The name Suttree is on the ascent. Cormac McCarthy’s darkly humorous novel about Knoxville’s vagabond underworld of the early 1950s came out in 1979, and received extraordinarily positive national attention from the big-shot critics back then, even if it wasn’t a bestseller. For years it had mainly a cult following here, passed around amongst a handfull of local devotees.
McCarthy grew up in Knoxville, mainly in South Knoxville. A graduate of Catholic High, he attended UT, and the reclusive author lived in or near Knoxville as he was writing his first several books. He moved west when he was in his 40s, and now lives near Santa Fe.
Suttree has never been made into a movie, as several of McCarthy’s works have, but Internet sources suggest Suttree is much better known nationally now than it was in the first few years of its publication. Just in the last few years, perhaps as a result of Knoxville’s interest in itself, we see its title more often than ever. Suttree’s Tavern on Gay Street has become one of downtown’s most popular bars since it opened in 2012--so popular it recently opened a second room: Harrogate’s, which is partly a game room, is named for the book’s most graphically fun-loving character.
Now there’s Suttree’s Landing, the long-promised waterfront park off Sevier Avenue on the south side of the river. It’s not completely finished, but it’s already a very pleasant place for a Sunday-afternoon stroll.
It borrows the name of the fictional character because much of the action in McCarthy’s most Knoxville-based novel takes place along the river, and a few interesting scenes take place right about here, one involving a police car borrowed for an innocent joy ride.
But it’s a good place to see some other aspects of Knoxville history, too. Directly across the river is a tower-like structure with visible apertures. It looks almost medieval, and for years, boaters have wondered about it, assuming perhaps it was a fort of some sort. In fact it’s the old intake tower for Knoxville’s water system. After a century of coping with iffy water, the Knoxville Water Co., a private company owned by a larger Boston company, finally installed a state-of-the-art modern water-filtering system in 1894, and this structure dates from that era. It pumped water up to the “standpipe,” an oddly humble name for what was one of the largest buildings in town, a cylindrical water tower on top of the hill. It was one of the most noticeable features on the Knoxville skyline until it was torn down sometime after World War II. Most of the old pumping station on the riverfront was torn down, too, but this interesting intake structure remains.
It’s old enough to be historic, and would likely qualify for tax credits, if anyone could think of something creative to do with it. It would be a very peculiar residence.
And besides McCarthy’s work, there’s another, more intimate literary connection to this immediate neighborhood. Paul Y. Anderson, the fearless investigative reporter who, writing ultimately for a national audience in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, explained the Teapot Dome scandal for us and won the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts in 1925. He grew up in this immediate neighborhood. His last Knoxville home was right on Phillips Street, and he’s buried barely a mile away, in the most elaborate grave at the Island Home Baptist Church cemetery.