Jame’s Agee’s Masterwork

Written in 90 Minutes: Knoxville: Summer of 1915

David Paul Kirkpatrick
9 min readAug 31, 2022


Originally written in 1935 and published in 1938 in the Parisian Review, this piece became the classic prelude to his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel published posthumously, A Death In The Family.

Time Magazine called James Agee’s prose-poem , Knoxville, Summer 1915, “the most ecstatic piece of writing ever composed about an American summer.”

According to Agee, this now legendary piece was written in an hour an a half. “ I was greatly interested in improvisatory writing, as against carefully composed, multiple-draft writing: i.e., with a kind of parallel to improvisation in jazz, to a certain kind of genuine lyric which I thought should be purely improvised… It took possibly an hour and a half; on revision, I stayed about 98 per cent faithful to my rule, for these “improvised” experiments, against any revision whatever,” said Agee.

The author died at the age of 45. An excerpt was set to music by Samuel Barber in 1947, and has become legend. However, for me, there is nothing more powerful than the purity of this in it’s entirety. If there is a better passage on summer, I have not yet come upon it. Of course, it’s not only about a summer but it’s just as importantly about identity, fatherhood, and the incredible power of being ….

…the men by now, one by one, have silenced their hoses and drained and coiled them . . .

Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by James Agee

This is in its entirety with the same paragraph breaks as originally provided by the author. The “Samuel Barber” version set to music uses approximately a third of this text)

We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. It was a little bit sort of block, fairly solidly lower middle class, with one or two juts apiece on either side of that. The houses corresponded: middle­sized gracefully fretted wood houses built in the late nineties and early nineteen hundreds, with small front and side



David Paul Kirkpatrick

Founder of Story Summit & MIT Center for Future Storytelling, Pres of Paramount Film Group, Production Chief of Disney Studios, optimist, author and teacher.