires about home, ridiculing overcrowded, unsophisticated Knoxville High School. In a long article about TVA for Fortune in 1935, Agee refers to Knoxville only briefly, and without obvious personal fondness, describing the approach to TVA’s headquarters, in the building we now call the Pembroke: “Walk up sooty Gay Street and turn down smudgy Union and on past Market Square…”
But then, just a few months after that was published, he wrote this extraordinary thing, on the surface a memory of his early life with his mother and father and aunt and uncle in a lush, peaceful streetcar neighborhood on a summer evening.
A period postcard of “West End,” before it was known as Fort Sanders, looking toward a downtown skyline hardly recognizable today.
It was then known as West End—it would not be known as Fort Sanders until the 1950s, though some neglected ruin of the earthen Union fort was still discernible. Knoxville still listed it as one of the city’s historic attractions; you could see it, they said, if you sat on the left side of the Highland Avenue streetcar. Agee’s vague memory of the overgrown earthworks, recounted in his autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, are among the last known sightings of the actual fort, which had disappeared altogether by the 1920s.
Highland Avenue was roughly the economic center of the neighborhood, with neither rich nor poor.
Agee later claimed he wrote “Knoxville: Summer 1915” in a sort of stream-of-consciousness flow, in about an hour and a half. “I was greatly interested in improvisatory writing,” he later wrote of the Knoxville piece, “with a kind of parallel to improvisation in jazz.” Agee was a pianist himself, and listened to language, valuing its sound.
In 1938, he found an unlikely publisher for it. The New York-based Partisan Review was a sometimes-controversial leftist political publication. Dwight MacDonald, an erudite political radical, was the editor who chose to publish it. Agee’s piece is not political, but in a literary sense it may have been satisfying to people drawn to the radical.
Although it was about a specific time and place, Agee’s piece touched on something universal, and people responded to it. It’s not clear whether the piece was ever well-known in Knoxville in the first decade after its publication. It became known mainly among intellectuals in East Coast universities and the cafes of Manhattan.
Meanwhile, Agee became known mainly as a book and cinema critic, and one who dabbled in movie scripts himself. “Knoxville: Summer 1915” got an extra boost in 1946 with the hardback publication of The Partisan Reader, an anthology of the best of the Partisan Review’s early publications. It was apparently in that form that Samuel Barber encountered it.
Samuel Barber, born in the small town of West Chester, Pa., near Philadelphia, just a few weeks after Agee was born in Knoxville, was an early bloomer, too. He had some early success with his Adagio for Strings, composed about the same time Agee wrote “Knoxville: Summer 1915.” In 1938, Barber wrote a “song” based on Agee’s early poem, “Sure On This Shining Night.”
It was considered one of Barber’s early successes. Barber had still never met Agee personally, and in fact didn’t read “Knoxville: Summer 1915” until about eight years later. By some accounts, soprano Eleanor Steber, then in her early 30s and rather famous, asked Barber to interpret Agee’s text for her to sing. It’s not surprising that a piece inspired by jazz, and that’s very much about sound, would appeal to musicians.
In any case, Barber was impressed with the Knoxville work. “The text moved me very much,” Barber wrote a friend. “It is by the same man who wrote ‘Sure On This Shining Night.’”
Barber wrote an odd sort of rhapsody around it, called “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” (The word “of” appears only in the title of the Barber composition, and distinguishes it from Agee’s original.) Barber didn’t use all of Agee’s original, but excerpted some vivid passages.
It premiered at the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1948, with 73-year-old Russian-born conductor Serge Koussevitzky in charge—a rare circumstance in which a conductor was 35 years older than the composer. But Steber, then a 33-year-old soprano, sang Agee’s words. She later recorded it, as did many of the great sopranos of the era—among them Leontyne Price and later Dawn Upshaw, who named an album after the Knoxville work.
It was so well known that when Agee died suddenly at age 45 in 1955, his hometown paper identified him not as the author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was forgotten, or A Death in the Family which was unknown—but that he had written the text that had inspired the famous Samuel Barber piece.
It was only later that “Knoxville: Summer 1915”—an essay written in an hour and a half, then published in a radical magazine, then anthologized, then set to music—found its way into a mass-market novel. When he died, Agee left hundreds of pages of manuscripts for an autobiographical novel he’d been working on for close to 20 years, but wasn’t near publishing. It was the choice of editor David McDowell to put it into the novel, as a prologue in italics. A Death In the Family, with “Knoxville: Summer 1915” as the prologue, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958—even though there’s little fiction in it—and has been in print for almost 60 years. Today it’s available, mostly in paperback, in thousands of bookstores around the world.
