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Sign reading "The Story of TVA"

The Great Experiment

In a poetic 1933 article for Fortune magazine, author James Agee introduced TVA to the world at large.

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 FDR’s 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. He’d 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 TVA’s 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. 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 Agee’s 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 valley’s end where finally, at the toes of Paducah, in one wide glass golden swarm the water stoops forward and continuously dies into Ohio.”

Again, that was in a business article.

To indulge Fortune’s editors, Agee eventually got around to the workaday part of TVA’s “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 TVA’s headquarters and of the directors themselves:

“Walk up sooty Gay Street and turn down smudgy Union and on past Market Square straight onto 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 and the delicately cut aquiline head is Dr. Arthur Morgan.… The man with the drawled, humorist’s mouth and the stringy body of a farmer is Dr. Harcourt Morgan.… The quick-handed, quick-faced man is David Lilienthal…”.

Anyone who reads Agee’s poetic descriptions of TVA won’t be surprised to learn that he didn’t 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 Agee’s 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. The city renamed what was 15th Street as James Agee Street in his honor. And down at the waterfront development is a marble marker inscribed with a bit of Agee’s prose. It’s an excerpt from the long, sinuous description of the Tennessee River that began his first Fortune story about TVA.

—Jack Neely, Director of the Knoxville History Project and contributing editor for the Knoxville Mercury