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Knoxville's Literary Heritage

This month, the Knoxville History Project publishes “Knoxville: A Walking Literary Guide,” a free booklet designed to increase awareness for the city’s rich literary heritage, which forms a significant part of a city’s public persona.

(Image 1: Walking Guide cover)

KHP’s guide connects readers to 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.

Image #2: James Agee Park

James Agee 

James Agee (1909-1955) is best-known for works such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death in the Family. The latter, set in Knoxville in 1915-1916, is his autobiographical novel concerning the sudden car-accident death of his own father. It won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1957 following the author’s untimely death. The book has been in print ever since, inspiring an award-winning Broadway show, All the Way Home, as well as four different motion pictures. 

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. The house where he grew up in Fort Sanders is long gone but a park named in his honor now graces his old neighborhood.  The suggested “Lifesaver Walk” follows an early scene from A Death in the Family, where Agee’s protagonist, Rufus, walks with his father from the old Majestic Theatre on Gay Street to their home in Fort Sanders.

Image #3: TN River Scene

Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933) is a Pulitzer-winning novelist whose stories have been made into several major motion pictures, including All the Pretty HorsesNo 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. Growing up in Knoxville, he attended Catholic High School and later UT, where he won awards for short fiction. He lived and worked in the Knoxville area for much of his young adulthood. Suttree (1979), which enjoys a global cult following, includes vivid Knoxville scenes and multiple references to real people, places, and events, especially the Tennessee river, which plays a central role. His title character, who makes a meager living as a fisherman, lives in a ramshackle houseboat on the river, moored near the wharf between the Gay and Henley bridges, around 1951. The suggested “Catfish Walk” traces Suttree’s trek from the riverfront through downtown seeking buyers for his day’s catch of fish.

Image #4: The Custom House

Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) is best known today for The Secret GardenThe Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. Financial hardship forced her widowed mother to bring the Hodgson family from England 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,” located in Mechanicsville on what soon became the campus of Knoxville College. Later, she lived in various locations downtown, including a place along the river she named “Vagabondia,” before moving north in the mid-1870s. 

The Custom House on Market Street at Clinch Avenue, which hosted the U.S. post office, is where Burnett likely mailed her magazine stories to publishing houses. Later, it was the workplace of James Agee’s father, who worked for the post office from 1901 to 1905, before the 1909 birth of his son.

Learn more about these and other writers and explore downtown sites by picking up a free guide at one of these locations: the official Knoxville Visitors’ Center, Museum of East Tennessee History, Lawson McGhee Library, and Union Ave Books. Join us online at for details on related programs and events. 

Donations to support KHP’s work are always appreciated and can be made online at