traditional american urbanism in james agee’s knoxville summer of 1915

It has become that time of eveningwhen people sit on their porches,…and watching the street…People go by; things go by.A horse, drawing a buggy,breaking his hollow iron music on the asphalt:a loud auto: a quiet auto:people in pairs, not in a hurry,…A streetcar raising into iron moan;stopping;belling and starting, stertorous;rousing and raising againits iron increasing moanand swimming its gold windows and straw seatson past and past and past,the bleak spark crackling and cursing above it…the iron whine rises on rising speed;still risen, faints; halts;

james agee

I’ve written before about urbanism within art, how art allows us to understand and create new perspectives on urbanism, and how urbanism affects art. Much of this art has been prose or visual art – particularly photography. But here is a case of music and poetry. One of my favorite pieces is Samuel Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915, using the text of James Agee’s eponymous poem. This poem describes Agee perhaps as a young boy one summer evening sitting with his family. His famous novel A Death in the Family has very similar themes of family – particularly autographical. What I find very interesting in this poem of his is the description of the urbanism of this moment. People sit on their porches people watching, watching couples walk down the street. A horse, an automobile, and a streetcar go by, making their own “music”. There is description of an urban “music”. There is also mention that this takes place at a certain time of day. What this is describing is the streetcar suburb urbanism of the early 20th century. But what even more it is describing the urban life within this space.