citybeat (2006-20)

Fifty years after the publication of A Death in the Family , a UT professor is questioning its editors’ loyalty to Agee’s intent

Knox Heritage lists the city’s most endangered historic buildings

Wednesday, May 10

Editing for Truth

Ninety years ago this Thursday, around 9 p.m., a cotter pin fell out the bottom of an automobile that was speeding down Clinton Pike. It had been holding together the steering mechanism, and the driver lost control shortly thereafter. The automobile flew off the road and landed upside down on the steep bank of Beaver Creek. The driver, Hugh James Agee, was killed instantly.

Though the details of the tragedy are fairly cut and dried, the fabric of its documentation has become frayed in recent years thanks to a scholarly re-examination of A Death in the Family , written by Hugh’s son James Rufus. James was six years old at the time of his father’s accident and spent the rest of his life working through the emotional logistics of his family’s loss.  

But Agee, like his father, died young and suddenly at the age of 45, two years before A Death in the Family ’s 1957 publication. He wasn’t around to see the novel in its final form, or approve the editors’ high-modernist re-structuring of it, in which the narrative is interrupted by italicized flashback sequences to create a non-chronological timeline. In the book’s introduction, however, the editors project confidence in their interpretation: “This novel, upon which he had been working for many years, is presented here exactly as he wrote it.”

Now, 50 years later, new research by UT English professor Michael Lofaro suggests that A Death in the Family , as it was published, is a much different novel than the one Agee intended. “From its introduction, ‘Knoxville: Summer of 1915,’ through its entire text, it was far more a construct of its editors than its author,” Lofaro wrote in the paper he presented at the UT James Agee Celebration last April. The conclusion was reached after a three-year analysis of both original and newly discovered manuscripts found in the papers of David McDowell, the book’s primary editor, which now belong to UT.

The editors’ choice to include “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a languorous prose poem outlining the after-dinner rituals of Agee’s family, as a prologue has long been a topic of debate, since it first appeared in the Partisan Review some 20 years before Agee’s death. “‘Knoxville: Summer of 1915’ was never meant to be part of the novel,” Lofaro says. “David McDowell couldn’t resist, but it set the wrong tone.”

Instead, Lofaro suggests that the book was intended to begin with a nightmare sequence that “verges on the surreal and the macabre.” The adult narrator, Rufus, dreams that he is carrying the naked, bleeding corpse of a murdered man through the streets. Upon waking, he recognizes the corpse as his father.

Other elements of “this book” (Lofaro’s research indicates that Agee had not yet chosen a name) were radically altered as well. According to Lofaro, “the editors deleted or did not use eight and one-half finished chapters, chose the wrong (i.e. draft) versions of four and one-half other chapters, deliberately divided and interspersed others, and substantially altered the time sequence of the novel by creating two blocks of three ‘italicized’ chapters….” 

Would A Death in the Family have still won a Pulitzer Prize, as it did, if it had been published in accordance with Agee’s design? Maybe not, says Lofaro. “Agee never swam with the current,” he says, admitting that the original form would have railed against popular literary trends of the ’50s. McDowell likely decided to edit the book to increase its marketability, with Agee’s family and trust fund in mind. “The book was edited by necessity rather than for accuracy,” Lofaro explains.

Last week, UT Press’ board enthusiastically approved the publication of a restored version of A Death in the Family , which, with the inclusion of Lofaro’s notes, will be almost twice the length of the original. “It’ll be a bigger book than the one that won the Pulitzer Prize and a far different book, but it’s the one that Agee intended,” Lofaro says. Additionally, a compilation of 18 papers presented at last year’s Agee conference will be published in early 2007 under the title Agee Agonistes: Essays on the life, legend and work of James Agee.   

