Resonance: Putting the S&W, and Union Avenue Books, in Context

The S&W is now a beauty school, as is evidenced by its window, which displays a photograph of a woman being eaten skull-first by her haircut, which resembles a large, shiny leech.

The same big window promises classes in esthiology, a new one on me. Just as a word, it sounds impressive, perhaps suggesting a combination of esthetics and theology. My 11th edition of Webster’s Collegiate is ignorant of the word. Google offers two options: One site calls it “The physiology of sensation; that branch of science which treats of the correlation of phenomena of consciousness and nervous phenomena; nervous phenomena treated as phenomena of consciousness.” Another says it has more to do with hair removal.

It will be interesting to see what goes on there.

I have a special interest in the fate of the S&W. I remember the old cafeteria, a haven of accessible elegance. Because I’ve written about the old moderne hulk several times over the last 15-odd years, several folks have been asking how appalled I am to see a beauty school go in there. They wait for me to dissolve into an apoplectic sputter. And here’s the thing. I’m not sure it’s a bad fit. When I think of art deco, I think of beauty-school stuff, bobbed hair and plucked eyebrows, eyeliner and mascara: Myrna Loy and Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow. It’s easy to imagine them peering down from the S&W’s shell-lined mezzanine or gliding up and down that spiral stairway on a cloud of chiffon. It’s been harder to picture Knoxvillians with 21st-century poundage just having lunch. The men tieless, the women in pants. We just don’t fit the S&W’s program anymore. We are no longer a graceful people.

Maybe beauty people are. Maybe they glide up and down with befitting elegance, to the strains of Gershwin and Porter, trailing hints of Vol de Nuit. I’ll plod by and imagine so.

***

It’s fun to have a bookstore downtown finally, and to have it located on, and named after, such a literary avenue. Union Avenue is not famous. But the caliber of authors who have visited this short street, especially these two blocks between Market Square and Locust, can get your attention.

Ernie Pyle and Jean-Paul Sartre spent some time on that lane. Writing his column for the Scripps-Howard newspapers, Pyle, later the legendary war reporter, frequented Union in the 1930s; he interviewed the last surviving slave of a U.S. president in the Union Avenue restaurant where the old man was working. Sartre was writing about the American war effort and the sorry state of American cities for Le Figaro. Swiss author Annemarie Schwarzenbach, who has a cult following in Europe, described scenes on Union in some of her German prose, a travelogue not yet published in English. James Agee described the walk down “smudgy Union” from Gay in a long article for Fortune in 1935. John Gunther visited Union in 1945, about two months after Sartre, researching his major best seller, Inside USA.

Most of them came here for one reason, that a Union Avenue address was the focus of international attention. Once the main reason famous people visited Knoxville, the astonishing New Deal project known as the Tennessee Valley Authority kept its main offices in the building now known as the Pembroke. For about 25 years, everybody in the world wanted to hear about TVA, when its headquarters were right across the street from what’s now Union Avenue Books. There the agency’s most famous directors, Arthur Morgan, Harcourt Morgan, and David Lilienthal had their offices. The Daylight Building, where the bookstore is located, was also a TVA building. It’s not unreasonable to assume that Sartre and Agee and Pyle and Gunther set foot in the Daylight, as well; it held the drafting offices for TVA’s big plans, and would likely be on the directors’ grand tour.

Sure, in his book, Gunther called Knoxville the ugliest city in America, but he thought TVA was a splendid organization. He praised chairman Lilienthal as “a philosopher and poet.” Gunther’s visit to Lilienthal’s office on Union inspired some awestruck prose. “Quite possibly the TVA idea is the greatest single invention of this century,” Gunther wrote in this book about the entire nation: “the biggest contribution the United States has yet made to society in the modern world.” It may be the most rapturous statement in that thick book not known for rapture. It was just Knoxville he didn’t like.

During the same period as TVA’s idealistic years, Union Avenue was also the address of the Roxy Theater, the third-rate movie show and burlesque house that stood on Union near Walnut, about where the Lellyet & Rogers print shop is now. It was a memorable landmark in the youth of Cormac McCarthy, whose novel Suttree, presumed to have some autobiographical elements, includes a description of the Roxy—among multiple Union scenes, especially the street preacher he calls “the maddest man of God.” Preacher’s Corner, as it used to be known, was at Union and Market, and still survives a bit to this day, though the preachers seem to have migrated across the street to Krutch Park. Our street preacher has made appearances in books by authors as various as British political philosopher Malcolm Muggeridge and detective writer Richard Yancey.

An article in a recent edition of Appalachian Heritage magazine includes a dialogue between McCarthy scholars Wes Morgan and Peter Josyph at Pete’s Cafe on Union. The bookstore, by the way, is planning some sort of commemoration for Cormac’s 78th birthday, on the 20th.

And, one fact I haven’t quite been able to digest, Elizabeth Gilbert was living in the St. Oliver Hotel, overlooking Union, in 2005 when she finished a memoir called Eat, Pray, Love. I haven’t finished reading it. I’m not sure it’s my sort of book. Still, I can be sorry that I never ran into her at the counter at Pete’s, and bought her breakfast. I could have claimed to have helped her with the Eat part.

Mainly, Union Avenue Books: welcome to Union.

© 2011 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

Urban writes:

TVA Historical Museum

Everytime I see an article that mentions TVA and its importance in US History and Knoxville's history, I think of the opportunity to do a world class museum that tells the story of TVA.

I grew up in upstate NY, along the Erie Canal and was always amazed about the number of foreign tourists it draws, thats because when people learn about US history they learn of the erie canal and I believe TVA is the same. I believe Knoxville could be home to a internationally recognized museum that tells the story of the TVA. Just my 2 cents...

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