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November's Book
River of Earth
by James Still

James Still
photo: Guy Mendes

James Still’s Place in Appalachian Letters
by George Ella Lyon


This essay was written in 1997, a few years before James Still’s death at the age of 94, for the teacher’s guide to the KET documentary James Still’s River of Earth.

James Still’s publishing career spans almost 70 years, from a 1929 article on “Place Names in the Cumberland Mountains” to the 1996 reprint of Jack and the Wonder Beans. He is part of the root generation of modern Appalachian writers (among them Cratis Williams, Harriette Arnow, Wilma Dykeman, and Jesse Stuart) whose work superseded “local color” writing by portraying authentic mountain experience.

But Still is not only at the root, his work nourishing and supporting the new growth of Appalachian letters which began in the ’70s. He is also our contemporary; he is at the crown.

His early publications on place names and Christian names show an obsession with local speech, continued in the pocket-sized notebooks—collections of quotations and folkways—he began in 1948, which have fed all his writing and resulted in the 1991 publication of The Wolfpen Notebooks: A Record of Appalachian Life, the work Still has said may be his most important yet.

This assertion reveals something fundamental about James Still: He has offered himself as the servant of a place and its people. Besides creating poems, stories, novels, and children’s books, Still has steadfastly, for 65 years, been a scribe for Appalachian culture, setting down fragments lest a way of life be lost. It is, in fact, on this work that all his other books rest.

From his long-time association with the Hindman Settlement School has come an involvement with the annual Appalachian Writers Workshop. For nearly 20 years James Still, along with writers such as Jim Wayne Miller, Gurney Norman, and Lee Smith, has been encouraging and guiding a new crop of voices. He has given readings for children and adults throughout the region, and his commentaries on National Public Radio have reached listeners across the country.

By virtue of the quality, diversity, and longevity of his work, James Still stands at the heart of Appalachian letters.


George Ella Lyon’s books include Catalpa (poems), Come a Tide (picture book), Borrowed Children (novel for young readers), and With a Hammer for My Heart (novel for adults). A native of Harlan County, Kentucky, she works as a freelance writer and teacher in Lexington.

For more information about the Appalachian Writers Workshop, held each summer at the Hindman Settlement School, contact the school at P.O. Box 844, Hindman, KY 41822. A 1992 KET documentary, At the Forks of Troublesome, visits the workshop and includes James Still among the writers spotlighted.



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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15-Dec-2009 17:18:39 EST