A Park, a Legacy of Letters

Setting a tribute to James Agee firmly in Fort Sanders soil

The stone gate is adorned with another quoted passage, this from Agee's early poem, "Dedication." It reads: "To those who in all times have sought truth and who have told it in their art or in their living."

The James Agee Park, dedicated on Sunday as part of the ongoing festival honoring the Knoxville-born author, screenwriter and critic, is a fitting, if overdue, tribute to the man whose writings have been lauded the world over, before and after his death at age 45, a half-century ago.

We're hard-pressed to give credit to all those who contributed in large and smaller ways to bringing the park at Laurel Avenue and James Agee (formerly 15th) Street to fruition.

But any statement of gratitude must be directed first to R.B. Morris, the UT writer-in-residence whose determination to see Agee properly feted in his home community got the drive started and kept whipping it until the park was reality.

Morris, a poet, musician and songwriter who also grew up in Knoxville, visualized the park site in a forlorn UT-owned parking lot as he daydreamed there in the late 1990s. He first voiced his ambition to see the park created at a Metro Pulse -sponsored public forum in 1999.

Morris got support from then-Mayor Victor Ashe and the UT president of the moment, Wade Gilley. UT and the city continued to cooperate, into the mayoralty of Bill Haslam and the UT presidency of John Petersen, with the university at length ceding the pocket park, barely a third of an acre, to the city under a long-term lease agreement.

Brought to bear on the park itself were the efforts of UT architecture Prof. John Coddington, architect and Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association official Randall De Ford, author and state historian Wilma Dykeman, attorney and parks and greenways advocate Charlie Thomas, who chaired a James Agee Steering Committee, and many, many others.

Its stonemasonry is of native rock and its flora of native species, including two full-grown magnolia trees transported to the park from another lot there in Fort Sanders, the neighborhood described in Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family . Also adapted into the Pulitzer Prized play, All the Way Home , the story chronicles Agee's experiences in Knoxville and the Fort at the time of his father's death in a car accident in 1916, when Agee was seven. Two lilac shrubs are also planted in the park, brought there for the dedication by his daughter, DeeDee Agee, who said her mother had described lilacs to her as her father's favorites.

It is a pleasant, simple park setting, with a sculpture created by UT art students as a centerpiece. On its depiction in metal of the word, "moment," are inscribed excerpted quotes from Agee's writings.

The stone gate is adorned with another quoted passage, this from Agee's early poem, "Dedication." It reads: "To those who in all times have sought truth and who have told it in their art or in their living."

This month's James Agee Celebration has featured Agee exhibits at UT and in its Downtown Gallery, performances by Morris at the Knoxville Museum of Art, the staging of Morris' one-man play on the Agee character, The Man Who Lives Here is Loony , at the Carousel Theatre on the UT campus, and a concert at UT Music Hall last Sunday of music inspired by Agee's work.

Hundreds of Agee appreciators witnessed the often-surprising concert of mostly vocal work based on Agee's poetry and prose.

Various groups associated with the UT School of Music, from the UT Symphony Orchestra to the UT Opera Theatre, along with several smaller ensembles, performed the work.

Some of it, like Samuel Barber's classic, "Knoxville: Summer of 1915," were famous. But many Ageephiles were amazed to learn that as many as eight esteemed composers had produced their Agee-inspired works from 1947 to 2004.

Some of the most impressive music was that of Connecticut composer David Macbride, who happened to be in the audience to witness the unusual event. It was the sort of concert that may happen more often now, once the Agee celebration has raised the community's awareness of his literary legacy and its impact on people all across the globe.

R.B. Morris' one-man play was also praised for its selections from Agee's words and its dramatization and presentation. He has only performed it a few times, and he is sure to be asked to reprise it more often. His campaign to get the Agee Park established was far from a one-man show, but it took one man to get it going and keep it going.

Morris made it happen out of what at times seemed sheer force of will and the art of persistent persuasion. Thanks, R.B., and friends.

While we're doling out our gratitude here, we ought to say a big "Way to go!" to all those city officials, preservationists and Regal Cinemas officers who made the Gay Street multi-plex movie theater go while saving the historic buildings in the 500 block.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.