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November's Book
River of Earth
by James Still

James Still
photo: Guy Mendes

James Still Biography
by George Ella Lyon

This profile 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.

A Kentuckian native to Alabama, a world traveler who has stayed in one place, James Still is a paradox. Born in 1906 in Lafayette, Alabama, the sixth of ten children, Still took a roundabout road to Knott County, where he has lived for 65 years. But roundabout ways are just right for Still, who says in “White Highways”:

I have come back to the long way around,
the far between, the slow arrival.

First he came up to Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, working his way through in a nearby quarry and as the library janitor. Graduating in 1929, he took an M.A. from Vanderbilt and a further degree from the Illinois Library School. The early 1930s were death on job-hunters, degree or no degree, and James Still wound up coming to Hindman in 1931 with poet Don West to work with kids for the summer. However, when summer was over, the librarian at Hindman Settlement School resigned. It was the perfect opening. Except for his stint in World War II (in Africa and the Middle East), James Still has resided in Eastern Kentucky ever since.

Having grown up with few books, and knowing what a difference those few made, James Still was determined to get more books into the hands of children. As part of his new job, he decided to run a bookmobile. Don’t picture a vehicle, now. Sometimes he rented a pony. But mostly he shouldered a box of books and walked from school to school, swapping boxes as he went. For three years, he worked for no pay except room and board. And he began to write.

In 1939, Still moved to the Amburgey log house, built in 1837 and situated between Wolfpen and Little Carr creeks. There he had room for his writing and his garden, and both flourished. Poems, novels, stories, folk collections: all growing from his minute and loving observations of speech and nature (human and otherwise), set down in little spiral notebooks and transformed through his compassionate imagination and perfect ear.

Still wrote of his place and for the world. And the world took some notice. He was regularly published in The Atlantic Monthly, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Poetry and, after the publication of Hounds on the Mountain (poems) in 1937 and River of Earth (novel) in 1940, he received the Southern Authors Award, the Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, along with two Guggenheims and a Bread Loaf Fellowship. He spent time at the prestigious artists’ colonies, Yaddo and MacDowell, where he became acquainted with writers such as Katherine Anne Porter, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Elizabeth Madox Roberts.

So James Still became a visible part of the national literary circle early in his career. He just chose not to court it, not to locate himself, geographically or psychically, where he could vie for attention in what some have called Po Biz. As the narrator says of Jack in Jack and the Wonder Beans, James Still is “independent as a hog on ice” and has written what he felt had to be written, not what someone thought would attract attention or fill out a publisher’s list.

Besides writing and library work for Hindman Settlement School, James Still taught for ten years at Morehead State University and has given readings and workshops throughout the country. He has also been devoted to his 31 acres of land. In addition to growing most of his own food for years, Still has planted trees, kept bees, and experimented with wild violets and wild strawberries. His notebooks reveal the field notes of a naturalist, as well as records of local speech and customs. A devoted student of Mayan civilization, he made 14 trips to Central America to study the ruins. He also traveled to Europe five times to visit World War I battlefields.

In 1974, Still’s empathy with children and his labor as a collector bore fruit in Way Down Yonder on Troublesome Creek: Appalachian Riddles and Rusties. In 1975 came The Wolfpen Rusties: Appalachian Rusties and Gee-Haw Whimmy-Diddles, followed in 1977 by Sporty Creek: A Novel about an Appalachian Boyhood and Jack and the Wonder Beans, the latter illustrated by Margot Tomes and chosen by the New York Times as one of the Best Illustrated Books of the Year.

But writing for children did not supplant Still’s work for adults. In this period he focused on gathering and selecting from his stories to form the collections Pattern of a Man (1976) and The Run for the Elbertas (1980). Poems likewise were brought together in River of Earth: The Poem and Other Poems (1982-83) and his definitive collection, The Wolfpen Poems (1986). Most recently, Still has published The Wolfpen Notebooks: A Record of Appalachian Life (1991). Here we find his field notes about the rich ground from which all his other work springs.

Flannery O’Connor says the artist must focus on “the thing being made,” not fashion, schedule, or future criticism. This is what James Still has done. He has labored long to serve his gift and his place, and we are all the richer for it.

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.

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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15-Dec-2009 17:19:00 EST