Don Williams
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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Writer James Agee knew triumph and despair, like writers through the ages
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   06/09/2000)

When I think of James Agee, I think of words written for and about other tortured writers. I cant help it.

"Hes a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home," wrote Kris Kristofferson, referring to a dozen roustabout musicians he knew. He might have been writing about Agee.

"When I have fears that I may cease to be/ Before my pen has gleand my teeming brain..." wrote poet John Keats, about himself. He felt such fears. Felt them famously. They tore at him during the last sad, yet triumphant decade of his life, 1945 to 1955, when he wrote two novels, co-wrote the screenplay for "The African Queen" and some of his most memorable journalism.

Agee, a tall, deep-voiced, handsome man, is often pictured in those years holding a drink or a cigarette in the presence of famous men and beautiful women. Yet its his books about ordinary people—and the urgency with which they expressed his belief in the divinity of all existence—for which Agee is best remembered.

A movie based on one of those books, "A Death in the Family," is scheduled to be filmed in Knoxville and Nashville in coming months.

As good as that book is, Agee likely would have written more and better books had he lived on. His pen had scarcely begun to harvest his teeming brain—and oh, how it teemed, with dreams, memories, philosophies and fears.

Still, Agee neednt have worried about his works being forgotten. Movies, a play, collections of his film criticism, correspondence and more have been published and republished, decade after decade. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," a wildy uneven book about Mississippi sharecroppers, has become a cult classic. Its a forerunner of participatory journalism and the New Journalism of the 1970s. Like Agees fiction and poetry, it is confessional at times in tone and substance.

Still, to enter a James Agee book is to enter a maze of contradictions. Partly truth and partly fiction, "A Death In the Family" wasnt so much composed as it was compiled. Editors pulled the manuscript together from Agees papers after his death by heart attack in a New York cab on Oct. 16, 1955.

The book won a Pulitzer Prize, yet critics have debated its merits for decades. Some have declared it isnt really a novel at all. The plot is thin, and suspense and character development are almost nil. Most of the prose is about Mary Follet and her young son Rufus dealing with the death of her husband—his father—Jay Follet. The characters are closely based on Agees own nuclear family.

Passages that were added after Agees death are presented in italics. Agee drew these from memory and near-misses of memory, and to me these are the best parts.

Most of the novel reads like a long narrative poem, and some of it is tough going. In fact, Ive never quite made it through an Agee book without, at some point, tiring of it and muttering to myself about consistency of style, tone or point of view.

But Ive also never read an Agee book that didnt, in one passage or another, move me to tears and leave me amazed at his understanding of the universe and the human soul.

Take the opening to "A Death in the Family." Its actually a self-contained work, a poem in prose by the title, "Knoxville, 1915." Tenderly it evokes early childhood memories of life with family at 1505 Highland Avenue. The house fell victim to a wrecking crew on the very day contracts were signed in 1962 to initiate "All the Way Home," the first film made of "A Death in the Family." Still, Agees old home place lives on. Listen... to "Knoxville 1915." "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. 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 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, 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...."

In some sense they have never been forgotten or taken away. Agees memorable words made certain of that.