The Great Experiment
In a poetic 1933 article for Fortune magazine, author James Agee introduced TVA to the world at large
By Jack Neely
Fortune magazine took a big chance that fall, sending a 23-year-old kid fresh out of Harvard to report on one of the biggest business stories of the century. The assignment to cover FDRs complex and ambitious new program, the Tennessee Valley Authority might have seemed an especially unlikely one to give this particular young man, who in 1933 was known mainly for his emotional poetry (Permit me voyage, Love, into your hands . . . ). An untried reporter, he had never shown any particular aptitude for thermodynamics or erosion control or federal policy issues. Still, Fortune sent the tall young poet to Knoxville, Tenn., to tell the world about TVA.
At least Jim Agee knew his way around. Hed spent some time in Knoxville after all, he was born there. His father, a postal employee, had worked in one of the buildings that would later serve as TVAs headquarters. The Fortune assignment gave Agee his first excuse to revisit his hometown since the year he was 16 and his widowed mother pulled him out of old Knoxville High to finish up at swanky Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Agee spent a week in the Tennessee Valley region doing research, and when he returned to New York he filed an unforgettable story, one unlike any other that had ever appeared in Fortune. It began with a poetic 94-word sentence tracing the entire course of the Tennessee River. In Agees description, the river roared like blown smoke through the floodgates of Wilson Dam, to slide becalmed along the crop-cleansed fields of Shiloh, to march due north across the spreading marshes toward the valleys end where finally, at the toes of Paducah, in one wide glass golden swarm the water stoops forward and continuously dies into the Ohio.
Again, that was in a business article. To indulge Fortunes editors, Agee eventually got around to the workaday part of TVAs great experiment, describing flowage ratios and bond revenues in his remarkably thorough piece. Now available in the book James Agee: Selected Journalism (UT Press), the story is full of colorfully quotable Ageeisms about TVA:
In this enormous machine the balance wheel is human.
TVA has put a bold foot through a beehive of problems both practical and ethical.
The US government is in the power business [but] power, important though it is, is to be the mere spine of the whole living animal.
Eighteen months later, Agee returned to write a much longer follow-up called TVA: Work in the Valley, which included surprisingly intimate descriptions of TVAs headquarters and of the directors themselves:.
Walk up sooty Gay Street and turn down smudgy Union and on past Market Square straight on to the new Sprankle Building. . . . Go upstairs and through the brisk bare corridors and there, if you are lucky, you will find yourself face to face with the very men who run this show. They are three: two of them soberly dressed, sixtyish, one rather sportily dressed, in his middle 30s. The man with the broad hands, the delicately cut aquiline head is Dr. Arthur Morgan. . . . The man with the drawled, humorists mouth and the stringy body of a farmer is Dr. Harcourt Morgan. . . . The quick-handed, quick-faced man is David Lilienthal . . .
Anyone who reads Agees poetic descriptions of TVA wont be surprised to learn that he didnt remain a business reporter for long. But those TVA assignments may have had a decisive effect on his writing career. His business trips to Knoxville seem to have prompted a sentimental journey to the scenes of his childhood. In 1935, shortly after revisiting Knoxville for his second TVA article, Agee wrote a prose poem called Knoxville: Summer 1915. Nationally published, this vignette from his early years would later be set to music by the composer Samuel Barber. The piece eventually served as the beginning of what may be Agees best-known work today, the autobiographical novel A Death in the Family. This bittersweet memoir of his east Tennessee childhood won the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
Knoxville has not forgotten James Agee, who would have turned 90 in the fall of 1999. Earlier in the year, the city renamed the old 15th Street James Agee Street in his honor. And down at the new waterfront development is a marble marker inscribed with a bit of Agees prose. Its an excerpt from the long, sinuous description of the Tennessee River that began his first Fortune story about TVA.
Jack Neely is a Knoxville-based writer and historian. He is the author of three books: Knoxvilles Secret History, Secret History II, and The Marble City. His column, Secret History, appears weekly in Metro Pulse, Knoxvilles alternative newspaper.