At about midnight last Friday, as he was playing a preservation benefit at the Laurel Theatre, songwriter/poet R.B. Morris stopped long enough to make an announcement to the standing-room-only audience. The park to honor Knoxville-born author James Agee, a project he's been discussing with friends for nearly two years, is going to happen. It will be just down the block from the theater, on the northwest corner of Laurel Avenue. and James Agee (formerly 15th) Street. It's not a big place, a third of an acre or a little more, just a good-sized city lot used to park a couple dozen cars.
Morris, who has traveled widely in Fort Sanders, has wished for some sort of Agee monument for years. In the late '90s, when developers were demolishing entire blocks of his old neighborhood, Morris walked up the old residential steps to this parking lot, and started imagining. "It came out of that sense of loss that everyone was feeling," he says. From this hillside you can see downtown, UT, and some of the best that remains of Fort Sanders. It's a view that parked cars don't much need.
"All of a sudden it just started growing there in my mind," he says.
At first glance, Morris might seem an unlikely champion for the novelist, journalist and sometime screenwriter who died in 1955. Morris is a guitarist and singer, a recording artist with a national following and a sheaf of critical raves, just finishing his third national-release CD. Though most of his paying work is in Nashville and New York, Morris still lives here.
Agee's short but wildly prolific life has fascinated Morris for years. Almost 20 years ago, Morris' experimental literary journal, The Hard Knoxville Review, devoted an issue to Agee and his work. About a decade ago, Morris wrote a biographical play about Agee. One of his best known recent songs, the title track of his album Take That Ride, opens with the line, "I don't want to die like James Agee...."
For the last year and a half, Morris has been talking to all the right people, including officials at UT, which owns the lot, and his project has gathered considerable momentum, attracting some estimable talent, including state historian Wilma Dykeman, UT architecture professor Jon Coddington, and attorney and greenways advocate Charlie Thomas. Agee Park seems to be emerging as a rare joint city/UT project. The unlikely duo of Wade Gilley and Victor Ashe are both signing off on it and will announce it together sometime this spring.
For a guy who's been dead for 46 years, James Agee is enjoying a lively career. His novel, A Death In the Family, is being produced as a PBS Masterpiece Theatre series this season. His books, including Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, have been in print for more than 40 years; Agee On Film, a long-coveted collection of his film criticism from the '40s, has just been republished. He recently made a list of the top 50 most influential writers on film of the 20th Century.
James Agee was born in Fort Sanders in 1909 and spent much of his youth here, on Highland, barely a block from the park site. Knoxville was the setting of some of his best-known works, including "Knoxville: Summer 1915," which was adapted as a famous vocal piece by Samuel Barber. Five years ago, a documentary about that piece, Agee, and Knoxville, was broadcast globally by the BBC. If not for James Agee, millions of people around the world might never have heard of us.
Every now and then, they come here looking for him. But for all this time, Agee has never had a place here. First we tore down the house where he grew up. Then we tore down the house where his grandparents lived, which also happened to be the house where he was born, and the house where he lived as a teenager. We even tore down most of the houses where they filmed the first (there have been at least three) movie version of A Death In the Family. About eight years ago, we tore down the Asylum Avenue viaduct that he wrote about in that novel.
We've left ourselves hardly anything to point to. There's the grave of his father, described in the novel but unremarkable and hard to find, at Greenwood Cemetery, in northeast Knoxville. There's his church downtown, St. John's, where he was a choirboy. For the moment, there's Market Square, where his father drank. Recently, there's a historic marker on Cumberland and a street renamed in his honor.
An Agee Park would go some way toward rectifying things. It should also be a boon to this maligned neighborhood. Fort Sanders, it won't surprise anyone to hear, has been in a state of emergency for years. The victim of inappropriate development, arson, and spite demolitions, Knoxville's most historic neighborhood is still, acre for acre, our most popular neighborhood, struggling along, amazing and shocking us. Maybe like Agee himself, Fort Sanders is our troubled genius.
Much of the artistic expression that has come out of the Knoxville area in the last century—from impressionist Catherine Wiley a century ago, to Men In Black creator Lowell Cunningham, to most of the Knoxville rock 'n' roll bands that have gotten national attention in the last 30 years or so—has come out of Fort Sanders. Coddington sees the park as a "catalyst" for honoring and redeeming a unique neighborhood.
There are a good many details yet to develop. As Coddington says, it'll be a challenge to interpret "the multi-dimensional nature of Agee" in a small place. Groundbreaking probably won't come until late 2002. But with luck, the Agee Park has all the makings of the first non-controversial development in the modern history of this tortured neighborhood.