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A Death in the Family
Masterpiece Theatre A Death in the Family
Essays + Interviews [imagemap with 7 links]
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James Agee spent his childhood in Knoxville, Tennessee, a community nestled alongside the Tennessee River between the Cumberland Plateau and the Great Smokey Mountains. He set A Death in the Family in the downtown area and the Fort Sanders neighborhood where he was born and where he lived with his family. It was the death of his father in 1916 that marked what was both literally and figuratively an abrupt end to an idyllic childhood.

While downtown Knoxville was a bustling metropolis of about 50,000 people, in 1916 it was still possible to hear the crickets chirping in the evening in Fort Sanders, the center of old time residential Knoxville.

Supper was at six and was over by half past. There was still daylight, shining softly and with a tarnish, like the lining of a shell, and the carbon lamps lifted at the corners were on in the light, and the locusts were started, and the fire flies were out, and a few frogs were flopping in the dewy grass, by the time the fathers and the children came out...

from Knoxville: Summer 1916, James Agee

Knoxville in Agee's youth was a booming industrial city with a densely concentrated population of about 50,000. Electric streetcars carried commuters across concrete viaducts; the sidewalks were sometimes so crowded that people had to walk in the streets. Knoxville in 1916 was shadowed by dozens of lofty buildings, some "skyscrapers" more than 10 stories tall. The Majestic Theater in the book was one of about a dozen movie theaters downtown alone... a larger part of A Death in the Family is set in a residential neighborhood, Highland Avenue, the modest, middle-class side of Fort Sanders.

Jack Neely, Knoxville-based writer and historian
Metro Pulse Online

...When the ice wagon came, our mouths were always full of ice, but when the ice cream cart came by and we didn't have a nickel, that was sad.

There were two picture shows and we could go to the "Star" on South Main for 5 cents. Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Harold Lloyd, Norma Talmadge and Tom Mix were some of our favorites. Our funny papers included Mutt and Jeff, The Katzenjammer Kids, Uncle Walt and Skeezix. We grew old along with them...

Prudence Romine Price
The Evening Kansan-Republican Online

[Knoxville's] allegiances were divided during the American Civil War; Confederate domination ended in 1863 when Union troops, under General Ambrose Burnside, repelled a Confederate attack led by General James Longstreet. Knoxville quickly rebuilt and established itself as an important commercial center in the South, and in the early 1900s its city limits were expanded.

The City of

...After the war, its railroads helped Knoxville enter a period of growth. Industries flourished, and new neighborhoods sprouted, including Mechanicsville, Brownlow, Fort Sanders, Old North Knoxville, Fourth & Gill, Emory Place, Park City and others. Streetcars, then automobiles fueled further expansion...

The Knoxville News-Sentinal Company

There were the long winter evenings gathered around a roaring log fire in Mama's room. It was then that she read the Bible with us and told us stories, especially of the early history of our family background. Christmas in my days was an exciting and spiritual event, not a commercial extravaganza. In summer we had a play buggy and our horse Old Joe to pull it all over the country side with every kid who desired to hang on to it. We had a ball diamond on the side lawn, and a series of deep blue swimming holes up and down the creek. We had a large double lawn swing under a wide spreading maple tree in the front yard. Whey my two brothers and I were very young, we had a pony with a red bridle and saddle, and a small replica of a farm wagon and harness to which we hitched and drove a large billy goat!

Vara Sykes Wallace
The Sikes/Sykes Families Association

...The Gay Street Bridge was constructed in 1898. Before the bridge was complete, a trolley company had been granted an easement to install tracks across the Gay Street Bridge. Prior to installation of the trolley, South Knoxville had always been fairly isolated from the developing city on the north side of the Tennessee River...

Ann Bennett
Knoxville-Oak Ridge Regional Network

..Our country home in Tharpe, Tennessee was an impressive, attractive and very comfortable house located in a wide valley, surrounded by about 225 acres of high, timber-clad hills and creek bottom farmland through which a clear spring fed rock bottom stream flowed. The stream was close by the house, and we spent many happy, carefree hours swimming, fishing, and collecting geese and ducks eggs from the creek bed. My mother kept a large flock of geese and ducks, and they found the clear blue waters of the stream inviting....

Vara Sykes Wallace
The Sikes/Sykes Families Association

... In the winter, of course, we went to school every weekday. On Saturday we always had a wide range of activities, a farm-wagon-size sleigh, built on the Mill Yard by one of the Mill hands. We had a gentle old horse named Joe to ride or drive. My brother Frank always did the driving and bossing. Then each of us had a sled of our own, also built by some mill hand, which we could pull to the top of the long hill that ended behind the house. We rode down into a woven wire fence on moonlight nights when the snow was deep and icy slick. What fun!

Vara Sykes Wallace
The Sikes/Sykes Families Association

I want to go home,
For never a place did I see,
Wherever I roam, far away and alone,
So dear as my own Tennessee.
But now I am far away,
To my home I must go soon,
I want to go back to hunt for the deer track,
And watch for the possum and coon.

I want to go home,
For never a place did I see,
Wherever I roam far away and alone,
So dear as my own Tennessee.
But now I am far away,
And lonely and sad is my lot,
I never can rest till my journey is past,
And I again seek my old cot.
From my childhood's happy home,
I never more will roam,
I will take by my side, my young Tennessee bride,
And live ever happy at home.

Published and sold at Wholesale by
105 Hanover & 54 Friend Sts., up Stairs, Boston

America Singing: 19th century song sheets
Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division, as106480

Both of my grandparents fought in the War Between the States. Mother's father was badly wounded. I was born on a farm in the southern part of the State, and when I was about four years old my parents moved to town. Four years later father's health failed and the doctors advised him to move back to the country. Father was a teacher and be built the first schoolhouse in that community and taught in it. He and several other men organized the Baptist church and built its house of worship. He was a deacon in that church as long as he lived. One thing sure, just as soon as I am able I'm going back and buy that little old pedal organ that I used to play Sunday school songs on in that old church when I was a girl. Although I quit school when I was only 13 years old, I've always liked to read and study...

Mildred Lawson
Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection.

The year 1993 marks my eighty-ninth birthday. These remembrances of my early days in Stewart County were as though it were yesterday. I remember my Grandfather and Grandmother Sykes as far back as I can remember anything. I was very young, even before school age, when I began spending several weeks with them each summer. My Grandfather, James Franklin "Pa" Sykes, and my Grandmother, Mary Wofford Sykes, were important and outstanding members of the community of Fort Henry, Tennessee in Stewart County. He owned a farm, and a very comfortable country home near the small village. The village of Fort Henry was located between the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers where they came closest together -- about ten miles apart. His farm was located about one and one-half miles from the Tennessee River where he cultivated corn in the river bottom fields...

Vara Sykes Wallace
The Sikes/Sykes Families Association

Essays + Interviews:
Life in a Small Southern Town | A Short, Intense Life | Agee's World

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