Saturday, March 12, 2011

Podcast Appalachia 13: James Still: The Dean of Appalachian Literature


Hello and welcome to Podcast Appalachia. I’m John Norris Brown.

Before I begin, I should apologize for the lack of new episodes over the past year. A lot has happened during this time. I won’t bore you with all the details, but basically I have a new job that keeps me very busy. Although my passion for Appalachia has not diminished, my free time certainly has, but I will hopefully be able to get back on a more regular schedule now. I ask that you bear with me for the time being.

Also, I am very grateful to everyone who has e-mailed me. Even if I don’t respond right away, please know that I am very glad to receive your letters. I’ve also had some great topics suggested for future episodes. I plan to use them in the future, hopefully soon!

With that out of the way, let’s get down to business.

James Still was an Appalachian writer, folklorist, and poet who has been called the “Dean of Appalachian Literature.” Though not a native Appalachian, Still’s writings would come to represent the region, particularly the coal mining culture of eastern Kentucky, as beautifully and accurately as any writer ever has. His most famous novel, River of Earth, dealt with the day to day life of a struggling family in the coal camps of Depression-era Kentucky.

James Still was born July 16, 1906 in Chambers County, AL. The son of a self-educated horse trader and farmer, he was the sixth of ten children. He described himself as being of “Scotch-Irish stock,” with forbearers who had lived in the Cumberland Gap, giving him family ties to the Appalachian region.

Still developed a love of books early in life, reading his parents Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge, which he would later describe as his “introduction to a wider world.” From this book he would develop interests in physics, philosophy, and British poets, including Shakespeare and Keats.

Still’s reading, as well stories from relatives, instilled in him an interest in the American Civil War. Later on, he would visit many battlefields, including Appomattox, the site of Lee’s surrender to Grant, which he said brought tears to his eyes.

As a young man, James Still witnessed a hanging and a cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan. These events caused Still to become a staunch opponent of both racism and the death penalty.

Still left Alabama in 1924 to attend college at Lincoln Memorial University, or LMU, in Harrogate, TN, near the Cumberland Gap, with $60 in his pocket. Lacking financial resources, he was drawn by the ability to work his way through. While at LMU he had classes with fellow Appalachian writers Jesse Stuart and Don West, although only West would influence him. He also studied under the novelist Harry Harrison Kroll.

LMU had its share of hardships for young James. He would later recount his own poverty and that of his fellow students. Most of the students there worked their way through college, doing jobs on campus. Most had little money even to buy food. Still later recounted that his most overriding memory of LMU was hunger.

During his junior and senior years at LMU, Still worked as a janitor in the library. He began work at 9 PM when the library closed, and was often too tired to return to his dormitory, sleeping instead in the stack room.

While a student at LMU Still became romantically involved with a female student named Mayme Brown, a native of nearby Speedwell, TN. Tragically, Mayme would die of Typhoid Fever in 1927. Still would continue to place flowers on her grave until at least the late 1990s.

(I should mention that Mayme Brown was my great-aunt.)

Still earned an A.B. degree from LMU in 1929, and enrolled at Vanderbilt University where he earned an M.A. degree in literature in 1930. He would enroll in yet another university, the University of Illinois, where he would earn a B.S. degree in library science.

While at Vanderbilt, Still became involved in activism. In 1929, he volunteered to deliver food and clothing to the miners of Wilder, TN, who were involved in a strike. Witnessing the suffering of these miners, many of whom were near starvation, made a strong mark in Still’s life, and would later be reflected in many of his writings.

In 1931 Still visited his former classmate Don West in Knott County, KY. Greatly impressed by the region’s natural beauty and the people, he decided to take a job as a librarian at Hindman Settlement School, located in the county. Much of the time he worked here was as a volunteer, as the school was suffering financial hardships during the time. As a librarian, Still would frequently walk books to rural schools in the area.

It was during this time that Still began to write voraciously. His writings were mostly poems and short stories examining the way of life of the Appalachian region, some of which were published in national periodicals. In 1937 Hounds on the Mountain, a collection of his poetry, was published.

About 1939 Still decided to devote further time to writing, and moved into a remote log cabin on Dead Mare Branch of Little Carr Creek. Except during his military service and his various travels, Still would live in this house for the rest of his life.

Still also served as a social worker for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a New Deal Program, during which time he became intimately acquainted with the trials of life as a coal miner during the Great Depression.

