Steve Earle: Shadowing James Agee


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“Knoxville: Summer 1915” has always threatened to eclipse the rest of James Agee’s “A Death in the Family.” Agee’s beautiful evocation of fathers at their lonely twilight posts is the section I look forward to most when I return to that novel — and that is why it was so jarring to open Michael A. Lofaro’s “restoration” of the novel (published in 2007) and find it gone. (Lofaro explained that Agee had never intended it for the novel.) Now I have another section of the book — thanks to a new edition of the novel from Penguin Classics — to eagerly anticipate whenever I’m in the mood to reread Agee: the introduction by singer-songwriter Steve Earle.

As a young musician, Earle writes, he hitchhiked from Texas to Tennessee and made his home there for 31 years. And yet, Earle never read any of Agee — not “A Death,” not “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” none of the film criticism — until recently. When he did, however, he chose to read “A Death”

Advertisement Knoxville, where it was possible to actually retrace Agee’s (or Rufus’) steps in my spare time, and I took full advantage of that luxury. The bones of Agee’s Knoxville still protrude visibly through the more recent layers of spackling in places along Gay and Market streets. I followed the route I imagined the city streetcar would have followed out Clinch Avenue and then walked over to Fifteenth and Highland, wondering if the ghost of Hugh James Agee (or Jay Follet) had come that way on his back way home to say a last farewell to the believers.

Earle’s tracing of Agee’s footsteps didn’t stop there; he notes that he now lives “within a couple of blocks of three different buildings where Agee made his home in New York City.” Earle’s introduction is a lyrical fan’s note that has a surprising twist: He asks us to be more generous in response to Lofaro’s edition of Agee’s novel. I had been hostile, like many, to Lofaro’s version, but Earle wants us to cool it and see the advantages in both versions. You don’t have to pick (even though his heart rests with the original). He commends Lofaro for giving us “the darkly elegant prose that might never have seen the light of day” while praising the efforts of the novel’s original editor, David McDowell:

In the end, suffice it to say, McDowell was able to secure his mentor’s legacy as well as provide for the future of his widow and children, and the result is, in the humble, uneducated opinion of a hillbilly singer with delusions of grandeur, powerful and beautiful and very nearly perfect.

-- Nick Owchar

Photo (left): James Agee. Credit: Associated Press

Photo (right): Steve Earle. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times