I first read James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer 1915” in high school, and was blown away. I don’t know why I was reading it–in an anthology or the prelude to a novel I had no intention of consuming beyond the Cliff Notes. But I was stunned. It was just…beautiful. I liked the topic–porches, childhood–but it was more the pace, the associative voice–that got me. This kind of thing happened to me off and on as a teenager. Unknowingly, I was reading as a writer–the writer I would become. Many “great” pieces of literature left me cold. What inspired me was idiosyncratic, and not fully knowable.
Agee’s piece seems now to me like a precursor to the Beats. It’s spontaneous, jazzy, beyond stream of consciousness, and it is American.
Here is a selection:
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. It was a little bit sort of block, fairly solidly lower middle class, with one or two juts apiece on either side of that. The houses corresponded: 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. These were softwooded trees, poplars, tulip trees, cottonwoods. There were fences around one or two of the houses, but mainly the yards ran into each other with only now and then a low hedge that wasn’t doing very well. There were few good friends among the grown people, and they were not 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.
Parents on porches: rock and rock: From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums. 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. (c) 1938
It took the author 90 minutes to write it. Samuel Barber set it to music, which I plan to listen to.
In the same neighborhood today, there is a sweet pocket park for James Agee. I saw two girls with metallic blue hair admiring it.
There is no statue or inscription–just this lovely fence.