This experience led James Still to write what is now widely considered his masterpiece, River of Earth, published in 1940. This novel, along with Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, is considered one of the best illustrations of life during the Depression. The book received widespread critical praise, including Time Magazine who described it as a “work of art.” Still was also awarded the Southern Author’s Award for this work, an award he shared with Thomas Wolfe for his work You Can’t Go Home Again. Although beloved, River was overshadowed by Steinbeck’s masterpiece.

Still’s writing was interrupted by World War II. In 1942 he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corp. He was 36 years old by this time, which would have been a factor in most places. However, Still would later recall that the draft board was “getting rid of the jailbirds, the riffraff, and those without families to protest.” Still was in the latter category. While serving in the Air Corp, Still would be stationed in the Middle East and Africa throughout the war. His service time was very difficult; Still survived a ground combat, a place crash, dysentery, and malaria.

After the war, Still returned to his home in Knott County. He was so traumatized by his war experience that for several years he was unable to write very much. In 1952 he returned to the Hindman Settlement School, where he would remain librarian until 1962. In 1970 he accepted a position at Morehead State University as a professor of English. He retired from academia in the 1970s.

River of Earth was republished in 1978, securing it a lasting place in Appalachian literature. Since that time, many of his other works have also been republished, including, most recently, From the Mountain From the Valley: New and Collected Poems in 2001.

During the later decades of his life, Still developed an interest in the Native American cultures of Central America, and spent many winters traveling in Mexico and Central America, visiting the ruins of Mayan sites which he was particularly fascinated by. Still also traveled throughout Europe, visiting numerous World War II sites.

Not surprisingly, Still also frequently spoke and read at schools in Kentucky. Because he lived in such a remote location, he was viewed by some of his neighbors as a hermit. This reputation fascinated Still.

Over the years he was asked many times who had influenced his writing. Still would usually respond that he had few strong influenced, but that the writings of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Keats, Byron and others did help influence him.

Still died in 2001 at the age of 94. His passing was reported widely in the media, including on National Public Radio, where he was described as the “best writer you’ve never heard of.” In reporting his death one of his most famous poems was also read or printed. Entitled “Those I Want in Heaven With Me (Should There Be Such a Place),” the work described those who he had known throughout his life. I will read it now:

First I want my dog Jack,
Granted that Mama and Papa are there,
And my nine brothers and sisters,
And “Aunt” Fanny who diapered me, comforted me, shielded me,
Aunt Enore who was too good for this world,
And the grandpa who used to bite my ears,
And the other one who couldn’t remember my name—
There were so many of us;
And Uncle Edd—“Eddie Boozer” they called him—
Who had devils dancing in his eyes,
And Uncle Luther who laughed so loud in the churchyard
He had to apologize to the congregation,
And Uncle Joe who saved the first dollar he ever earned,
And the last one, and all those in between;
And Aunt Carrie who kept me informed:
“Too bad you’re not good looking like your daddy”;
And my first sweetheart, who died at sixteen,
Before she got around to saying “Yes”;

I want my dog Jack nipping at my heels,
Who was my boon companion,
Suddenly gone when I was six;
And I want Rusty, my ginger pony,
Who took me on my first journey—
Not far, yet far enough for the time.

I want the play fellows of my youth
Who gathered bumblebees in bottles,
Erected flutter mills by streams,
Flew kites nearly to heaven,
And who before me saw God.

Be with me there.

The sources for this podcast were The Encyclopedia of Appalachia, edited by Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell

That’s it for today. As always, thanks to the 1937 Flood for allowing me to use their music, and thank you for listening. As always, a transcript of this and previous episodes of this podcast is available at If you want to get in touch with me, please do so. My e-mail address is Also, please feel free to suggest topics for future episodes. I hope you have a nice day, and we will speak again soon.


April said...

I am so very happy you are back. Thank you for this lovely podcast. I am hastening to the library to pick up "River of Earth". When you read “Those I Want in Heaven With Me (Should There Be Such a Place)" it brought tears to my eyes, and joy to my heart.

David Hampton: said...

Great post! James Still should be recognized more often.

SeanG said...

Hello John,

I really enjoy your podcasts and was wondering about playing portions of them as a "short feature" during an 'old time appalachian' music program I do here on the coast of Maine. I think your podcasts are well-researched and are written at a good introductory level - not too light but not too deep. I really think this would be a great addition to the show and would go a long way toward dispelling some of the myths and whatnot about southern mountain folk that still pervade up here.

If this is something you'd be interested in, can you please contact me at the following address (spaces omitted):
g a m b r e l s m y f a i r p o i n t . n e t ?

Thank you!

Demmie Christine said...

what is Appalachian literature?I need some enlightenment about this....following at