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Ulysses in Knoxville: Suttree's Ageean Journey
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All human communities are products of the imagination, and the sense of identity that defines them always takes narrative form. This is just another way of saying that all narratives of place are mythical. Communities are stories we tell about ourselves, each other, and that centripetal locale whose space we share. Some of these stories are unconscious, received like a precipitate of antecedent lives. Some are explicit and hortatory. In all cases they are about self-identification, reaching beyond the imprisonment of our individuation to place us within a meaningful extended family and social context. Without them we are not so much unique as alone.

Although most communities struggle to produce even one truly noteworthy book of themselves, it seems remarkable that Knoxville, small city of recent origin, has inspired two of them—James Agee's A Death in the Family (1957), and Cormac McCarthy's Suttree (1978). We might justifiably regard A Death in the Family as the literary Old Testament of Knoxville, Suttree as its revisionary New. They are also, respectively, the books of the city's northern bourgeois high ground and of its southern riverside wastes, of its heyday and of its decline. Agee's masterpiece haunts McCarthy's like a ghostly forebear. A Death in the Family's long meditation on death and the crisis of the absent father, and the supportive if sometimes conflicted response of family and community, shadows every step that Buddy Suttree and his unintended protégé Gene Harrogate take. The extent to which the human spirit is grounded in spatial origins couldn't be more powerfully enunciated than by the story Suttree tells; not only does it reach back to its predecessor to set its literary roots from its very first page, but Knoxville itself seems within its pages to die and approach rebirth as an allegory of Suttree's tribulations and eventual awakening.

Within the community proper, the most essential subcategory—subsisting within the community as its ward but reciprocally defining its social matrix—is the family, nuclear and extended. Communities, after all, are extended families which have justified ties of shared self-interest in lieu of ties solely of heredity and marriage. McCarthy's and Agee's novels are family dramas both of which open by establishing their community contexts via italicized prolegomenas. The dialogue between the two novels thus establishes itself immediately. Agee's introduction describes an idyllic summer evening in 1915 in a middle-class Knoxville, "fences around one or two of the houses but mainly the yards ran into each other" (3), hypnotically focused on the image of husbands, watering their lawns: "...It is not of the games children play in the evening that I want to speak now [but] of the fathers of families, each in his space of lawn, his shirt fishlike pale in the unnatural light and his face nearly anonymous, hosing their lawns" (4). A long paragraph describing the different intensities and flow rates and patterns of the water flowing from the hose nozzles ensues. Compare this idyll to the vision of water flowing from the creek into the Tennessee River with which the prologue to Suttree responds:

Here at the creek mouth the fields run on to the river, the mud deltaed and baring out of its rich alluvial harbored bones and dread waste....malevolent, tactile and dissociate, the blown lightbulbs like shorn polyps semitranslucent and skullcolored bobbing blindly down and spectral eyes of oil and now and again the bleached and stinking forms of foetal humans.


The children of Agee's urban idyll have become bleached dead foetuses, the neatly spaced lawns trackless wastes of detritus, the prim family homes decaying tenements and alleyways populated by the abandoned, vagrant, and diseased. The great Argentine fictionist Jorge Luis Borges once claimed that no book that does not contain its anti-book is complete. To the extent that it is inhabited by Agee's novel, Suttree, voice of Knoxville's anti-self, assumes the role of A Death in the Family's anti-book with a flourish. McCarthy's narrator reaches back, not merely to the founding of Knoxville per se, but to a primordial moment when creation itself comes into...

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