Knoxville: The Marble City

The Marble City: A Photographic Tour of Knoxville's GraveyardsThe Marble City: A Photographic Tour of Knoxville’s Graveyards by Jack Neely

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Knoxville is the third-largest city in Tennessee, best known now as a college town. Originally it served as the frontier capital of the Southwestern Territory. At least two of its prehistoric Native American burial mounds still survive, relics of a civilization so old that it was a mystery to the Cherokee when white settlers arrived in the 1790s.

Knoxville was the most bitterly divided city in America during the Civil War. It’s also site of one of the earliest national cemeteries, burial ground of Union men who died during the weeks-long campaign in East Tennessee.

Knoxville’s cemeteries inspired James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Tennessee Williams’ essay “The Man in the Overstuffed Chair.” Frances Hodgson Burnett lived here as a teenager and buried her mother here. Also buried here are blues legend Ida Cox and Indy 500 driver Pete Kreis, whose sarcophagus bears a tiny marble car completing “The Last Lap” on its track. The book is filled with charming stories of Knoxville’s other citizens, from sculptors to judges to ghosts.

(Yes, I know the photo is Bessie Smith, but that’s what I could find on Youtube that didn’t have an irritating animation. Sorry!)

The absolute highlight of the book, however, is Aaron Jay’s lovely black and white photography. He captures the grave sculptures as if they are on the verge of coming to life and catches the light playing across the ornamentation and lettering. Knoxville was known as the Marble City for the stone quarried and carved there. This book makes a good case for visiting and seeing these beautiful artworks for yourself. Old Gray Cemetery is now on my vacation wishlist.

I bought my copy at Dark Delicacies in Burbank, California, but if you can’t make the trip, you can find the book in hard cover and paperback on Amazon.

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