On other Agee fronts, the one-man play R.B. Morris wrote and performed for the Agee Celebration, The Man Who Lives Here Is Loony , was recently reproduced at a café in Greenwich Village under the auspices of Agee’s oldest daughter, Deedee. Also, as UT’s writer-in-residence, Morris had Agee author/researcher John Wranovics in from California last month to give a talk on his new book, Chaplin and Agee , concerning the friendship and collaboration between actor Charlie Chaplin and Agee.

James Agee Park, located on the northwest corner of Laurel Avenue and James Agee Street, not quite a block away from Agee’s childhood home, is moving toward a completion pending this year’s additional fundraising (tax-deductible donations may be directed to Terry Holly at the East Tennessee Foundation, 524-1223). Streetlamps and stone entrance columns have been installed, and a temporary sculpture series is being planned. While grading and landscaping are still in the process, volunteer gardening efforts are well under way, with sea-green outcroppings of lamb’s ear and violet foliage bordering the street. “Eventually it will be very green with lots of grass and flowers and trees,” Morris says. We imagine that’s how Agee would’ve intended it.

Fragile 15

Knox Heritage’s annual exercise in listing the most endangered among Knoxville’s historic edifices was made public last week. “The Fragile Fifteen,” as the list is titled, was announced on Market Square, where three of the properties are located.

Old South Knoxville High School on Tipton Avenue headed the list. The sprawling brick building was to be redeveloped as condominiums last year until the Knox County Commission bowed to the wishes of South Knox Commissioners Paul Pinkston and Larry Clark to stall off its sale for $1 to Leigh Burch.

When the school property was offered at auction at a minimum price of $20,000, there were no bidders. Burch has lost interest, and it continues to sit idle, but Kim Trent, Knox Heritage’s executive director, says she’s been told there may be a redevelopment proposal in the near future. Pinkston, who Trent says told her of the new interest, says at this time he couldn’t amplify on the possibility.

There were a couple of surprises, including the continued listing of the J.C. Penney Building at 412 S. Gay St. which has been stabilized in the past year by Big Boy Properties, whose part-owner, Buzz Goss, says redevelopment is still in the architectural process, with the view to creating about 45 condo units in its spacious interior. The original façade has also been exposed and mostly rehabilitated, Trent concedes, but says the solving of previously acknowledged structural and plumbing problems was not enough to warrant its exclusion from the endangered list.

Likewise, Brownlow Elementary School on Luttrell Street in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood remains on the list, despite ongoing progress toward its conversion to condos.

The principal complaint about the building, that its windows provided access by transients, has been rectified by the installation of plywood barriers, Trent says, and owner Brian Conley, who also owns Metro Pulse , says the building was purchased in 2005 along with plans that are now being modified to reduce the size of the condo units and increase their number from 25 to 33. He says when the architects’ work is done, an application for tax-increment financing will be made to the city. The old school building is in a special development zone allowing for such a TIF, and once it is secured, construction will begin. He says he’s hopeful that will occur by this coming November.

The Market Square buildings classed as fragile include the J.F. Horne Building, an 1870 structure at 37 Market Square that houses Gus’ Restaurant and may be the longest continuous restaurant site in the city. Owned by previous restaurateurs there in the Peroulas family, the building’s rear wall is showing signs of separating from the structure, Trent says, posing a dangerous situation. Across the Square at No. 36, the 1882 commercial building, owned by Scott and Bernardette West, has been stabilized but is not yet occupied, says Trent. It’s the lack of occupancy for about 20 years that has the 1880 A.L. Young Building at No. 26 listed, Trent says. It last housed Mavis Shoes and is owned by Henderlight Properties LLC, a Knoxville company, and its façade has been improved, but it is still vacant.

The threatened list also includes the Cal Johnson Building at 301 State Street, a perennially “fragile” property, and the McClung Warehouses on Jackson Avenue, where Trent says redevelopment has been characterized by “years of promises that went unfulfilled.” The latest of those proposals has fallen through the cracks, Metro Pulse reported last week.

Other locations on the list may be viewed, with photos, on the preservation group’s website at .


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