KHP’s “Knoxville: A Walking Literary Guide” highlights Knoxville’s role in national literature by emphasizing sites downtown associated with writers well-known enough to be recognizable by the American reading public. It also serves as an introduction to the Knoxville-centric work of these authors.
The guide connects readers to more than a dozen Knoxville authors of national or international significance and suggests places where you can visit that have informed their work. Highlighted in particular are James Agee and Cormac McCarthy, authors strongly associated with Knoxville settings. While very different from one another, they shared one trait especially unusual among novelists: they employed real names of people and businesses of their eras. Also notable is Frances Hodgson Burnett, who lived in Knoxville during the early part of her career, and who authored dozens of internationally popular books of literary value during the Victorian era. Other writers with Knoxville roots have also caused a stir with their work include unconventional novelist David Madden, free-verse poet Nikki Giovanni, Pulitzer-winning historian Bernadotte Schmitt, and author Alex Haley who spent his final years in Knoxville and frequently spoke here.
Click on the interactive map below to explore locations associated with Knoxville’s writers:
Pick up a copy of “Knoxville: A Walking Literary Guide,” a free 34-page booklet at one of the following locations: the official Knoxville Visitors’ Center, Museum of East Tennessee History, Lawson McGhee Library, and Union Ave Books.
Knoxville began life as a literary place, of sorts. In 1791, before Knoxville even had a church or a proper city government, the Knoxville Gazette became Tennessee’s first newspaper. Because the city was Tennessee’s capital, publishing would be one of Knoxville’s first industries, producing legislative tracts and law books, but later sheet music, books of poetry and essays, some of the first known Cherokee-language teaching books, and occasionally, a novel.
If we can believe his own account, French novelist-statesman Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, who wrote a novel about the Cherokee, was one of the new town’s first visitors, in 1791.
Political divisions propelled Knoxville’s abundance of small, opinionated newspapers, and launched the careers of “Parson” William G. Brownlow and George Washington Harris. Brownlow was among America’s most outspoken political writers, Harris one of America’s most daring early humorists. They were downtown neighbors, and were publishing work in local papers at about the same time. (Harris’s Sut Lovingood’s Yarns is known mainly to scholars today, but it was a popular book in 1867, and has been in print for more than 150 years.)
Meanwhile, one remarkable free man of color named William B. Scott learned the publishing trade from Thomas Humes, a Knoxville journalist, cleric and author during the Civil War. Scott later became Tennessee’s first African American newspaper publisher.
After the war, the rapidly growing railroad/industrial city sometimes supported as many as three daily newspapers at once, and was home to a variety of talented authors who reacted to the city in very different ways: British-born author Frances Hodgson Burnett, who began her writing career in Knoxville; the family of Adolph Ochs, the paperboy and typesetter who would much later be the publisher of The New York Times; way-offbeat philosopher and science-fiction writer Albert Chavannes; and pioneering businesswoman-novelist Anne Armstrong.
This guide connects readers to the heritage of more than a dozen Knoxville authors of national or international significance. Highlighted in particular are James Agee (1909-1955) and Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933), authors associated with Knoxville settings whose books have attracted literary pilgrims to Knoxville for decades. While very different from one another, they shared one trait especially unusual among novelists, in that they employed real names of people and businesses of their eras.
But several others with Knoxville roots have caused a stir with their work, including Pulitzer-winning historian Bernadotte Schmitt, unconventional novelist David Madden, and sometimes-radical poet Nikki Giovanni, and are part of the story. As is Alex Haley, one of the world’s most famous and influential African American authors, who spent his final years in Knoxville and frequently spoke here.
Also mentioned are a few recent authors with national followings of their own, like Karl Wagner, Richard Yancey, Lowell Cunningham—and Quentin Tarantino.
Meanwhile, creative anomaly Whittle Communications, a national magazine-publishing company, flourished in Knoxville between 1970 and 1995, and drew professional writers to the city.
And, of course, the University of Tennessee, of which notable novelists and journalists are alumni and sometimes faculty members, has both drawn and trained writers, adding to the city’s literary pull.
This guide is centered on downtown, not just because it makes for a walkable tour, but because it’s the part of Knoxville that’s most identifiable in literature, and to make it digestible, and slim enough to fit in your pocket. There’s a lot more to read and learn, but we hope this offers some clues about where to find some great works of literature.
James Agee (1909-1955). Best known in his short life as a poet, movie critic, and journalist, he wrote Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, now considered a landmark of immersive New Journalism. He pioneered literary film criticism and was nominated for an Academy Award for writing the script to the film The African Queen. He was also author of the well-known vignette, “Knoxville: Summer 1915,” the inspiration for Samuel Barber’s famous soprano piece. More famous after his death, Agee was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for his posthumous 1957 novel, A Death in the Family. That autobiographical story based in Knoxville has spawned several dramatic and cinematic adaptations, and is still in print. Agee was born in Knoxville and lived here for most of his first 10 years, mostly on Highland Avenue in Fort Sanders, and then again for a period when he was a teenager in the mid-1920s, when he attended Knoxville High School.