Twenty years ago, an audio crew from the BBC recorded an audio documentary called “Knoxville: Summer of 1995.” Broadcast globally to accompany a performance of Barber’s piece by the London Symphony, it won an international prize, the Prix Italia.
In late 1995, during their Monster tour at their arena-rock height, the band R.E.M. played to a giant house at Thompson Boling Arena. In the middle of the first set, singer Michael Stipe stopped the show and told the crowd they were lucky to live in a city that was the subject of one of the greatest pieces of literature, and he read from “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” perplexing an audience that came for rock ’n’ roll. In 1999, when A Prairie Home Companion came to the Civic Auditorium, Garrison Keillor made a last-minute addition to the script, scotching a planned song about tomatoes to read from Agee’s text for millions in a national radio audience.
In 2007, University of Tennessee Professor Mike Lofaro startled the Agee world with the publication of A Death In the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text, published by UT Press. At 582 pages, the hardback tome, readable but intended for literature scholars, is an unabridged and strictly chronological arrangement of Agee’s drafts as he left them at his death. It includes “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” which Lofaro argues was never intended to be part of the novel, but only as Appendix III. In its place is a little-known, much-longer introduction, a transliteration of a bizarre dream/nightmare narrative about Knoxville and John the Baptist. It’s a visit to a slightly dystopian Knoxville, in which “for every old site which touched him and made him happy and lonely, there was something new which he disliked.” The nightmare Knoxville was “a bigger, worse, more proud and foolish city.” Titled “towards the middle of the twentieth century,” it may not promise to become a classic for soprano interpretation, but it’s interesting reading, and suggests that Agee’s preoccupation with his hometown was a lifelong thing.
In 2009, Penguin Classics released a new edition of A Death In the Family, the more familiar novel, with a surprising introduction by rock-country star Steve Earle, who refers to Lofaro’s book and opinion, but opines that “Knoxville: Summer 1915” does indeed belong there. Explaining that he became acquainted with Agee by way of “local hipsters,” in the 1990s, “a handful of hyper-literate hillbillies who spoke in reading lists, all of which began and ended with James Agee,” Earle observed, “the bones of Agee’s Knoxville still protrude visibly through the more recent layers of spackling in places along Gay and Market Streets.” Earle became fascinated with Agee, and in particular quotes lines from “Knoxville: Summer 1915”—”Now they are so indelibly etched someplace inside of me that I couldn’t reach to rub them out even if I wanted to.”
Knoxville in the Summer of 1915
Market Square, which in 1915 had a large Market House in the middle of it, is described in detail in James Agee’s ‘A Death in the Family.’
“There is little if anything consciously invented in it,” Agee wrote later of the famous piece. “It is strictly autobiographical.” There’s no reason to question his claims that it was realistic. Highland Avenue was a comfortable place to live in 1915, and most 5-year-olds don’t see the worst. Many readers here and elsewhere have read Agee’s piece assuming it was a typical view of an idyllic city, or an idyllic summer, or both, that’s now lost forever. Agee’s text is “a tender, nostalgic, poignant text which very simply evokes a quiet evening in a small, quiet town,” wrote British broadcaster and music critic Robert Cushman, in the liner notes of a 1991 Barber CD compilation. He added, “Knoxville has much changed since then.”
Of course, Agee never claimed it was a comprehensive profile of his hometown, though many readers like to think of it that way.
Knoxville in the summer of 1915 didn’t always suggest quiet contemplation. Even if you look past that summer’s daily front-page anxieties about the war in Europe, of Gallipoli and Warsaw and Armenia, the aftermath of the torpedoing of the Lusitania, and the ever-more-likely prospect that the United States would be obliged to get involved, Knoxville had its own anxieties. It was a mostly industrial city of perhaps 40,000—though city boosters liked to put it at 88,000, including suburbs like Island Home and Lincoln Park, and a mostly undeveloped peninsula not yet called Sequoyah Hills, which were outside of city limits. Half-plumbed, half-electrified, often corrupt, Knoxville in the summer of 1915 could be gritty, noisy, and sometimes violent.
Knoxville kept most of those citizens occupied with its 30 or 40 factories: hat factories, candy factories, mantel factories, sock factories, glass factories, railroad-car factories. The sprawling Coster Shops served as the giant pit stop for the whole Southern Railway system. Brookside Mills was the most famous of Knoxville’s six or seven textile mills. Weston Fulton’s new “sylphon” metal-bellows plant rose on Third Creek. Highland Avenue was a quiet part of a noisy city.
