Understanding the region through the words of James Still.
How is it I’d never heard of James Still until one of my podcast listeners wrote in with the suggestion of his poem “Leap Minnows, Leap”? In it, a creek is drying up and all the minnows are dying. I was stunned by the poem’s immediacy and fresh, clear language, especially in the last four lines:
There is plenty of water above the dam, locked and deep,
Plenty, plenty and held. It is not here.
It is not where the minnows spring with lidless fear.
They die as men die. Leap minnows, leap.
So, I looked him up and bought a copy of his Wolfpen Poems. What a discovery! In one poem, a lizard “runs up the sky with liquid feet.” In another, the poet finds a nest where “six naked fledglings huddle in a clever place.” In “Fox Hunt,” “Hounds flow down the slope in a narrowing sweep/And up again in brown tidal strokes.”
Still was born in Alabama in 1906, the sixth of nine children. He worked his way through college in Tennessee, volunteered as a librarian at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky, and became an avid reader. Although he traveled extensively during his long life (he died at 94), he mostly lived in a log cabin between Dead Mare Branch and Wolfpen Creek in Knott County, Kentucky.
I was so taken with his poems that I went on to River of Earth, the 1940 novel for which he’s best known. It was published within months of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In a foreword to a University of Kentucky Press edition, Dean Cadle compares them as the “only books chronicling the demoralizing Depression years that have continued to gain readers in more affluent ones.”
In both novels, dirt-poor families struggle to survive, and the nature of the landscape is central. Steinbeck and Still also share a sharp ear for colloquial speech patterns. But Still’s work is more visceral. You feel it in your bones.
The Grapes of Wrath is an American classic, a grand, biblical epic, sometimes sentimental, occasionally polemical. River of Earth is far from polemical. It’s a story told straight by a boy who wants to be a horse doctor. His father is a farmer who ends up mining coal, as if it’s a temporary expedient rather than a turning point for the region. It’s a brutal world, with exploiters and freeloaders everywhere.
The poet Still is on every page. Take this passage, where Uncle Jolly teaches the boy to plow:
“The earth parted; it fell back from the shovel below. It boiled over the share. I walked the fresh burrow and balls of dirt welled between my toes. There was a smell of old mosses, of bruised sassafras roots, of ground new turned.”
Later, when Uncle Jolly cooks a meal, “hot grease chattered in the skillet. Uncle Jolly caught up a spoonful of corn batter, dropping it into the grease. The boiling fat became as shrill as a flock of starlings.”
I also read Still’s Pattern of a Man & Other Stories, tales which are more folkloric in character and quite funny. In “Maybird Upshaw,” the title character dreams of travel:
“I’ll see Abe Linkhorn’s birthplace, and where a battle was fit at Perryville. And I’ve heard afar west the fires of Torment spout from the ground, and the devil’s boiling kettle throws up a steam. I’ll see what there is to see.”
“Pattern of a Man” is told in letters by the shiftless Crafton Rowan as he drums up support for his candidacy as Baldridge County jailer. In the end, he’s writing his letters from behind bars.
I skimmed an exhaustively detailed biography of Still by Carol Boggess, but it left me with no real feeling for the man or the mountain country he loved. I found that in Dean Cadle’s 1988 Appalachian Journal piece, “Pattern of a Writer,” which includes a description of Still’s log house, his relationship to the community, and most importantly, his thoughts about writing. Cadle quotes him extensively:
“A writer must be himself…He has to stay wild. He shouldn’t be trained. He’s got to stay in the woods. He must be like a cat. No matter how domesticated a cat becomes, it’s all on the surface. You can never tame one.”
Steinbeck won the Pulitzer for The Grapes of Wrath and later received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He remains one of America’s most celebrated writers. But Still was a private man from Appalachia who had zero interest in self-promotion. He wrote daily but allowed the material to unfold in its own time, rather than hurrying a piece to completion. His focus was on getting it right, not on getting it published.
He was also apparently reluctant to read his work aloud and even grew suspicious of publication. Cadle recounts that, after the release of River of Earth, Still was dismayed to see it selling for 25 cents in a Nashville bookshop. “Some writers spend so much time telling us how great they are that it’s difficult for readers to know how good their writing is,” he told Cadle. “The writer has only one duty: to write.”
Was he too self-effacing? He had many literary friendships, and won an O. Henry Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He served as Kentucky’s first poet laureate. Kentuckians are justifiably proud of him. But in my view, his work deserves a wider readership. It can tell you far more about the character of Appalachia and its people than, say, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
University Press of Kentucky publishes his titles. Curious readers, get to know James Still.
Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.