In James Agee's under-appreciated gem of a novella, "Morning Watch," the sight of a snake gliding through tall grass, "his brilliance a constant betrayal," awakens a sense of primitive wonder that transcends the doctrines of a young boy's faith.
Like the glistening patterns of that snake, Agee's brilliance was a constant betrayal. It blazed against a background of fragmented writing, dissolute living, leftist politics and frequent depression.
Driven by an urge to somehow transcend mortality and to express the divinity of all existence, Agee could not long be ignored.
Contemporaries took notice. Agee won writing assignments and lost them. Some East Tennessee kin turned from him, and two wives--weary of his philandering--divorced him. On Oct. 16, 1955, Agee's own heart rebelled in a New York City cab and killed him. He was 45.
Still, the brilliance that wreaked so much havoc also wrought joy, bringing his sense of wonder and awe to millions as it delineated the bittersweet miracle of being alive. Such unquenchable brilliance prompted generations since to pay tribute, including--at last--the city of Knoxville, idealized kingdom of Agee's youth.
Thanks to some musicians, writers, historians, artists and scholars such as R.B. Morris, Wilma Dykeman, Jack Neely, Eric Sublett, and others who nurtured a flame for Agee over the years, Knoxville is paying a measure of respect. The University of Tennessee and city officials recently announced they will establish the James Agee Memorial Park in Fort Sanders.
Some such token of recognition has often seemed distant, yet surely inevitable.
Driven by dreams and nightmares, Agee left scattered in his wake a haphazard but hauntingly beautiful body of work reflecting a near-mystical vision. It's all through "The African Queen," the movie he helped write. It shines intermittently in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," that 1930s precursor to the "new journalism" of the 1970s. Part self-confession, part poetry, documentary and philosophy, the book applied the principles of fiction to chronicle the lives of sharecroppers.
Agee's brilliance is most familiar in those words that few literate Knoxvillians fail to recognize as the opening beat to "A Death In the Family," his novel set, in part, in Fort Sanders. Some of those words bear repeating over and again.
"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....
"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....
"By some chance they are here, 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 the night. May God bless my people... oh remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away....
"Sleep, soft smiling draws me unto her; and those who 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...."
To Agee, Knoxville would forever be the idealized land of his youth, a terrain filled with the sounds of hoses on summer lawns and the voices of loving parents who nurtured his virgin soul.
Walk around Knoxville today and you won't see many signs of Agee. His boyhood home at 1505 Highland Avenue was torn down to make way for an apartment building. The destruction took place on or about the day in 1962 that contracts were signed to initiate filming of "All the Way Home," the movie version of "A Death in the Family."
Our belated recognition of Agee as one of our own has been anything but inevitable, and those who are making it happen deserve our support.
Development of the new park will begin late next year on the corner of Laurel Avenue and James Agee Street, about a block away from the lawn where a boy once sat on a blanket with a loving family and contemplated the stars and what it means to be alive, oh so briefly, on a summer evening.