Few factories were noisier than Ty-Sa-Man, the heavy-machinery company run by Agee’s Michigan-born grandfather, Joel Tyler. The Ty-Sa-Man company specialized in building saws that could cut stone. The factory was on 10th Street—the street no longer exists, but the factory thrived on what’s now the World’s Fair Park’s South Lawn, a spot much greener and quieter now than it was in 1915. Agee’s father, who had worked for the post office and the L&N Railroad, but may never have found his calling, was lately working for his father-in-law’s company as a stenographer.
Nine movie theaters, not counting the biggest theater, Staub’s, one of a few that still hosted mostly vaudeville, kept Knoxville entertained. The ones for whites were all on Gay Street. Two theaters for blacks were down near Central. Thanks to Jim Crow laws, segregation was getting worse, not better. Decades of black representation in city government seemed to be coming to an end. The new five-member City Council didn’t make room for blacks.
Downtown was brightly lit with electric lights. But poorer neighborhoods lacked electricity, and would for decades to come. Another book, Road Without Turning, offers a sort of contemporary counterpoint to Agee’s nostalgia. Born two years before Agee, James Herman Robinson (1907-1972) remembered the same summers on the opposite side of town, in the Cripple Creek area, where hundreds lived in Third-World conditions, lacking electricity and plumbing and fearing violence and seasonal visits of flooding, typhoid, and smallpox.
“Our homes in the Bottoms were hardly more than rickety shacks, clustered on stilts like Daddy Long Legs along the slimy bank of putrid and evil-smelling Cripple Creek,” wrote the Rev. Robinson, who became known for his leadership in major foreign-aid programs for Africa. “Hemmed in by the muddy creek bank on one side, by tobacco warehouses and a foundry on the other, and by slaughter pens on a third, it was a world set apart, and excluded.”
He remembered floods, one in particular around 1915: “By afternoon the creek was alive with outhouses torn loose from their foundations, logs, paper boxes, chicken coops, drowned dogs and poultry…” He watched houses and parts of houses give way to the swirling filth. “There were only two good things about the flood. It made us conscious of our oneness, black and white alike. And to our great relief, it swept away for a brief moment the stench of the outhouses and the slaughter pens.”
Same city, same era, different neighborhood, different childhood memory.
Agee recalled that his parents and aunt and uncle “are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all.”
Maybe they just didn’t want the kids to hear. There were things to talk about on Highland Avenue in the summer of 1915. Just beyond the end of the Highland streetcar tracks was a field with some woods, and on Saturday morning, July 10, a man looking for a lost horse found something else there. He found a young man lying in the field. The dark-haired young man was thin, he wore a slight mustache, and he was dead. His hat and coat and collar were lying some distance away. It was peculiar, and it would have been something for the grownups to talk about, in the gloaming.
During the summer, when the air was hot and humid, exacerbated by the soot in the air, Knoxville could be unpleasant. The city had two train stations, and Knoxvillians used them to get out of town, especially to the mountain resorts of Western North Carolina and the beaches of South Carolina. An overnight Southern train with sleeper cars reached Charleston in 19 hours. Northern cities were tempting in the summertime, too; New York’s Plaza Hotel ran big display ads in Knoxville newspapers.
Automobiles were just catching on with a mostly young and affluent minority who could buy them. The Agee family acquired a Ford Model T, for better or worse, but there were fancier ones, like, that season, the Paige Fairchild Six-46. Some with automobiles drove up to Montvale Springs, “the oldest resort in East Tennessee,” which featured dancing every night. At that time, few Knoxvillians had been any closer to the Smokies than that. Most of the Smokies were either wild and trackless or clear-cut.
Chilhowee Park, which could be reached by streetcar from Highland Avenue, was probably Knoxville’s most popular summer attraction in 1915.
There were attractions in town. Cherokee Country Club had completely redone their golf course. Chilhowee Park, “the South’s Most Beautiful Playground,” where there were still several big white monuments left from the National Conservation Exposition of less than two years earlier, had a roller coaster and merry-go-round and roller-skating rink. It also featured the “finest bathing beach in the state,” and a live brass band every night with dancing, and hosted an extended engagement by the daring Quincy family, featuring Margaret Quincy, “the Diving Venus.”
There were, of course, no big lakes. The Tennessee River flowed free, for better or worse, but sewage and industrial waste drained into it with little to check it, and it showed an unsettling tendency to flood. When a Knoxvillian of the summer of 1915 talked about going to “the lake,” he was talking about Fountain City Lake or Lake Ottosee at Chilhowee Park.
