We invited writers, artists, and musicians to share a favorite creative prompt or craft lesson, or to tell us about a book, poem, song, or film that affected them. We asked them to offer opinions and experiences on creativity, artistic processes, and the role of arts in culture. We're offering their responses here as occasional features on creativity that we're calling Still Life.
This edition of Still Life features a meditation on James Agee's essay "Knoxville: Summer, 1915" from poet Jesse Graves who grew up, like Agee, in East Tennessee. Jesse is the author of three collections of poetry, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine (2011) Basin Ghosts (2014), and Specter Mountain (2018, co-written with William Wright). He received the 2015 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He teaches at East Tennessee State University.
Childhood is full of secrets, mysteries, and disguises. I grew up in a remote, essentially spooky place way out in the country, with no neighbors or lights from other houses in sight. The evenings were quiet, and my mother and I often sat on the front porch and listened for bobwhites and whippoorwills in the summer. If my father was home from work, he would join us, or my uncle Gerald, or my brother or sister, both half a generation older than me, and soon with children of their own. There was so much I did not understand, about the adults in my family, about the fears I experienced when I was too far in the woods by myself, about noises and shadows and changes in the atmosphere. I sensed that I was surrounded by mysteries of every kind. I had all this uncertainty even though I lived with kind and loving people, a family that cared for me, and gave me little reason for worry. The first time I read James Agee’s brief poem-essay, “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” I felt I had seen through a window back into my own boyhood. The essay opens with an unforgettable in medias res sentence: “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.” That description caught me with such force, such immediacy, that it might as well have picked up in the middle of my own life.
The house I was raised in, and where my mother still lives today, was built in 1915. The house was less than 40 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee, in the tiny Union County community of Sharps Chapel. Not only did Agee’s place hold a deep personal resonance for me, but so did the date of his essay. I first read “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” as a first-year college student at Lincoln Memorial University, when my English professor, David Worley, advised me to read the writers who came from my part of the world. He mentioned Agee in particular, along with Thomas Wolfe and Wilma Dykeman. I knew a good deal of my own family history, and a bit of the history of East Tennessee, but I did not know much at all about the rich literary background of Appalachia. I did not realize at the time that I was in the perfect setting to learn about it, the academic home-place of George Scarbrough, Jesse Stuart, James Still, and Don West. When I read Agee, I could not believe that something so beautiful had been written about my part of the world, about a place I knew so well, and the people who lived there:
“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.”
Most readers would have first encountered “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” as a kind of prologue to Agee’s 1957 novel, A Death in the Family, published two years after Agee’s premature death, and posthumous winner of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, though it was initially published in The Partisan Review in 1938. It seems Agee never intended for the essay to become part of his autobiographical novel, but that his friend and literary executor, David McDowell, saw the powerful link between it and Agee’s not-quite finished fictional account of his childhood. Nearly a quarter of the piece—what even to call it, personal essay? prose poem? short story? meditation?—is devoted to describing the full-sensorial image of water leaving a hose and spraying across suburban lawns, and to the sounds made by locusts. The writing may defy categorization by genre, but the trust and vulnerability of the child, and the serenity of his surroundings, creates an undeniably powerful emotional effect.
James Agee is considered one of the inventors of modern film criticism, and at least a couple of the films for which he wrote screenplays, certainly The African Queen and Night of the Hunter, are now considered classics. Some readers have proposed that Agee was poorly served by his versatility, and that had he written a half-dozen novels, instead of the scattershot of various modes and styles, that he would be much better known today. Samuel Barber retained a slightly altered version Agee’s title, and set the final part of the poem-essay to music, and that composition is surely more famous than Agee’s original text. Yet “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” is as perfectly made as John Keats’s “To Autumn,” another great lyrical meditation on seasons and the passing of time. In the way that “To Autumn” distills the eternal essence of an entire season, repeated endlessly with small variations, Agee draws in all of childhood in “Knoxville: Summer, 1915.” Agee parts a veil to reveal the grown-up each of us was always waiting to become, hidden inside the child we each for a brief time were.
More than a century has passed since the scene Agee described, and I feel just as moved, and bewildered, by his ability to evoke the mystery of childhood. Agee leaves me with the feeling that the world around any one person is vast, and while we can see much of what surrounds us, far more remains hidden. The closing words of “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” are perhaps the most profound I have ever read about a child’s role in a family, and they sing in the incantatory way of distant memories.
“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.”