Historical Gift Ideas

Buy a local book, even though it's 2010

Books were among the first Christmas gifts Knoxville ever knew, and regardless of Kindle and the extravagant wonders of the Internet, there will never be a substitute for tearing off the wrapping paper and finding an actual book that you can open, sample the prose, scan the index, and look at the pictures—without the annoying necessity of batteries or passwords or instructions. It's a real book, and it's right there, and you can pass it around, and it won't even blink off.

In bookstores now are a few interesting books of local history out there besides my latest ones, and they're all easy to wrap.

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Have a look at Mark Banker's book, Appalachians All: East Tennesseans and the Elusive History of an American Region. I'm still not sure what "Appalachia" is, and sometimes I'm agnostic about whether Appalachia even exists. Sometimes, when you talk about Appalachia, as when you talk about the Civil War or free-market capitalism, you enter a Dungeons and Dragons world that won't necessarily make sense unless you accept your correspondents' load-bearing premises.

Even on days when I have a greater faith that Appalachia does exist, I'm not yet convinced whether Knoxville is "Appalachian" in any way that makes it different from most mainstream American cities. We have quirks, some of which may have some connection to the fact that the Appalachian mountains are close by, but some of which probably don't.

And I'm not sure I agree with Banker's thesis that Knoxvillians run from Appalachia—so much as scholars run from Knoxville and other cities when they define Appalachia, because it mucks with their most coherent theories. In scholarship, though, coherent is often a synonym for oversimplified. Banker's admirably trying to strip away the oversimplifications, to see what's left.

Agree with it or not, Appalachians All is a well-researched, clearly written, and interesting book.

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Perhaps not for everybody on your list, Gravely Concerned is a work of disciplined obsession: John Soward Bayne, of Atlanta, has endeavored to visit and photograph the graves of almost all known Southern writers who are known to be deceased.

Ordinarily, I thumb through these surveys just for the outrage value. Survey books tend to avoid Knoxvillians, almost fastidiously. We are rarely helpful to any author's premise. I just assumed Knoxville's connections to Southern writers would be underrepresented. I got my dander up before I even opened it. But with the exception of a couple of notable journalists, like Paul Y. Anderson and Don Whitehead, he nailed nearly every one I could think of.

The 130 writers Bayne considers "Southern" appear chronologically. The very first Southern Writer is, appropriately, East Tennessee's own Davy Crockett, known in his lifetime for his published tall tales and slapstick humor. The very last grave in the book is that of columnist/novelist Wilma Dykeman, who died less than four years ago.

Knoxville's George Washington Harris, the antebellum humorist, is one of the first 10. Harris died in Knoxville in 1869, by a weird coincidence, considering he no longer lived here. But the location of his grave, long almost as mysterious as his death, was located recently in rural North Georgia, and marked, perhaps for the first time, in 2008.

He even includes Frances Hodgson Burnett, the English-born author who began her writing career during the decade she lived in Knoxville as a young woman.

You have to be a real hardcore fan of William Faulkner to know that he had a grandfather named William Clark Falkner who was also a novelist, or that he was born in Knoxville. (The Nobel laureate preferred to fill it out with an archaic "u.")

But collectively they bring up an oddity, and I don't know what it means. None of the dead writers who have been so strongly associated with Knoxville—not one—is buried here. James Agee is buried without a conventional marker on a corner of a field in rural New York; the image shown here, which appears to be a jumble of farm equipment in the snow, is the only photo of Agee's grave I've ever seen. Richard Marius is in Concord, Mass. Alex Haley's in Henning. Harris is in Georgia, Dykeman in Asheville, "poet-priest" Father Abram Ryan in Mobile, Burnett in New York—though her mother and brother are buried in the same grave at Old Gray (not far from Tennessee Williams' father).

Maybe, in the interest of furthering local landmarks, the city should start the funereal equivalent of a scholarship for writers. Free burial, if you'll tolerate it, in your hometown.

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Former University of Tennessee professor Clinton Allison has self-published a memoir that includes lots and lots of personal detail about nearly every aspect of his 75 years, from his childhood in Dustbowl Oklahoma to his more recent sojourns in Nova Scotia. Called Looking for Home, it may be of most interest to his family, friends, and colleagues, but historians of UT's antiwar movement and turbulent leadership shifts will want to consider it as a source.

About a year ago, Fred Moffatt, the UT professor emeritus who's a dependable authority on art history, wrote the definitive tome on a Knoxville original, The Life, Art, and Times of Joseph Delaney. Born and raised in Knoxville, Delaney made some waves in post-Harlem-Renaissance-era New York before returning to keep an artist-in-residence studio at UT in his final years. Joseph isn't as well known as his more prolific and generally more daring brother Beauford Delaney. But he went his own way, celebrating the hum of urban life, and this biography, lavishly illustrated with thoughtfully discussed paintings, outweighs his big brother's.

And you don't have to enjoy light mystery stories to appreciate that Knoxville makes a good setting for them. The Highly Effective Detective Plays the Fool, the third in Richard Yancey's loony Teddy Ruzak series, is a sort of missing-person story that has gotten the attention of some critics. Publisher's Weekly calls his snappy-gumshoe narrative voice "appealing if bizarre." There is no higher praise.