Sunday, April 29, 2001

The Herald-Leader, Lexington, Kentucky

JAMES STILL 1906-2001

James Still, Appalachian writer, dies

Former Kentucky poet laureate inspired generations of writers

By Jennifer Hewlett and Art Jester HERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITERS

James Still, the beloved Kentucky author whose exquisitely crafted prose and poetry and sensitive portrayals of mountain life led many to regard him as Appalachia's foremost literary artist, died yesterday at Appalachian Regional Hospital in Hazard. He was 94.

Mr. Still, a former state poet laureate who lived in Knott County, had a series of illnesses in recent months. He died from cardiac arrest about 12:30 p.m., said Mike Mullins, executive director of the Hindman Settlement School and a close friend who arranged many of Mr. Still's literary appearances.

``The death of Mr. Still is the loss of a giant,'' Mullins said. ``He was the dean of Appalachian writers. His loss is going to leave a major void because he represented so much to so many people.''

Kentucky author Gurney Norman, the director of the University of Kentucky's creative writing program, called Mr. Still ``certainly the most influential Kentucky writer of the last 50 years. He's the parent of the present generation of writers who came along after 1940.''

Norman attributed Mr. Still's influence to the ``quality of his writing and the beauty of his language and the depth of his understanding of the human condition in his prose and poetry.''

Wade Hall, a retired professor at Louisville's Bellarmine University and a leading authority on the state's literary history, said: ``Nobody has captured the Southern Appalachian folk life better than James Still. He was basically a poet, and he had an economy of words that lifted his prose to the level of poetry.''

Mr. Still's death came as The University Press of Kentucky is preparing to publish in June From the Mountain, From the Valley: New & Collected Poems. It will contain some of Mr. Still's best-known poems, such as Heritage (``I shall not leave these prisoning hills ...''), and some of his more recent poems that have not appeared in book form, such as Those I Want in Heaven with Me Should There Be Such a Place.

Mr. Still, Kentucky's poet laureate in 1995 and 1996, was an Alabama native, which surprised Kentuckians learning about his work for the first time. His life and work were so deeply rooted in Knott County that it seemed as if he had lived there forever.

His early work was part of a literary flowering in the South in the 1920s and 1930s that included such noted authors as Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner and Kentuckians Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Jesse Stuart, Harriette Simpson Arnow, Caroline Gordon, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren.

Mr. Still's novel of mountain folk life, River of Earth (1940), was called a ``work of art'' by Time magazine and is considered a classic unquestionably his most enduring work of prose. It has been compared with John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath as one of the most poignant evocations of the Depression era.

Yet, Mr. Still said some readers ``didn't get much out of the book because they didn't meet me halfway and they didn't have any feeling for the area or the type of people I was writing about. I had letters asking me why did I write about those old hillbillies.''

And, for a long time, while he was receiving national attention and recognition, Mr. Still was practically ignored in Kentucky. During the 1950s and 1960s he was all but unknown in the state.

``I went 20 years when nobody ever told me they read anything of mine,'' he once said. ``But I didn't expect anybody to they weren't reading anybody else, either.''

There were several other reasons for Mr. Still's lack of recognition in his adopted state. One was that his literary output was small.

Another reason was that Mr. Still, while not entirely a modest man, did not believe in shoving his work at others. ``Quality is what counts,'' Bellarmine's Hall said yesterday, ``and James Still's quality outweighs his quantity.''

A turning point came in 1976 when Jonathan Greene's Gnomon Books of Frankfort published Mr. Still's short story collection Pattern of a Man. That started a revival of Mr. Still's work. Soon, The University Press of Kentucky reprinted River of Earth and published a second short story collection, The Run for the Elbertas.

Although Mr. Still had traveled to at least 26 countries for years he made annual trips to Europe and Central America, where he studied Mayan culture Appalachia was his home and the inspiration for his work. He remained closely affiliated with the Hindman Settlement School, where he worked for room and board as the school's librarian after he moved to Eastern Kentucky in 1931.

He had been eyed with suspicion when he arrived in Knott County, but eventually he became part of the local scene. ``You talk smart,'' one man told him, ``but you've got hillbilly wrote all over you.''

Mr. Still spent a lot of time in a log house in Knott County on Little Carr Creek.

Mr. Still never married but deeply loved children. He took a particular interest in a young Knott County child when her family was facing difficulties. For years he considered her his surrogate daughter. He helped pay for her education through college and a master's degree, and years later, after both of her parents had died, Mr. Still adopted the woman, whose married name is Teresa Perry Bradley, and made her his legal heir. He also made provisions to help pay for her the education of her two children.

James Alexander Still Jr. was born on a farm outside Lafayette, Ala., July 16, 1906, into a family of five sisters and four brothers. His father, J. Alex Still, was a ``horse doctor'' a veterinarian with no formal training and a cotton farmer. His mother was Lonie Lindsey Still.

After high school, he went to Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn., where he worked as a janitor in the library while earning a bachelor's degree. There he discovered The Atlantic, a prestigious literary publication, and he read every issue he could find. The Atlantic eventually published 10 of his stories and three of what he called ``verses.''