At Woodruff’s on Gay Street that year, the British razor company Durham Duplex had an extraordinary promotion. Stare-O was a robotic “wax man” demonstrating a new straight razor. Was he a real man or a mechanical automaton? Woodruff’s wasn’t saying. You had to come to see for yourself.
Architect George Barber had died early that year, but his son, Charlie, was just starting his own company, Barber McMurry, at first specializing in posh residences, and often collaborating with Agee’s uncle, decorative artist Hugh Tyler. There were grand houses in Knoxville, especially on Broadway, and Lyons View, but there were also ghettos, especially along First Creek, where squatters lived in dangerous third-world conditions. There were “skyscrapers,” the Arnstein, the Burwell taller than it, the Holston taller than that one. The city’s two biggest hotels were the Atkin, near the Southern station, and the older, ornate Imperial, at the northeast corner of Gay and Clinch. The Imperial had only a few months left before it burned down in a lightning fire. The fanciest store was Arnstein’s, followed by Miller’s and George’s.
Baseball was Knoxville’s sport, and had been for almost half a century, but the summer of 1915 was a melancholy season for sports fans, the first year in a while that the city didn’t have a professional baseball team at all. However, the city and suburban leagues kept things lively. The YMCA’s team was far in the lead, with Knoxville Railway & Light a distant second. The Y was then based in the old Palace Hotel at the corner of State and Commerce, near Marble Alley.
The city was officially dry, three years before the rest of the nation joined it in shunning legal alcohol. There were no open saloons. The old brewery on Chamberlain Street had been shut down. But it was not hard to find a drink, especially if you weren’t particular about what it was. That summer, a liveryman at Jackson and Central was discovered to have been running an ingeniously hidden and well-stocked whiskey bar behind a false wall, accessible via a secret passageway.
What was legal, and served in some of the former saloons, and at Kern’s soda fountain on Market Square, was Tenn-Cola, “Made in Knoxville.”
Knoxvillians read two newspapers, the morning Journal and the afternoon Knoxville Sentinel. The Journal was run by elderly Union veteran and former Mayor William Rule. There were no radio stations, though a teenage kid named Roland May, who lived not far from the Agees, was that year experimenting with radio, fashioning what was apparently Knoxville’s first homemade transmitter.
Market Square was booming, and for the first time dressing up a little. In the summer growing season, the produce vendors overflowed the Square and spilled down Market Street, or Prince Street as it was known then, along what was called “Watermelon Row.” The same block serves as an extension of the Market Square Farmers’ Market today.
Scholars have found it remarkable that Agee rarely mentioned the presence of a university in his hometown. In fact, in 1915, UT was small, offered few attractions to non-students, and wasn’t an obvious part of Knoxville’s daily life. Over on Highland Avenue, half a mile from the Hill, UT was easy to forget, most of the year. But during six weeks in the summers from 1902 to 1918, UT hosted the biggest event ever seen on campus until football became broadly popular, years later. The Summer School of the South was a sort of progressive Chautauqua-style series of seminars for teachers from across the South and beyond. Though founded by UT administrators and held on campus, it was separate from UT, and attracting about 3,000 at a time. The public, rarely tempted to set foot on campus during the school year, was invited to attend some events, like the five-day Music Festival, which that summer hosted well-known violinist Albert Spalding and several other classical musicians, including pianist Andre Benoist and cellist Paul Kefer, who were on the cusp of national recording careers.
Also in residence that summer were the Coburn Players, a husband-wife team that performed Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid. The leader of the Coburn Players was Charles Coburn, who 30 years later was a well-known actor in Hollywood, familiar in dozens of movies. The critic James Agee would review several of his films.
Police identified the young man found in the field near Highland Avenue. His name was Warren Ayres. He was the son of Brown Ayres, who was the president of the university. Warren Ayres had been an especially bright kid, earned two degrees from UT. He studied for a year at Heidelburg and returned to take a job as an associate professor of German at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
The family reported vaguely that Warren had been suffering from some “ill health” for about a year. “It is thought that his extreme devotion to scholarly pursuits and performance of duty had seriously impaired his health,” went one report. He’d come home for the summer of 1915, and was staying at the university farm because it seemed like a healthy place to recover. The coroner determined he’d died of an overdose of some unspecified drug. He died a week before his 29th birthday.
Knoxville’s best-known writer before Agee, Joseph Wood Krutch, graduated from UT and left town forever that same summer, settling in New York, where he would get a reputation as an incisive drama critic. Clarence Brown was just ahead of him; 1915 was the year Brown met director Maurice Tourneur, in Ft. Lee, N.J., and began his career as a filmmaker.
