Dr. Jesse Graves, associate professor of East Tennessee State University’s Department of Literature and Language and poet-in-residence, is working to compile and edit the poetry of James Agee, Tennessee native and Pulitzer-prize winner, as an addition to the ongoing series “The Complete Works of James Agee.”
James Agee was not only a poet, but a screenwriter, novelist, film critic and more. Because he grew up in Knoxville, approximately 40 miles from where Graves was raised, Agee was the first writer that Graves ever read who wrote about places he had seen firsthand.
“I think of him (Agee) as my hometown literary hero,” said Graves. “This project is not only about nostalgia for me, though. Agee continues to be one of my favorite writers, and his work deserves a larger readership.”
Graves has previously published articles and book chapters regarding Agee’s work. While working on his doctorate, Graves served as a research assistant to Dr. Michael Lofaro, a professor of English at the University of Tennessee and key mentor for Graves, who is editing the ongoing series and co-editing “Collected Poems of James Agee” with Graves. It was the combined efforts of Dr. Lofaro and Graves’ two assistants, Jonathan Hill and Jessica Hall, that convinced Graves to return to the project he began as a graduate student.
“So much of this project feels like completing a circle for me. I have a distinct memory of seeing my mother’s copy of Agee’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel A Death in the Family when I was a kid,” said Graves. “I remember being so intrigued by the name and title, then I learned he was an East Tennessee writer. It feels truly meaningful to me to be able to contribute to his legacy.”
Graves’ “Collected Poems of James Agee” will contain several pages of previously unpublished material, all of which he and his assistants have been working to transcribe and chronologically order because many of the manuscripts are handwritten and undated.
“Some parts of this project feel like detective work. Dr. Lofaro, Jonathan, and I are trying to piece together fragments or determine which draft is the earliest of a certain poem,” said Graves. “It inevitably involves going back in and imagining Agee’s life as he was doing the work and trying to understand decisions he made in the texts, which is truly educational for a writer.”
Over the summer, Graves will have the opportunity to travel and continue his research. He plans to visit the library archives at Harvard University and Phillips Exeter Academy. Agee studied at both schools, and Graves hopes to examine the manuscripts the schools have and include those works in his volume. After he completes his work regarding Agee, Graves plans to continue writing his own poetry and Appalachian literature.
“I plan to keep working on my own poetry, and to develop a couple of other editing opportunities on Appalachian literature,” said Graves. “I feel that the Agee volume should be completed by next summer, and I am excited to share the finished product with readers who may not be familiar with this side of Agee’s imagination.”