Firemen were still stabilizing the blaze at the rambling old house on Martin Mill Pike when I was getting queries about it, one from a well-known literary editor in New York, another from a Boston-area newspaper writer. There are people around the world who have never heard of Knoxville except as the hometown of Cormac McCarthy. Some have traveled here from Europe just to see. A while back, I wrote about the young German musicians who came here to record, on location, an album based entirely on the McCarthy novel Suttree.
Though the McCarthys lived in several different places in town during the author's early youth—their earliest home on Noelton Drive, on the edge of Sequoyah Hills, still stands—the rambling home with an expansive yard on the corner of Martin Mill and Artella was where the McCarthys setttled, when Cormac, then better known as Charlie, was about eight. He lived there until he was grown, and apparently wrote some of his first fiction there.
McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning novel, The Road, inspired a major motion picture, reportedly to be released in the next few weeks. The book describes a world devastated by an unnamed global apocalypse. It hardly mentions places by name, but several readers recognize a section beginning on page 19 as a ruined and deserted Knoxville.
The father and son cross "the high concrete bridge over the river," walk "some few miles south of the city at a bend in the road" and find "half lost in dead brambles...an old frame house with chimneys and gables and a stone wall...."
"What is this place, Papa?" the boy asks.
"It's the house where I grew up," responds the father. He finds the pinholes in the mantle where they'd hung Christmas stockings 40 years before.
Family members and literary historians alike agree that the house described there is exactly the one that burned last Tuesday—down to the "firebrick in the hearth...as yellow as the day it was made." McCarthy is known to have drawn from personal experience in much of his fiction, but this brief moment of trying to recapture lost memories of family for his son may be the most intimately personal scene in all of his novels.
The sudden end of a building often comes supplied with ironies, but maybe none that cut quite like this one: In a novel depicting the destruction of almost everything in the world—where Knoxville is populated only by "the mummied dead" and "the only thing that moved in the streets was the blowing ash"—that house on Martin Mill is described as still standing. It survived the end of the world, but not another rainy Knoxville Tuesday.
The three remaining chimneys of the McCarthy house
It's three and a half miles from downtown, but like a lot of South Knox, seems farther. Martin Mill's a narrow, winding two-lane without sidewalks. It begins to seem rural even before it leaves city limits at Artella Drive. There's not much traffic, but what traffic there is tends to favor greater speeds than the average literary pilgrim. Slow down a little to try to peer through the dense thicket of bamboo, as I have several times over the years, and Rockford-bound pickups will take you for a dawdler who deserves a good honking.
If you're so impertinent this week, you can see the three remaining chimneys of the McCarthy house. In the smoldering center is a rubble of pipes and gratings and the stump of a fourth chimney. At this writing, a clapboard wall and barely enough house to support a second-floor gable still stands. Most of it's gone.
It was a big house of multiple additions, unpretentious but complicated, suitable for a big family. And it may have been the perfect place for a Cormac McCarthy to grow up. It's the country, with fields and forests all around, but also with a few decrepit factories here and there, and not far from the teeming markets and movie houses and riverfront shantytowns of the city. Extremes in human experience were handy within an hour's walk.
The preservationist group Knox Heritage, which put the house at the top of its endangered list last year, attempted to contact the owner directly before making their public plea to please fix the place up before something happens. We don't know what the owner intended for the property; preservationists and reporters alike have failed to track him down.
He might say it's none of our business. It's an article of faith in East Tennessee that when you buy something, you own it wholly. It and its fate and whatever it means to the community belongs to you, the prince of your domain. Property ownership implies no responsibility. Champions of property rights rarely acknowledge public costs.
Too often, property-rights absolutism smells a lot like smoke.
I wasn't the first one reminded of the McClung Warehouses, which had been a property-rights cause celebre until right about two years ago. The fire that destroyed them, certainly the result of owner neglect, cost the city of Knoxville, as well as nearby businesses and property owners, millions of dollars.
The main costs of last week's fire were probably not monetary. The day after, AP reported in a national story, "The fire was a blow for a city that also failed to save the early homes of Pulitzer-winning writer James Agee and poet Nikki Giovanni." The black poet's entire neighborhood was bulldozed, during Urban Renewal; Agee's home, the setting for his Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death In the Family, was torn down about the same time, but more selectively. It's almost as if we deliberately target our literary landmarks: most of the houses on James Agee's block which were there during his childhood are still standing. Just not his.
The same is true for McCarthy's house. Most of the Martin Mill neighborhood as he knew it in the 1940s is still intact. Just not his own house.
The end result of our habitual neglect of landmarks is that Knoxville—220 years old now, though you'd never guess it—often seems defiantly temporary.