Bernadotte Schmitt, the former Rhodes Scholar, taught at Western Reserve University in Ohio, but spent summers with his widowed mother, who lived at 13th Street and White Avenue. He was already becoming one of the nation’s foremost scholars of the war most people knew only from the newspapers, and it would be the subject of his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book. The neighborhood’s two future Pulitzer-winners, Agee and Schmitt, probably didn’t know each other.
The Agee-Tyler family stood out as creative sorts. Even before James Agee was famous by name, News-Sentinel columnist Lucy Templeton recalled them as an especially creative family in that neighborhood. James Agee was one of five she mentioned. Two others come up in Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer 1915”:
“One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home,” wrote Agee, of the people who joined him and his parents, lying on quilts on the grass that summer.
The “artist” was his mother’s twin brother. In his early 30s, Hugh Tyler (1884-1976) was a well-traveled painter who was one of the younger members of the Nicholson Art League, a vigorous group of painters, photographers, and architects promoting the fine arts in Knoxville. Among the Nicholsonians were well-known portraitist Lloyd Branson, who kept his studio on Gay Street in 1915, where he sometimes got a hand from his teenage porter, a young genius named Beauford Delaney. On White Avenue, in Fort Sanders, 36-year-old Catherine Wiley was doing some of her finest work in impressionism. “A Sunlit Afternoon” and “Girl with a Parasol,” were summery subjects both finished in 1915. Uncle Hugh—who appears as “Uncle Andrew,” a key figure in A Death in the Family—was a talented but offbeat painter, known for his exotic, almost fantastic landscapes, but also for his decorative stencil work on several prominent buildings. Some, like the old Belcaro mansion in Fountain City and the Melrose Art Center are now gone. His work is still prominent on the interior of UT’s Hoskins Library.
Less well known locally was the “musician” mentioned in that paragraph, and sung about regularly, all over the world, in the Barber piece. It’s Agee’s Aunt Paula Tyler (1893-1979), who turned 22 in the summer of 1915. Barely mentioned as “Amelia” in the novel, she was an accomplished pianist, sometimes described as a “concert pianist.” Two or three years after the summer of 1915, she would move to New York, and eventually became a prominent teacher and dean or “co-director” of the Diller-Quaile School of Music, which still thrives on 95th Street, near Central Park.
She and Hugh both did live “at home” in 1915, that is, at their parents’ house, at 1115 West Clinch, which was also James Agee’s birthplace.
Both the house and the cottage/studio in back were demolished without memorable comment in the late 1960s—five or six years after the Agees’ house on Highland met the same fate.
Does anything distinguish a summer in Knoxville from a summer in other cities? Agee didn’t mention our sometimes thrilling but usually not dangerous late afternoon storms. He didn’t mention fresh tomatoes, either, but should have.
Some things have changed. Streetcars no longer raise their iron moan, and horse and buggies are rare. We do have “loud autos” and “quiet autos.” Fireflies, not as obvious in all cities as they are here, are still prolific, if a little less conspicuous, due to our modern habit of floodlighting the streets and yards. Cold toads may still thumpily flounder, but they’re probably rarer now. Electronic communications leave us more distracted.
One distinctive sound hasn’t changed. “There is never one locust but an illusion of at least a thousand,” Agee wrote. “They are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums, the boldest of all the sounds of night.” The city still has “locusts,” direct descendants of the ones Agee heard. We now know them as cicadas. They’ve already started up this year. Agee’s paragraphs still describe their sound.
Maybe things haven’t changed all that much. In fact, Agee’s picture of his childhood was not just nostalgic, it was a little bit futuristic. It wasn’t until the New Deal that laws enforced the 40-hour week. In 1915, families weren’t all able to gather in the evenings, because many fathers, and many mothers, were working long hours in factories. It probably wasn’t until after World War II that most Americans lived in houses with yards, with grass to take care of. It’s the suburban ideal that has driven most of the city’s residential development in the century after 1915. But that’s not necessarily the main message of the piece, or what makes it sing to so many people of different cultures around the world. It’s a question about the meaning of existence, and an attempt to capture life as it flies away.
In 2015, a much greater proportion of Knoxvillians have yards, and shade trees, and garden hoses, than they did in 1915. There may be more who can enjoy a leisurely summer evening on the lawn, whether they do so with quilts or not. If it’s not a contemplative or insightful experience for us, we can’t blame the fact that it’s 2015, not 1915. It’s our choice to distract ourselves from the questions Agee was asking, although they’re just as relevant.
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Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.