Several years ago, as Bill Hardwig was wandering around Salem, Massachusetts, taking in all the tributes to Nathaniel Hawthorne, he wondered why there wasn’t a similar author celebration in Knoxville. After all, Knoxville claims three authors who have received Pulitzer Prizes for fiction (James Agee, Alex Haley, and Cormac McCarthy), one of the nation’s most celebrated contemporary poets (Nikki Giovanni), and British novelist and playwright Frances Hodgson Burnett, who moved to the area as a child. So, when Cormac McCarthy’s childhood home in South Knoxville burned to the ground in 2009 after years of neglect, Hardwig decided to play a role in recognizing the city’s rich literary history.
He started by organizing walking tours of Knoxville literary sites, leading interested community members, students, and book clubs around to local sites relevant to Knoxville’s literary scene: James Agee Park in Fort Sanders, the Alex Haley sculpture in East Knoxville, sites in Fort Sanders and downtown associated with Agee’s A Death in the Family and McCarthy’s Suttree, and the East Knoxville neighborhood where many Giovanni poems are set.
Building on the popularity of these walks, Hardwig decided to develop a website documenting this history, and in 2017, Literary Knox (literaryknox.com) was born. Working with graphic designer Jill Knight, English graduate student John Nichols, and undergraduate student Anna V. Davis, Hardwig created a virtual walking tour on the site featuring information about the writers and quotes from their work. In 2020, the website expanded, incorporating an interactive exploration of Swiss photojournalist Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s travel writing about, and photography of, 1930s Knoxville and McCarthy’s novel Suttree. This portion of the site arose from a joint research project between Hardwig and Professor Stefanie Ohnesorg of the UT Department of World Languages and Cultures (formerly known as Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures).
Hardwig has worked to bring Knoxville’s literary past to the larger community through community talks and McCarthyFest, a two-day celebration of the work of Cormac McCarthy, which culminated in a concert based on McCarthy’s writing at the historic Bijou Theater in downtown Knoxville. Hardwig has also recently appeared twice on the international podcast Reading McCarthy to talk about the role of McCarthy as a regional and local writer.
Hardwig truly enjoys these opportunities to connect with the larger community that surrounds and includes UT.
“I feel a special appreciation for all the archival work that went into the development of these projects when I see Knoxville residents excited by the city’s literary history,” Hardwig said. “While Knoxville may never develop a literary museum compound, as Salem has for Nathaniel Hawthorne, I am glad to see a continued and growing interest in writers that have connection to and an affection for the city and the greater Appalachian region.