Reading Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree last year changed my relationship with Knoxville. There’s more poetry here now, and more grime and ash. Suttree‘s one of the main reasons I no longer blink before calling Knoxville my home town, even though I’ve only lived here for just over a decade. Local historian, hopeless nostalgist, and drinker-of-PBR Jack Neely went digging around at the Tennessee Valley Authority and unearthed some documents that were collected during a post-New Deal-era survey of local rivers. He writes:
The shore of the river, at the foot of the bluffs, was cheap property, unclaimed for other purposes, in large part because the wild river often flooded. Down there was some legitimate business, especially barge-oriented industry, but no one spent much money on construction there because next spring’s flood might ruin it. In between the wharves and the flotsam of an industrial river town were places where human beings lived in a gray zone between abject homelessness and mere poverty. Squatters, mostly, some lived in jury-rigged cliff dwellings, some on sand-bar islands, some in beached houseboats, many of them fashioned from the tin roof of a lost barn, an old billboard, or a portion of a wrecked barge.
The surveyor’s diary is fascinating, but it’s the photos that kill me. They’ll look shockingly familiar to anyone who’s ever read Suttree with an active imagination.