James Agee won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for fiction with “A Death in the Family,” and now a local author is writing a biography, “Rufus,” that includes Agee’s early years in Knoxville and the impact of the 1916 Clinton Highway wreck that killed his father.
Paul F. Brown said Agee (1909-1955) spent one-third of his life in Tennessee. He adored his father, also named James Agee, and used his memories to create his legacy work.
Brown spoke in August to the Powell History Club. He outlined Agee’s life in conversational tone. Audience members had many questions. One brought an old picture that probably shows Bells Bridge, where the fatal, one-car wreck occurred.
Clinton Pike was a link in the Dixie Highway – the route from Michigan to Florida, Brown said. Much like Interstate 75 today, the route ran through LaFollette. Today that’s two exits past Raccoon Valley, maybe 20 minutes. In 1916, the trip from Knoxville to LaFollette took about three hours, Brown said.
The elder Agee drove an early Model T with headlamps “about as effective as two jars of lightning bugs.” Brown called it “a noisy wreck,” that drew neighbors. The car tipped over and the elder Agee was pinned underneath. “The car weighed 1,500 pounds. Three strong people could stand it up.” The car was drivable after the wreck, making it hard to establish mechanical failure as the cause. Most people laid it to excessive speed.
Agee had been to LaFollette to visit his father, whose health was failing. Brown suspects that Agree was returning to Knoxville to pick up his wife and 6-year-old son for a return trip to LaFollette the next morning.
Agee’s father had just a fourth-grade education. Yet he passed the civil service exam for employment with the U.S. Post Office. He met his wife, Laura, at an evening dance class. She was a socialite from the north, quick to return to her roots after her husband’s death.
But for that traumatic death, James Agee might have grown up in Knoxville and followed his dad into a mundane job. We can’t know.
We do know that James Agee lived with loss. He never finished his autobiographical novel. “It became an obsession,” said Brown. “He kept rewriting it.”
Agee wrote other books and made a living writing for magazines, including Fortune. “He lived with a keen awareness of mortality and had a lifelong sense of loss,” Brown said. “A Death in the Family” was published after his death, heavily edited by David McDowell. It was reformatted and republished in 2007 by UT professor Michael Lofaro.
Brown is an independent researcher. He teaches music at Coalfield School in Morgan County, Tenn. The Powell History Club meets each third Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Community Center, 1708 W. Emory Road. “Rufus” will be ready for purchase in November from UT Press.