Search Literary Knox

Knoxville's literary legacy, mapped out.

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. (from Knoxville, Summer of 1915)

James Agee, Knoxville, Tennessee
James Agee
James Rufus Agee was born in Knoxville on November 28, 1909 to his mother, Laura Tyler Agee, and his father, Hugh James (Jay) Agee. His father died in an automobile accident on May 19, 1916, an event that shaped the remainder of Agee’s life. After attending St. Andrew’s School in Tennessee, Agee briefly returned to Knoxville (where he attended Knoxville High School) before enrolling in the prestigious prep school Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He then attended Harvard University, graduating in 1932. Agee worked as a reporter for Fortune magazine, as a writer of fiction and nonfiction, as one of the nation’s first celebrity movie reviewers, and as a screenwriter. Agee died suddenly of a heart attack in a taxicab in New York City in 1955.

Agee’s most famous works include:
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), his lengthy and experimental portrayal of the daily lives of southern sharecroppers. The photographer Walker Evans contributed numerous photos to the book, and both Agee and Evans saw the book as a collaborative effort between writer and photographer.
• Numerous film reviews and articles, mainly in The Nation and Time.
• The screenplay for The African Queen (1951) – co-writer.
• The screenplay for The Night of the Hunter (1955).
A Death in the Family (1957), a novel based on his childhood in Knoxville, was published after his death and heavily edited at that time by David McDowell. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958. In 2007, a “restored” edition of the novel was published under the editorship of Michael Lofaro and the University of Tennessee Press. Lofaro sought to bring the novel into closer alignment with what Agee would have wanted if the novel were published during his lifetime.

James Agee with aunt Paula Tyler, holding kittens, ca. 1916.

L-R: James Agee, his mother Laura Tyler Agee, grandmother Emma Farrand Tyler, his sister Emma Agee, and uncle Hugh Tyler, ca. 1917.
Agee’s essay “Knoxville, Summer of 1915” (1938) became so popular and so admired that it was scored for soprano and orchestra by composer Samuel Barber in 1948. It also served as the introduction to the first edition of A Death in the Family, published two years after Agee’s unexpected death. The essay is Agee’s nostalgic reflection of life as a young boy in the Fort Sanders neighborhood of Knoxville. It begins with the celebrated lines about living in Knoxville in the early parts of the twentieth century:

“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.”

Knoxville, Summer of 1915 (1938)
The “restored” edition of A Death in the Family opens with what Lofaro’s research suggests would be Agee’s desired introduction, a much darker and surreal essay called “A Dream Sequence.” This essay reads like a nightmare vision of Knoxville and includes a senseless mob killing and the adult narrator’s thoughts about no longer being welcomed in the city after being away for so long:

“[H]e could see that the broken street thickened, far ahead of him, into the busiest blocks of Gay Street. He was both happy to be home, and wary, for he liked the Southerners who had never gone North but he knew if they knew his mind they would hate him.”

A Death in the Family (1957)
Mapping Knoxville’s literary legacy
Our map joins moments in literature with GPS coordinates. Image-rich descriptions of a place’s significance within specific works tie us to these authors in a new way as Knoxville’s literature is reawakened in the city that surrounds us.