Last week I wrote about the new Suttree Landing Park, and its surprising nod to a novel by Cormac McCarthy whose primary setting is a Knoxville underworld of riverside shantytowns and tavernboats. The south bank was the setting for some scenes in that book.
Besides McCarthy’s work, there’s another, more intimate literary connection to Suttree Landing’s immediate neighborhood. To get to Suttree Landing, you drive—or walk, if it’s a nice day and you have time—through a narrow, quiet, tree-shaded neighborhood, crossing Phillips Avenue.
I recently ran across a surprising reference to a notable South Knoxvillian in a 1926 essay by H.L. Mencken. “The Sage of Baltimore” enjoyed his lifelong role as the South’s leading antagonist. He was the one who coined the phrase, “the Bible and Hookworm Belt” to describe the former Confederate states.
He made some exceptions, as he noted in a 1926 essay in his controversial, often-scathing literary magazine, the American Mercury. His essay, “The South Looks Ahead,” was, characteristically, a harsh critique of another more moderate writer’s book about the South. As exceptions to Mencken’s repeated assumptions that most Southerners were inbred dolts with a warped view of their own past, Mencken extolled a few of the modern Southern thinkers he respected most. Several of them, it turns out, were Knoxvillians.
One was John R. Neal, the smart but absented-minded, almost pathologically eccentric attorney who defended John Scopes’ teaching of human evolution in the still-infamous Dayton “Monkey Trial”—a phrase coined by Mencken, by the way. Neal grew up in a town that’s now at the bottom of Watts Bar Lake, but in the 1920s he was a former UT professor who had just founded his own school of law, and lived more many years alone in an apartment in the old Watauga Hotel on Gay Street. Mencken referred to him as “the intelligent and courageous John R. Neal.”
Another exception was Joseph Wood Krutch, a UT grad who grew up on Cumberland Avenue, whom Mencken called “the most promising critic of life and letters” to come from the South.
And one was a man Mencken considered “the best newspaper reporter…that the South has produced in my time.” His name was Paul Y. Anderson.
Anderson’s name is not nearly well enough known in his home town. As the fearless investigative reporter who worked as Washington correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Anderson explained, mercilessly, the sordid details of the Teapot Dome scandal for us. For his efforts, Anderson won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for Journalism.
He grew up tough, on Sevierville Pike, the son of quarryman Holston Anderson, who was killed in a derrick accident. His mother, Elizabeth, was a South Knoxville school teacher, and tried her best to raise her three kids alone. He went to Central High, the school for kids who lived outside of city limits. College wasn’t in the cards. He went to work for the old Knoxville Journal, when it was still run by Union veteran William Rule, and learned enough on the job to impress big-city editors.
Anderson left Knoxville around World War I and spent the rest of his career working for major papers, mainly in Washington, where he had an uncanny knack for exposing major national and international plots of the sort human beings will always cook up if they think no reporters will find them out. He got judges impeached, annoyed the Mafia, exposed a fake-news conspiracy by the Coolidge State Department.
Paul Y. Anderson hated fake news. There was lots of it in the 1920s.
Still, he never very thoroughly left Knoxville. During his years of fame, he was a frequent visitor to the family home where his mother, Lizzie, and two sisters still lived, enjoying extended stays there in the 1920s and ’30s. He often stayed for a week or two, speaking to the Rotary Club—playing a few rounds of golf with old friends. One one visit in 1929, he advised Knoxville’s Rotarians that President Calvin Coolidge, was “one of the feeblest and most incompetent men that ever occupied the White House” and that Andrew Mellon, who happened to be Secretary of the Treasury at the time, was even more worrisome, demonstrating a perverse influence “far greater and more sinister” than that of Coolidge.
Anderson gave the talk eight weeks before the stock-market crash.
His family’s last Knoxville home was right on Phillips right at the corner of Claude Street. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s still standing, albeit much modified. I’d mention which one, but given my track record with trying to save things, that would assure its doom.
When he was in town, newspaper cameramen sometimes showed up on Phillips Avenue to get a picture. He didn’t seem to mind. He stood out with his big-city clothes, his fedora and three-piece suit and spats. His uncle Ulysses, who lived in the neighborhood, too, made a meager living as a fisherman. But I get the impression that to Paul Y. Anderson, Phillips Avenue, with its birds in the trees and the river nearby, was a refuge from big-city noise and unforgiving deadlines and harsh politics and his own sincere anger.
He was an alcoholic and suffered from depression, and his final years were a series of conflicts with editors about his doggedly aggressive reporting. He repeatedly excoriated the “millionaire morons” who he believed caused the Great Depression. At one point this South Knoxvillian was too anti-Republican even for the liberal Nation. They fired him. Other papers fired, rehired, and fired Anderson again.
In late 1938, four months after his last stay on Phillips Avenue, he was at his house in Washington when he left a note stating that his “usefulness was at an end,” and took way too many pills.
He should have just moved back home, maybe to join his Uncle Ulysses as a fisherman, the rare profession that would suit his radical honesty. As it is, he’s buried barely a mile away, in the most elaborate grave at the Island Home Baptist Church cemetery, and one of the most stylish graves in Knoxville. I’ve been told it was contributed by the famous journalist Heywood Broun.
Today, Phillips Avenue is a modest, comfortable tree-shaded street. I’ve had friends who lived on Phillips, like the late guitar wizard Terry Hill, who spent his last years there and loved the place. It still feels like a refuge to me. We can just hope South Knoxville doesn’t get too popular, because I’m not sure most big-shot developers would understand its appeal.