“Parson” William Gannaway Brownlow (1805-1877). Beloved and reviled, Brownlow was a circuit-riding Methodist parson only in his youth. He became famous as editor of a series of newspapers—notably the Civil War-era Knoxville Whig—and as a writer of comically vicious screeds against his enemies, especially secessionists. Although his paper was ostensibly local, it was the most pro-Union newspaper in the South, and he had fans and subscribers across the North, many of whom just enjoyed his reckless verbiage. At war’s end, he unexpectedly became governor of Tennessee, and though his motives and tactics are questionable, he became an effective champion of civil rights. Born in Virginia, Brownlow moved to Knoxville in 1848, and lived on East Cumberland Avenue for the rest of his life. His home became one of Knoxville’s most visited tourist attractions. His death elicited headlines as far away as Great Britain, and he’s buried under a tall obelisk at Old Gray Cemetery.
Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943). Free-verse poet strongly associated with the Black Power movement, Giovanni recalled a supportive African American community here in several of her poems and essays. Her nostalgic poem, “Knoxville, Tennessee,” was later reinterpreted as an illustrated children’s book. Her essays include “400 Mulvaney Street,” about her youth in segregated Knoxville, originally published in her landmark autobiographical book, Gemini, and “Coffee Signs,” about memories of her grandmother’s home. Born in Knoxville, she divided her youth between her grandmother’s home on Mulvaney Street and her parents’ home in Cincinnati. She has been a frequent visitor to Knoxville for lectures and readings. *note keep lower case “b” as in b.1943 at the beginning, unless its hip and cool, says Jack!
Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970). Critic, biographer, essayist. Born in Knoxville, he grew up on the southeastern fringe of the Fort Sanders area, and attended UT, from which he graduated in 1915. He spent most of the rest of his life in New York, where he was best known as a drama critic and author of nonfiction books, and Arizona, where he became a literary leader of the fledgling environmentalist movement. He earned the 1955 National Book Award for his work of philosophy, The Measure of Man. His brother Charles remained in Knoxville, and his bequest established Krutch Park, which includes some inscribed quotations from his author brother.
Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933). Pulitzer-winning novelist whose stories have been made into several major motion pictures, including All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. Born in Rhode Island, he was a preschooler when his father moved to Knoxville to work for TVA. McCarthy grew up in Knoxville, attending Catholic High and later UT, where he won awards for short fiction. He lived and worked in the Knoxville area, including periods in Blount County, for much of his young adulthood. Two of his early novels, The Orchard Keeper (1965) and Suttree (1979), include vivid Knoxville scenes. The latter book, which enjoys a global cult following, may be the most specifically Knoxvillian novel ever published, with multiple references to real people, places, and events. His Pulitzer-winning postapocalyptic novel, The Road (2006), includes a surprising scene of a ruined and vacant Knoxville. As late as 1980, the reclusive author was known to be living in Knoxville, working on Blood Meridian in a Bearden motel, but he has spent his later years in Texas and New Mexico.
Paul Y. Anderson (1893-1938) was a South Knoxville kid whose father was killed in a marble-quarry accident. As a Central High School student, he first gained attention as a public debater. He cut his teeth on newspapering at the old Knoxville Journal & Tribune as a teenager, 1910-1912. Working for big-city papers, notably the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he often reported on national news, including the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and the Scopes evolution trial, but he returned home every summer to visit relatives, play golf, and give speeches. He won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Teapot Dome scandal. He’s buried under an elaborately stylish tombstone at Island Home Baptist Church.
Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924). Author of dozens of internationally popular books of literary value during the Victorian era, she’s best known today for The Secret Garden, The Little Princess (a.k.a. Sarah Crewe), and Little Lord Fauntleroy, all of which have been made into movies. She was born in England, but financial hardship forced her widowed mother to bring the Hodgson family to Knoxville, where a relative was an established businessman and landowner. She began her writing career in the 1860s in the rental house she called “Noah’s Ark,” which was located in Mechanicsville on what was soon to be the campus of Knoxville College; her early novel, Vagabondia, though set in London, is said to be based on acquaintances she knew when she lived in a riverfront home she called Vagabondia Castle. She later lived in various locations downtown before moving north in the mid-1870s. A fairy-tale style memoir, The One I Knew the Best of All, includes a chapter about Knoxville (called “the Town”). One novel, In Connection with the De Willoughby Claim, is set in a barely disguised Knoxville.
Alex Haley (1921-1992). Author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Born in rural West Tennessee, Haley spent much of his adult life in New York, San Francisco, or at sea. He was never a Knoxvillian before moving here in 1984, after the completion of his best-known works, but during the last eight years of his life, he had a farm in Anderson County as well as homes in Knoxville proper, including a condo on the river bluff and a house on Cherokee Boulevard. During his time here, he was a frequent speaker, especially at the university, which today has his papers. Soon after his death, his adoptive home honored him with a large bronze statue, the centerpiece of Haley Heritage Square, near the northeastern corner of downtown.
