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“Knoxville: Summer of 1915” by James Agee

December 15, 2013


In 2004, I read James Agee’s A Death In The Family and wrote the following review:

This book is one of those classics you’ve never heard of. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. I’ve had it on my shelf for a while. I probably would have had a completely different perspective on it had I read it six months ago. Recently, one of my best friends, Rich, died in a freak bike accident. I’m not sure what made me decide to read this book now—if I was looking for insight, answers, or just trying to relive it again. I definitely relived it. I suppose anyone who has ever lost a loved one suddenly could relate to many parts of this story. But for me, the book was eerily similar to my own experience. It’s about a man, Jay Follett, a father of two, who dies one night in a car crash. Through the eyes of Jay’s wife, his son, and his brother, Agee paints an incredibly moving picture of a family struggling under the weight of Jay’s death. By switching views, he blends innocence, anger, tenderness, and love in a way that, somehow, conveys all these emotions at once. I feel like I lived this story two months ago, and everything about it rang true to me. There were no answers to help explain anything, but this book is a beautiful articulation of what it’s like to suddenly have life turned inside out in the worst way. And the opening chapter is one of the most touching I have ever read.

I was recently reading through The Best American Essays of the Century (Joyce Carol Oates, ed.) and came across that opening chapter, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” which a footnote says was originally published in 1938, then included as the prologue to A Death in the Family in 1957. The whole short essay, which apparently took Agee 90 minutes to write, can be read here.

If it’s possible to feel nostalgia for a time long before you were born, “Knoxville” will do it. It is a simple description of his neighborhood, of his town, of his people. Agee doesn’t sentimentalize, but it is sentimental–he loves where he comes from. Some of the lines I highlighted in the essay:

There were few good friends among the grown people, and they were not poor enough for the other sort of intimate acquaintance, but everyone nodded and spoke, and even might talk short times, trivially, and at the two extremes of general or the particular, and ordinarily next door neighbors talked quiet when they happened to run into each other, and never paid calls.

How familiar does that sound, knowing your neighbors but not really knowing them? And that they are poor, but not poor enough to develop the bond of true dependence, is such an insightful detail.

Agee’s physical description is wonderful too. There are simple phrases, such as when he refers to a father’s shirt as “fishlike pale.” Or when he describes, in the main image of the essay, the men stepping out into their lawns with their hoses to water the grass in the early evening.

These sweet pale streamings in the light lift out their pallors and their voices all together, mothers hushing their children, the hushing unnaturally prolonged, the men gentle and silent and each snail-like withdrawn into the quietude of what he singly is doing, the urination of huge children stood loosely military against an invisible wall, and gentle happy and peaceful, tasting the mean goodness of their living like the last of their suppers in their mouths; while the locusts carry on this noise of hoses on their much higher and sharper key.

But the best section is the last, when Agee recounts a beautiful scene with his family, conjuring the comfort found only by children surrounded and protected by those who love him.

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 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.

I also came across an odd interpretation of the work by the same name, a 1947 song by Samuel Barber that uses some of Agee’s words as lyrics. Here is a recording of the song.

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