Two Spirits: A Couple of Good Reasons Not to Dread Old Age

Cormac McCarthy, as improbable as it might seem to his old pals at the Huddle, turned 80 on Saturday.

After about 10 novels and, just lately, a major screenplay—a new career turn for him—McCarthy's place in American literature is written about by somebody daily. But lately I've come to suspect he has a place in the story of Knoxville's urban revival.

People ask me about that, what was it that happened here, 20-odd years ago, that so many resourceful people suddenly started caring about the place, and bringing a level of energy to the old town that it probably hasn't seen since the days of vaudeville and oyster saloons. There are a few dozen answers, but one factor has been a new cultural fascination of a sort that didn't exist when I was a kid.

Several Knoxville writers, musicians, a few artists, and a couple of architects developed cult followings in the late 20th century. McCarthy, whose 1979 novel, Suttree, is the most Knoxville-specific novel of all time, may be at the head of the list. Little noted at first, except by critics, that novel's fame grew slowly, as McCarthy's bestselling western novels gained currency, both as books and as movies. Interest in Suttree swelled nationally, and by the 1990s was spawning readings and urban hikes in town. A few years ago, Suttree was the subject of an international conference here.

Suttree was a fictional character, but today his name is on a popular downtown bar, and on plans for a prospective south-side city park.

The story of homeless, reckless, and desperate people living in riverbank shacks and under bridges does not present a flattering picture of Knoxville, but like Joyce's Dubliners, Suttree makes a city sound complicated and pretty interesting. Which, to certain sorts of creative people, is much more compelling than any sort of municipal flattery.

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Before another month passes, I need to offer an appreciation of Ms. Nancy Tanner, who died early this summer at the age of 96.

When I met her, I was mainly interested in her unusual house. She lived on a wooded South Knoxville hillside, the steep dead-end neighborhood called Little Switzerland, in one of the first modernist houses ever built in Knoxville. A plain but striking flat-roofed brick and concrete house of a sort you'd guess was built in the '60s, it was actually designed much earlier, in the ‘30s. Its architect was Alfred Clauss, a German immigrant of the then-shocking Bauhaus school. It was the best-preserved of several in a ridgetop community of "ultramodern" homes that got some national attention, 70 years ago.

Nancy moved into the house in 1947, when modernism was still adventurous. For two-thirds of a century, she lived there. She and her husband raised three children there. It was remarkable that any woman in her 90s would live alone in a semi-remote house with plenty of steps. But Nancy was not an ordinary woman, and she loved the big windows that allowed her to see both the Smoky Mountains on one side and the Cumberland Mountains on the other, and lots of wildlife on her own little mountain.

My story was about architecture, but her name rang a bell with me—I knew I'd seen it somewhere, perhaps repeatedly. When she let me into her extraordinary house, I noticed that on the walls were lots of paintings of birds. She knew I was there to ask about architecture, and didn't explain her decor until I asked. And I asked—pretty stupidly, looking back—if she were a birdwatcher. She answered more gracefully than I deserved.

Nancy Tanner was a national celebrity among birdwatchers. Partly inspired by her marriage to adventurous botanist Jim Tanner, the late UT professor, whom she assisted on his early expeditions into the swamps of Louisiana, Nancy Tanner was the last known human being known with certainty to have seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.

The legendary feathered giant of the Deep South has been the subject of a few illusory sightings in recent years, but Nancy and Jim Tanner actually tracked them, in the months just before World War II. It was sometimes known as the Lord God Bird; in photographs, it looks almost like something dreamed up by a cartoonist. But Nancy saw the real thing.

After that, I kept running into Nancy every time I turned around. She was involved in everything.

Ijams Nature Center is one Knoxville experience you can't find anywhere else, and if you go, you'll see Nancy's name there. She's kind of the fairy godmother of the place, one of its leading supporters. Thanks to the Tanners' connections, Ijams is known for its ivory-bill woodpecker exhibit. She wrote the foreword for Lyn Bales' interesting narrative of the Tanners' expeditions in the swamps of the Deep South. She was, after all, an explorer of sorts, the sort of heroine who appears in a pith helmet in old movies.

But she was also a prominent churchwoman, a member of St. John's, a leader of Episcopal Church Women. She was a woman of many personae. A year or two ago, at Union Ave Books, I blundered into a meeting of an organization I did not know existed in my hometown, the P.G. Wodehouse Society. Devotees of the British humorist were holding a rare public meeting, and taking turns reading parts of one of the Jeeves stories. Nancy was happily in the midst of them and seemed to relish her comical role. She was, I thought, the liveliest and best of the readers.

Some people tell me they don't want to live long, because, oh, old age is so terrible, a time of pain, incapacity, and loss. It turns out that way for a lot of people. Nancy seemed to enjoy making old age seem like a lot of fun.

We value knowing people like Nancy for selfish reasons. She gave us hope, however remote, that maybe we'll be like her, that many years from now.


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