Wednesday, May 18, is the 100th anniversary of the death of James "Jay" Agee, the father of the author James Agee. The elder Agee, who was about 38 at the time, lost control of his Ford Model T as he was driving home on Clinton Pike (now Clinton Highway) after visiting relatives in Campbell County. Just after crossing the bridge over Beaver Creek, he lost control of his wheel and ran off the road, overturning his car.
It was one of Knox County's earliest automobile fatalities, but the reason it's remembered is that it formed the title premise of Agee's Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death in the Family. Although the main characters have different names, it's a work of almost pure autobiography, described by the son of the accident victim. The book has been in print for almost 60 years, and its universal themes make it resonant around the world. Its story became a Broadway play called All the Way Home, which in turn became a series of motion pictures. The first, a quiet film released in 1963, starred Robert Preston as the father, and premiered at the Tennessee Theatre, with Preston and others in attendance.
Other film adaptations have been made for television. Over the years, the man who was killed on Clinton Pike 100 years ago this week has been portrayed by actors Robert Preston, Richard Kiley, William Hurt (in a rare live-television broadcast), and John Slattery, on a 2002 Masterpiece Theatre presentation (that was before Slattery's fame playing ad exec Roger Sterling on Mad Men).
The real Jay Agee is buried at Greenwood Cemetery on Tazewell Pike.
The trauma affected young James Agee for the rest of his life. Fatherless from age 6, he survived an unsettled childhood as his mother tried to raise him and his sister, first in their old home on Highland Avenue in Fort Sanders, then near Sewanee, Tenn., where they moved when Agee was almost 10. Later, as a teenager, he lived back in Knoxville with his grandparents on Clinch Avenue. Finally moved to New Hampshire with his mother. Agee reflected on the trauma for the rest of his own short life; he worked on his autobiographical novel for 20 years, leaving it unfinished at the time of his own sudden death. (The author died in a car, too, at age 45, but the car was a New York taxicab. He suffered a heart attack.)
For more than a decade a group of about 60 Agee devotees met every May 18 on Clinton Highway to pay homage to the author's father with readings, occasional musical performances, and a peculiar ceremony known as the Passing of the Cotter Pin. The venue was a NASCAR-themed bar called the Checker Flag, which happened to be located very near the spot of the accident. In 2007, BBC producer Alan Hall visited the site for an internationally broadcast documentary. The bar has since closed, and former attendees now observe the date more quietly.
In recent years, Knoxville has honored Agee's legacy with an inscription from his most famous book at the center of Market Square, the renaming of 15th Street as James Agee Street, and the dedication of a small park with his name at the corner of that street and Laurel Avenue. It's about one block from the site of the original Agee home, which was demolished in the early 1960s.