- Death in Knoxville
The mountains, coves, and rivers of eastern Tennessee have a haunting quality. James Agee and Cormac McCarthy grew up there, and their books reflect the isolation, eeriness, and arresting beauty of the landscape. Two recently published monographs examine the work of these writers: Hugh Davis’s The Making of James Agee and Dianne C. Luce’s Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy’s Tennessee Period. Both of these writers left Knoxville—Agee moved to New York and McCarthy now lives in Santa Fe—but both began their careers there, set some of their works there, and embedded eastern Tennessee in the literary imagination. Within southern literary circles, Agee and McCarthy are complicated figures, in part because of the complexity of their texts and in part because their own regional identities are indeterminate. But the touchstone of Knoxville connects them to a specific locality, a southern place with a unique imaginative resonance.
In 1937, when Cormac McCarthy was four years old, his father joined the legal staff of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and his family moved to Knoxville. McCarthy grew up in Knoxville, and he set his first four books in eastern Tennessee. Dianne Luce, president of the Cormac Mc-Carthy Society, has spent her career studying the enigmatic, reclusive writer; her recent study Reading the World: Cormac McCarthy’s Tennessee [End Page 151] Period (2009) examines the books that he read and the places that he lived in eastern Tennessee, and how they influenced the texts that he wrote. His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, draws heavily upon the topography and history of eastern Tennessee, including the development of the TVA and the culture of bootlegging. Luce explains that the novel lays a foundation for the ecological and philosophical themes that Mc-Carthy has explored over the course of his writing career. He advances these themes in Child of God, his story about a cave-dwelling necrophiliac inspired by the sensational case of serial killer Ed Gein and the murder trial of James Blevins. He set the novel in Sevier County, Tennessee, and its meditations on depravity and grace dwell deeply in the landscape’s hills and valleys.
McCarthy’s novel Outer Dark in set in the same landscape, but Luce explains that it dwells on a more elevated plane. She argues that the book “reflects McCarthy’s awareness of gnostic symbols, character types, and anticosmic attitudes and his extensive borrowing from or alluding to them in creating his own parable of spiritual alienation in the cosmic realm” (68). Gnosticism is an ancient religious system endemic to the Middle East that combines elements of early Christianity, Hellenistic philosophy, and Judaism. It posits the existence of an absolute spiritual plane and a material plane mediated by a divine demiurge, a false god, who causes suffering on the material plane. The actual god who exists on the spiritual plane is unknowable to the material plane. The characters in Outer Dark, a brother and sister who search for the lost off-spring of their incestuous relationship, portray the inherent alienation and complexity of gnostic beliefs. Luce describes the book as a “road narrative” that anticipates McCarthy’s later novels Blood Meridian and The Road (63).
Although No Country for Old Men and The Road have become more famous because of their film adaptations, McCarthy’s masterpiece is Suttree. McCarthy worked on the novel over a period of twenty years, roughly from his time as a student at the University of Tennessee to his departure for west Texas. The book depicts life among the disaffected derelicts of post-World War II Knoxville from the perspective of Cornelius Suttree, who has repudiated his middle-class family to live on the Tennessee River. Luce explains that the book “synthesizes Platonic, gnostic, Christian, and existentialist images and concepts to inform Sut-tree’s anguished alienation from the world and his final transcendence through freeing himself both from the...