How We Lived on It (37) – “Knoxville: Summer of 1915″

by A. Jay Adler on June 9, 2011
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James Agee

I was explaining to a friend the other day why I think James Agee to be, if not a great writer, a writer of great distinction. While Agee’s life was too short (he died at 45) to provide the scope necessary for considerations of greatness, he certainly possessed the sheer talent – the prose chops. Though there isn’t a single monumental work of fiction or poetry, Agee did write poetry and journalism and screenplays and film criticism. In the 1940s, before film criticism was a fully professionalized field, Agee, first for Time Magazine, later for The Nation, was one of our most admired critics, a writer of incisive judgment and striking expression. In 1941, Agee produced, in collaboration with documentary photographer Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a work little noted in its time, but which has, indeed, come to be acknowledged as a monumental achievement in the field of documentary journalism. I wrote about it in Politics and Art.

Samuel Barber, photographed by Carl Van Vechte...

Samuel Barber

In 1957, Agee was the author of the posthumously published and autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In its original publication, the novel contained an introductory section, “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” that had been published as a short story years before. Composer Samuel Barber was so taken with the original story and the likeness of its evocation to his own Knoxville childhood that he set excerpts of it to music by that name. It is stunning work, the prose and the music, a perfect marriage, and what strikes me is it’s likeness to my own actual and emotional experience of childhood forty-five years later in New York City. No doubt, there are those who grew up in Scottish Vales or on African plains at any time over these millennia who experienced their own version of this haunting bliss and confusion.

I’ve split the text in half to accompany the two parts of the Leontyne Price video. It comes to just over 16 minutes and is well worth the time for some respite from the commonplace.

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville Tennessee in that time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.

…It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds’ hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy, breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt; a loud auto; a quiet auto; people in pairs, not in a hurry, scuffling, switching their weight of aestival body, talking casually, the taste hovering over them of vanilla, strawberry, pasteboard and starched milk, the image upon them of lovers and horsemen, squared with clowns in hueless amber.

A streetcar raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past, the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it like a small malignant spirit set to dog its tracks; the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter, fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten. Now is the night one blue dew.

Now is the night one blue dew, my father has drained, he has coiled the hose.

Low on the length of lawns, a frailing of fire who breathes….

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….They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing 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,…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 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.

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.

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