Mr. Still also earned a bachelor's degree in library science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's degree in English at Vanderbilt University. Then he found himself in the midst of the Great Depression with no job prospects.

After riding the rails, picking cotton and sleeping in lumber and church yards, he finally found a job as a librarian at Hindman Settlement School. He traveled over Knott County, carrying books to remote one-room schools that did not have libraries. The first three years he worked for room and board only. Later the school paid him $15 a month.

During this time Mr. Still's poems and short stories began appearing in magazines throughout the country. He supplemented his income with $2 and $3 payments, just enough for razor blades, he said, by sending poems to magazines.

Also in the early 1930s he worked for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. He traveled throughout the county, mostly on foot. He didn't own a car until he was 50. He saw the way the people lived; he listened to them talk. He recorded all these things in notebooks, which gave him a storehouse of ideas for poems and stories.

Mr. Still was renowned for his two-story log house, which to his fans became something of a literary shrine. He moved there in June 1939. He had intended to stay a few weeks, just long enough to finish River of Earth.

``But soon,'' he said, ``I realized this was the place I'd been looking for all my life.''

The log cabin, built in the 1800s at Dead Mare on Burgey's Branch of Little Carr Creek near Wolfpen, was accessible only by eight miles of dirt road and two miles of creek bed.

``He's quit a good job and come over in here and sot down,'' one neighbor said. Another called him ``the man in the bushes,'' and a third suspected that the stacks of books in Mr. Still's house contained ``devilish writing.''

But eventually Mr. Still gained acceptance. He swapped tall tales in country stores, attended stock sales, pie suppers and kept bees.

Many of Mr. Still's Eastern Kentucky friends may find their sayings in The Wolfpen Notebooks, published in 1991.

Although he loved Kentucky's scenery and its people, Mr. Still once wrote that he was glad he was not born there.

``I wouldn't have wanted my mother to have endured the primitive existence of a hundred years ago while rearing 10 children. Or my father to have died of black lung at the age of 40 from working in a coal mine, in which case I would never have seen daylight.''

``As I tell it, `Me and Daniel Boone and John James Audubon just wandered in here and tuck up.'''

Eastern Kentucky, he had said, ``is the most interesting place on the globe on a day-to-day basis. As about a classless society as you will discover in America. Everybody here is somebody.''

In addition to selling an occasional poem or story, Mr. Still supported himself by growing and preserving most of his own food. Also, besides working at Hindman Settlement School, he taught at Morehead State University, Berea College and Ohio University. Until his health declined, Mr. Still spent much of his time in the last two decades traveling to schools in Appalachia, reading and talking to children. It was one of his favorite things to do.

He became an icon to countless young authors. Native Appalachians such as Rowan County's Chris Offutt and Virginia's Lee Smith looked up to Mr. Still as the epitome of the region's literary tradition.

``We lost more than Kentucky's greatest writer,'' Offutt said. ``We lost our grandfather.''

Still's influence in Kentucky extended beyond the mountains.

``He was an inspiration to any number of writers, significantly those from, but not just those from, Eastern Kentucky,'' said Richard Taylor, Kentucky's poet laureate from 1999 to 2001 and a professor at Kentucky State University. ``I know I revered the man.''

Although Mr. Still's cabin became not only his physical but also his spiritual home and the base from which he entered the folklife of the community, he later also had a home with more modern comforts in Hindman nine miles away. But he always returned to the cabin, especially on weekends.

``Writing contributed to my happiness,'' Mr. Still said. ``I write to please no one but myself. I feel lost if I'm not writing. It gives meaning to my life.''

Some of his other works were: The Hounds on the Mountain (1937); On Troublesome Creek (1941); Way Down Yonder on Troublesome Creek (1974); The Wolfpen Rusties (1975); Sporty Creek and Jack and the Wonder Beans (both 1977).

His stories and poems appeared in The Atlantic, The Yale Review, Saturday Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, The Virginia Quarterly Review and in many other publications as well as textbooks and anthologies.

Mr. Still received many awards and prizes for his work, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters award, the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships and the Appalachian Writers Association award. His stories were selected for The Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Memorial Prize Stories collection.

"I've always considered myself like a leaf on a tree,'' he said in 1995. ``I've had my budding days, I've had my days in the sun. And one day I'll fall off. It's natural. The amazing thing is that I've lived this long.''

The funeral for Mr. Still will be at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at Hindman Funeral Services with Dr. James Chatham officiating. Speakers will include Loyal Jones, author and retired director of the Berea College Appalachian Center; Herbie Smith, filmmaker at Appalshop, Whitesburg; Gurney Norman; Wilma Dykeman, novelist and Tennessee state historian; Jim Bergman of Alice Lloyd College; Carol Boggess, professor at Mars Hall (N.C.) College; and Mike Mullins.

Burial will be at Hindman Settlement School.

Visitation will be after 6 p.m. both today and Monday at the funeral home.

In lieu of flowers, donations are suggested to the Hindman Settlement School, P.O. Box 844, Hindman, Ky. 41822.

 

For more information on James Still, go to the University of Kentucky Web Site.

 

Return to Home Page