Recently a friend asked about the inscriptions written in granite on Market Square. She’d looked at them and found them wanting. Focusing on the three primary, and larger, quotes on the square she noted that they are all by white men and they all seem pretty dark, if not downright negative. I would add another qualm of my own – they refer to Market Square of another era – nothing represents our own, very vibrant incarnation.
There are four quotes grouped together at the south end of the square near the fountains and they do include one woman and tend more toward the positive. Here they are in case you can’t read the photographs, starting with probably the most famous quote about Market Square:
“Market Square is the most democratic place on earth. There, the rich and the poor, the black and the white, jostle each other in perfect equality.” -Knoxville Journal and Tribune, 1900
“Every town, like every dog, has its day. Prosperity, greatness and glory await this ancient metropolis. Knoxville is the point of all points in east Tennessee.” William G. “Parson” Brownlow, 1853
“Fiddlers came from the cities and from the towns and from the mountains, coves, and hollows. They sat upon the stage and they sawed and sawed and patted their big muddy shoes on the floor, keeping time to their tunes.” Bert Vincent, Knoxville News Sentinel
“Somehow Market Square lies at the center of all that makes Knoxville individual. It is more than a market. It’s the city’s showplace to exhibit to visitors, but it is also something fixed – born – in the Knoxville mind.” Ruth Naomi Scott, Knoxville Journal, August 25, 1929
While the first is the most famous and has an element of truth even today, don’t you suspect that African-Americans might have quibbled a bit over the “perfect equality” part in 1900? I understand why a Parson Brownlow quote might be chosen as an historical nod, but is being “the point of all points in east Tennessee” something to which one aspires? And to call Knoxville an “ancient metropolis” today is a little silly, let alone when it was less than 100 years old. The third has some appeal as it incorporates our rich musical heritage, but does it condescend when it points out the muddy shoes?
Clearly, the last one is the best of the lot and, coincidentally or not, it is by the lone female writer represented on the square. It gets at the essence of what Market Square means to so many people. That they felt that way nearly a hundred years ago is both amazing and a comforting thread that connects us to our past.
The three primary quotes are longer, much more descriptive and centered directly on Market Square. Each of the writers represented has or had Knoxville ties and are excellent writers. They were written thirty-five to fifty-seven years ago and two of the three refer to an era several decades prior to the writing.
Here are the quotes:
First, from James Agee’s “A Death in the Family,” published in 1957, set in 1916
“They turned aside into a darker street, where the fewer faces looked more secret, and came into the odd, shaky light of Market Square. It was almost empty at this hour, but here and there, along the pavement streaked with horse urine a wagon stayed still, and a low firelight shown through the white-clothed shell stretched tightly on its hickory hoops. A . . . man leaned against the white brick wall, gnawing a turnip; he looked at them low with sad, pale eyes. When Rufus’s father raised his hand in silent greeting, he raised his hand, but less, and Rufus, turning, saw how he looked sorrowfully, somehow dangerously after them. They passed a wagon where a lantern burned low orange; there lay a whole family, large and small, silent, asleep. In the tail of one wagon a woman sat, her face narrow beneath her flare of sunbonnet, her dark eyes in its shade, likes smudges of soot. Rufus’s father averted his eyes and touched his straw hat lightly; and Rufus, looking back, saw how her dead eyes kept looking gently ahead of her.
“Well,” said his father, reckon I’ll hoist me a couple.”
They turned through the swinging doors into a blast of odor and sound. There was no music: only the density of bodies and the smell of a market bar, of beer, whiskey and country bodies, salt and leather; no clamor, only the thick quietude of crumpled talk.”
Then a quote from David Madden from his 1974 novel “Bijou” describing Market Square of the late 1940’s:
“Lucius enjoyed passing through the ancient three-storey blocklong brick Market House, its rich ceilings looming over them, a line of rough little tables running down the spine of the building where country women sold eggs, shelled walnuts, jams and honey. Permanent butcher and flower and fruit stalls and restaurants and lunch counters along each side. They walked along the sidewalks flanking the Market House where produce and flower trucks, mostly canvas-covered Ford pick-ups of the thirties, were parked, backed up to the curbs, their overladen tailgates hanging heavy, country folks standing ready to sack up some pole beans and okra. The police loved to park at each end of the Market House, where the ornate fountains attached to the sooty brick walls were dry.
“Up one side and down the other of Market Square, past the stores – and the Ritz and the Jewel and the vegetable and flower trucks lining the curbs. And through the enormous cave of the Market House, up one side and down the other. Lucius had to argue to make Duke stop long enough for him to buy some good ol’ country butter with an eagle imprint made by a wooden imprint the old lady, her hands stained from shelling walnuts, showed him, letting him touch and smell Mammy’s origins in the mountains. But Duke said he wouldn’t walk with Lucius if he bought a big mayonaise jar of fresh-churned buttermilk to carry back home.”
Finally, nearest the Market Square Stage, a quote from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, published in 1979 and set in 1951:
“Market Street on Monday morning, Knoxville, Tennessee. In this year 1951. Suttree with his parcel of fish going past the rows of derelict trucks piled with produce and flowers, an atmosphere rank with country commerce, a reek of farmgoods in the air tending off into a light surmise of putrefaction and decay. Pariahs adorned the walk and blind singers and organists and psalmists with mouth harps wandered up and down. Past hardware stores and meatmarkets and little tobacco shops. A strong smell of feed in the hot noon like working mash. Mute and roosting peddlers watching from the wagonbeds and flower ladies in their bonnets like cowled gnomes, driftwood hands composed on their apron laps and their underlip swollen with snuff.
“He went among vendors and beggars and wild street preachers haranguing a lost world with a vigor unknown to the sane. Suttree admired them with their hot eyes and dogeared Bibles, God’s barkers gone forth into the world like the prophets of old. He’d often stood along the edges of the crowd for some stray scrap of news from beyond the pale.
“He crossed the street, stepping gutters clogged with greenstuff. Coming from behind the trucks, a beggarlady’s splotched and marcid arm barred his way, a palsied claw that gibbered at his chest.”
So, there you have the primary literary thrust of our presentation to visitors on Market Square: It’s all written by white males and each excerpt is from a white male character’s perspective. The most recent setting for Market Square is over sixty years ago. And each of the excerpts are dark.
Now I love the work of Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read most of his novels and intend to re-read them. He’s a master and he has Knoxville ties and for that, we should be pleased. I’ve read A Death in the Family a number of times and count it among my favorite books, so I’m not saying these are bad choices. I’m just raising the question of whether they cover the range of experience in our city. I’m noting that the Market Square we currently know and love isn’t really reflected in these writings. I wonder exactly what non-literary visitors come away with after reading these excerpts – and I often see them standing in the square dutifully ciphering the meaning in the stone.
Maybe we should add more writing to the square and include some female voices and people of color, as well as more current thoughts on the square. That raises the question of who and which excerpts or quotes?
Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote The Secret Garden lived on the bank of the river in Knoxville. Perhaps she wrote about Knoxville – even if it was in letters. And what about Nikki Giovanni? The poet was born in Knoxville and summered in Knoxville with her grandmother for many years. She wrote a poem entitled “Knoxville, Tennessee,” though it doesn’t really describe the city or the square. Perhaps she has other poems or quotes that do.
Who would you name? What quotes would you add? Who are the current voices best describing our city?