Historian, writer Jack Neely enriches our historically rich town

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts, Our Town Stories

As writer and historian Jack Neely talked to an audience of writers and outright fans at the Knoxville Writers Guild gathering at Central United Methodist Church last Thursday evening, it wasn’t necessary for him to speak loudly to be heard by those seated in the back of the sizable, pin-drop-silent crowd.

If there’s currently anyone in Knoxville who knows more about the fascinating history of our town and conveys their knowledge so interestingly, I’d love to hear the exchanges between them.

The cover of Jack Neely’s new book, “Historic Knoxville, The Curious Visitor’s Guide to Its Stories and Places,” newly published by the Knoxville History Project

Neely’s topic was what makes Knoxville such an interesting place for writers and filmmakers to set their work. He had quite a list of creative people who had done so, led, of course, by the two most prominent: James Agee and Cormac McCarthy.

James Agee’s posthumously published, Pulitzer Prize-winning, 1957 autobiographical novel, “A Death in the Family,” was set at Agee’s family home in Fort Sanders. His short piece “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” written in 1935 and published in 1938 in the Paris Review, was based on the same location.

American composer Samuel Barber in 1947 set an excerpt of it to music, written for soprano and orchestra, with the soprano singing the role of a young boy. It quickly became, and remains, one of the most popular pieces of American classical music.

McCarthy’s semiautobiographical novel “Suttree,” written in 1979, was set in Knoxville as McCarthy imagined it was in 1951. Its title character, Cornelius Suttree, gives up and tries to erase his life of privilege to become a fisherman on the Tennessee River.

There’s also notable poet Nikki Giovanni, born in Knoxville in 1943, whose family home and neighborhood on the east side of downtown were wiped out by urban renewal in 1961 to make way for the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum.

Not to be forgotten are internationally known artists Joseph and Beauford Delaney, brothers whose childhood home suffered the same fate. It was on East Vine Street, near where the current Weigel’s store is on Summit Hill Drive.

But it isn’t these big, well-known places and pieces of Knoxville history that makes Neely such an interesting character himself. It’s his ear for the small bits that add texture and color to the historical stories he tells.

During his narrative about writers with Knoxville connections, he brought up a piece that Peter Taylor wrote for the Washington Post the day after the first appearance of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Sunday evening, Feb. 9, 1964, when more than 73 million Americans were glued to their television screens.

Taylor, the grandson of three-term Tennessee Gov. Robert Love “Bob” Taylor (1887-1891, 1897-1899) and U.S. senator from Tennessee (1907-1912), began his piece with the toss-off line “Last night for one hour, not a hubcap was stolen in America.”

All of these and plenty more details than one can absorb is contained in Neely’s new book “Historic Knoxville, The Curious Visitor’s Guide to Its Stories and Places.”

As Neely noted, Knoxville is a complex, multidimensional city with a diversity of locales that allowed it to be a stand-in for other cities like Chicago and Indianapolis and a generic college town on The Hill at the University of Tennessee. “Knoxville has everything except a desert and an ocean,” he said.

If weight is any measure of information, Neely’s new book is about twice as heavy as the average softbound book of the same size. Much of that is due to the high-quality paper on which it is printed. The book will hold up to repeated use. But it’s also a metaphorical measure of its value to anyone who wants to know about our town. It should become a standard reference.

“Historic Knoxville” can be purchased through The Knoxville History Project, an educational nonprofit whose mission is to research and promote the history of Knoxville. Neely is KHP’s executive director.

Or you can do just as I did, show up at Neely’s next talk, 7-8:30 p.m. Jan. 14 at Town Hall East, at the fellowship hall of Eastminster Presbyterian Church, 4904 Asheville Highway.

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