the fine print June 2010: James Agee’s Knoxville: Summer, 1915June 10, 2010
“On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts. We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there.…They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine … with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.”
Knoxville: Summer, 1915, James Agee
By the rainy, grey weather alone in the two cities I call home — Winnipeg and Montreal — this coming summer has a remarkable weight to it. There is also the heaviness of illness, as my mother winds down her long battle against cancer. As my wide-flung family prepares to gather in Winnipeg later this month, I find my mind wandering not to sad music and poetry, but to a short essay written by Pulitzer Prize-winner James Agee.
Called Knoxville: Summer, 1915, it is a gorgeously written piece that fuses a child’s evening with his family, on a quilt in the back yard, watching the dark sky, with that of the anxious adult looking back, longingly.
The essay, which also serves as the introduction to Agee’s A Death in the Family, was also set to music in 1950 by composer Samuel Barber, called Knoxville: Summer of 1915.
Below is a video of a recording of Barber’s piece, in two parts by Eleanor Stebel, but I prefer just the words and recommend reading this, which has the full text of Agee’s essay and a very beautiful interpretation of the essay and the music, by conductor Jed Gaylin.