David Madden (b. 1933) is a novelist, critic, and historian. Born in Knoxville, Madden worked at the Bijou Theatre during his teenage years, and the experience informed his nationally acclaimed 1974 novel, Bijou. Although set in a lightly fictionalized city called “Cherokee,” some parts of town, especially the Bijou Theatre itself and Market Square, are described exactly as they were in 1946. Notable for his writing while he was still in high school, he worked as a radio announcer and had a play modestly produced in 1949. He attended UT, where he was involved in the drama program. He graduated in 1957, and served most of the rest of his life in various academic appointments, notably 24 years as writer-in-residence at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Among his other works is Cassandra Singing, which was originally set in Knoxville’s Lonsdale neighborhood, and The Suicide’s Wife, which became a televised movie starring Angie Dickinson.
Adolph Ochs (1858-1935). Nationally influential journalist, founder of the modern New York Times. Born in Cincinnati to German-Jewish immigrant parents, he moved with them back to their previous home in Knoxville at the end of the Civil War, and here Ochs had all of his formal education. First a paperboy, he began working as an apprentice typesetter for the Knoxville Chronicle, run by Union veteran William Rule, who became a lifelong mentor. Having learned much of the newspaper business here, at 19 he was part of a group that purchased the Chattanooga Times, which he ran for several years before purchasing the New York Times in 1896. He was that paper’s most influential publisher, launching many of the features the Times is best known for, including its magazine, its motto, and its weekly book review; his descendants, the Sulzbergers, run the paper, and Ochs is still listed at the top of the masthead of the venerable newspaper.
Anne Armstrong (1872-1958). Although she made her career as a pioneering businesswoman, Armstrong wrote two notable novels: The Seas of God (1915), which drew comparisons to Tolstoy and is based in a fictionalized Knoxville, and This Day and Time (1930), which is set in rural Appalachia. She was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but as a girl moved to booming Knoxville with her industrialist father in the 1880s, an era she recounts in her fragmentary autobiography, “Of Time and Knoxville,” parts of which were published during her lifetime and afterward. She married Robert F. Armstrong (brother of Kingston Pike artist Adelia Armstrong Lutz) in 1905, but spent her later life in New York, Kingsport, and Abingdon.
Albert Chavannes (1836-1903). Swiss-born author, eccentric philosopher, and political radical Chavannes published a national paper called The Sociologist here in the 1890s, and wrote two utopian science-fiction novels set in Africa, including In Brighter Climes (1895), and a treatise, “Mental Science.” He lived and worked on Fourth Avenue on the north side of downtown.
George Washington Harris (1814-1869). Humorist and short-story writer, he created the character Sut Lovingood, antihero of several nationally popular stories in the Civil War era. Sut Lovingood’s Yarns (1867), which includes two Knoxville-based stories, was so popular that it has been credited as an influence on the work of Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, as one of the origins of frontier humor and the Southern Gothic style. Although born in Pennsylvania, Harris came to Knoxville as a small child with his older half-brother, Samuel Bell, a skilled silversmith who became mayor of Knoxville. A former riverboat pilot and onetime Knoxville postmaster, Harris began writing and publishing in Knoxville in the 1840s. A secessionist, he left Knoxville early in the Civil War, settling in the Deep South, though Knoxville papers kept publishing his bawdy and irreverent stories. By a bizarre coincidence Harris happened to be here when he died of an apparent stroke, while passing through town on a train.
Richard Marius (1933-1999) was a history and writing professor at both UT and Harvard, a novelist and a biographer. Born in rural East Tennessee of Greek parentage, he grew up on a farm in Loudon County. He studied journalism at UT, graduating in 1954, then returned a decade later as a professor of history. At UT for a decade, he was a popular and politically controversial professor, aligned with the antiwar movement. He left in 1976 to teach creative writing at Harvard. His four novels, including The Coming of Rain (1969), are all set in the Knoxville area, mostly in rural areas but with some scenes in the city.
Richard Yancey (b. 1962) is known for Young Adult fantasy and science-fiction novels, including The Fifth Wave, which became a major motion picture. Originally from Florida, he lived in Knoxville in the ’80s and ’90s and occasionally afterward. His genre-shifting experiment, The Highly Effective Detective, launched a series of four seriocomic pseudo-noir novels set in early 21st-century downtown Knoxville.
Bernadotte Schmitt (1886-1969). History scholar, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History for The Coming of War: 1914 (1930). Son of a prominent UT professor, Schmitt grew up in Fort Sanders, within full view of UT’s Hill. A UT graduate, he left town with a Rhodes scholarship, and spent the rest of his life in academia, writing several books of history.
Karl Wagner (1945-1994). Horror and fantasy author, creator of Kane, the Mystic Swordsman, hero of three novels and multiple short stories. Son of TVA chief Bernard Wagner, the author only occasionally wrote about Knoxville, but a memoir of his early years in Fort Sanders was published after his early death. In the 1960s, he was known to haunt the Old City area, which was then known for its second-hand shops.
The staff and Board of KHP deeply appreciate the support and generosity of our sponsors who helped underwrite the cost of research and the production of this literary guide, the first of its kind in Knoxville.