Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

James Agee's Nightmare

What’s new in Tennessee books—and at Chapter 16—on December 17, 2009

“Knoxville: Summer, 1915” is an incantatory, almost sacramental meditation on family and community, the “quiet deep joy, too real to recognize itself” that comes from a life, now long gone, in which people are “not in a hurry.” It is a beautiful essay, and for more than fifty years it was published as the opening to James Agee’s A Death in the Family, possibly the most beautiful book ever written in the English language But it is not, we now know, the way James Agee actually intended to begin his great autobiographical novel, which he left unfinished in 1955 when he died of a heart attack at age forty-five.

For the version of A Death in the Family that was published in 1957, no matter how gorgeous, is actually a patched-together affair. David McDowell, Agee’s literary executor, fashioned it from a much longer manuscript written in Agee’s virtually indecipherable handwriting. In an effort to make something publishable of this nest of scribblings—and thereby perhaps produce some income for Agee’s widow and children—McDowell dropped some chapters altogether and rearranged the chronology of those that remained, setting the childhood-altering death of a young boy’s father up front, and inserting flashbacks to convey the happiness of the family’s life before tragedy intervenes. He also attached the previously published essay to the opening to the book, though there’s no evidence Agee intended it to be part of the novel. This version of the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1958. Penguin Classics recently published a centennial edition, with an introduction by Steve Earle, in honor of Agee’s hundredth birthday on November 27.

In 2007, the University of Tennessee Press published A Death in the Family: A Restoration of the Author’s Text, painstakingly edited by UTK English professor Michael A. Lofaro. The new version of the novel restores the missing chapters, as well as Agee’s original chronological narrative, and—perhaps jarringly, for longtime fans of the novel—replaces the gentle, dreamy “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” with a nightmare—the prologue Agee actually intended for the book. In it, the novel’s grown protagonist dreams he is dragging the decaying body of John the Baptist through the streets of Knoxville.

On November 20, singer-songwriter (and also poet-playwright-actor) R.B. Morris debuted his new CD, Spies Lies and Burning Eyes at the Laurel Theater in Knoxville. At the concert, Morris, an independent Agee scholar who has been instrumental in protecting the novelist’s legacy in Knoxville (read our profile here, gave the first public reading of the dream introduction to the restored version of A Death in the Family. You can hear it, along with an introduction by Michael Lofaro and some of Morris’s own songs, in the podcast section of Chapter 16.

In many ways, Ann Patchett is to Nashville what Agee is to Knoxville. Though no streets have been named for her (yet), passionate readers around the country invariably associate Music City with the author of Bel Canto, Truth & Beauty, and Run, among others. In last Sunday’s issue of The Washington Post, Patchett describes her only New Year’s resolution this year: to spend all the hours of the working day actually working. The good news for Patchett fans is that what she’s working on is a new novel. “I would consider avoiding work the better plan were it not for the fact that to have written a book, to have finished it, is such a glorious thing that it is worth whatever suffering is meted out in the process,” she writes. You can read the essay here and a brief bio, with comments by Patchett, here.

Another Nashville writer figures prominently in the same issue: A Separate Country by Robert Hicks appears in the Post‘s gift guide for 2009. You can read the Post‘s review of the novel, which tells the story of Confederate General John Bell Hood, here.

In other news from the convergence of music and books, Nashville authors are well represented in the Oxford American‘s much vaunted Southern Music Issue. There’s new work by Susannah Felts, author of This Will Go Down in Your Permanent Record (Featherproof, 2008); Bill Friskics-Warren, author of I’ll Take You There (Continuum, 2005); Barry Mazor, author of Meeting Jimmie Rodgers (Oxford University Press, 2009); and Alice Randall, author of Rebel Yell (Bloomsbury, 2009). The issue isn’t available online, so to read their essays you’ll have to buy it at your local bookstore, but you’ll get a hint of their voices here. Much of what the writers don’t say is as interesting as what they do. Here’s Randall’s answer to a question about encounters with famous musicians: “I don’t kiss and tell, or raise kids and tell, or make money together and tell, or love and tell, or go out hiking through Radnor and tell, or chase trains and scream out on the tracks and tell, or give baby showers and tell, or get loved up on and tell—so I got nothing to tell—but I have a lot of sweet music memories after twenty-five years in Nashville and an early childhood in Motown that included going to see The Supremes sing at The Copacabana.”

In Copenhagen, about as far as a person can get from the Copacabana, Amanda Little is covering the climate talks for Grist. This week the Nashville-based author of Power Trip (HarperCollins, 2009) highlights the low points of the Schwarzenegger speech: “Looking tanned and coiffed,” she writes, “California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stood in sharp contrast to the wan, glum denizens of Copenhagen’s Bella Center.” Read the rest of the story, and other reports by Little, here.

For the next two weeks, Chapter 16 will be celebrating the holidays, but we’re leaving you with many packages to unwrap during our absence. In addition to the R.B. Morris podcast, we have Diann Blakely’s remembrance of Eleanor Ross Taylor, poet and widow of Peter Taylor, whom she met nearly two decades ago in Sewanee; a poem from the debut collection of Murfreesboro poet Kory Wells; an essay by Nashville children’s book author and illustrator Linda Ragsdale, who was wounded by terrorists in last year’s Mumbai massacre; another essay by Harrogate novelist Silas House, who considers the power of words; and reviews of books about music (Blues & Chaos by the late Memphis critic Robert Palmer), history (The Wars of Myron King by James Lee McDonough), and photography (Historic Photos of Nashville in the 50s, 60s, and 70s by Bob Grannis and Ashley Diggs Haugen). We hope they’ll keep you reading till we return on January 7, 2010, with a new issue of Chapter 16. Till then, Happy New Year from Humanities Tennessee!