As a child, the Southern novelist Lee Smith began an ambitious reading plan, starting with writers whose last names begin with “A” and proceeding through the alphabet. By the time she left her coal-mining hometown of Grundy, Va., for Hollins College in Richmond, she was up to the “S”s. In the library stacks at Hollins, she came across Alabama writer James Still’s River of Earth. The book follows an Appalachian family’s struggle to survive after their crops fail and the mines close, and when Smith came to the end, she was amazed to find that the family was heading to Grundy to work in the mines there. The then-budding novelist realized that all the oral history she’d absorbed could be fodder for her own storytelling.
Still, who died at 95 in 2001, continues to inspire almost mythic respect. The most recent scholarly examination of his work is James Still: Critical Essays on the Dean of Appalachian Literature, edited by Ted Olson and Kathy Olson. Notable literary figures like Fred Chappell, Wendell Berry, and Hal Crowther explore the range of Still’s work, from children’s stories, poetry, folklore, and short stories to novels. Although the selections are critical essays, all prove entirely readable.
During his senior year in high school, Still took a job as janitor at the local library, where he discovered a 10-year stash of The Atlantic Monthly back issues. His job disappeared with the Great Depression, but Still spent the summer reading. “All of them,” he wrote. “I learned from them more than I could state. Even the art of composition....I decided to write for The Atlantic. First and foremost.” He began submitting poems to the magazine in 1932, and was published in 1935. This was the perfect venue for Still to introduce the educated reading public to the artistic resources of the South. Take, for example, his exaltation for his surroundings in the poem “Mountain Dulcimer”: “The dulcimer sings from fretted maple throat/Of the doe’s swift poise, the fox’s fleeing step/And music of hounds upon the outward slope/Stirring the night.”
Rather than concentrating on the hard-scrabble poverty of Appalachia, Still introduced to the rest of the country the Appalachian spirit. He was so connected to the land and the people that he remained in his beloved hills until he died. His dedication to the region is difficult to quantify, except, perhaps, by using his own words from the poem “Heritage”: “Being of these hills, I cannot pass beyond.”