Books and Beyond
Before his poems start in From the Mountain From the Valley is the autobiographical essay James Still wrote about his life. The title is “A Man Singing to Himself.” I learned about James Still from Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University. He edited Still’s book of short stories and book of poems I’ll be telling you about. I hope to take an online course from Olson.
James Still was born in 1906 in Alabama to a family of English and Scotch-Irish stock. He remembers as a young boy picking cotton and then reading three hours a day. His father was a horse doctor. Soon they moved into the home of Grandpa Still and Aunt Enore in eastern Kentucky. (Grandma had died.) He started to school when he was seven, walking two miles to get there, and he played basketball. Then he worked his way through college at Lincoln Memorial University near Harrogate, Tennessee, and next Vanderbilt University.
During the depression, his two meals a day were a 10-cent bowl of cereal in the morning and a 35 cent supper at a Nashville boarding house. Soon he became librarian at the Hindman Settlement School, and it was during this time he began having poems published. It was in June 1939 that he moved into the deserted log house in Knott County, Ky., where he lived during the later years when he published poetry, short stories, and novels.
When he was 36, he was drafted to serve in WW II. For two years his squadron was based in the country that is now Ghana, After the war he taught for 10 years at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, and then moved back to his log house in Knott County in eastern Kentucky, where he writes of the mountain people he lives among and knows well.
When I read his short stories in The Hills Remember, I feel that I’m getting to know the people who live in Knott County. I read that “Mrs. Rajor” was Still’s “most frequently anthologized short story,” so I wanted to tell you who it was about. In the story, 6-year-old Elvy says she is married to a lazy husband, and they have three children. Elvy’s father kind of goes along with her and says he’ll hire Rajor to work for a dollar a day. One evening the family, including Elvy’s brother Morg, gets in the wagon to go to Biggety Creek … to get Rajor, I suppose. After traveling six miles, Father turns back. This story lets the reader know what she’s in for when she reads James Still.
In his autobiographical essay he writes that Uncle Jolly, a character in some of his writing, is his great-grandpa. Otherwise, Still says he doesn’t use actual people he knows in his fiction.
If a person knew Still and his neighbors in Knott County, I’m guessing they would recognize some of his characters as people living nearby! But to honor what James Still said, his characters are from his imagination.
There is a short story with the title “Uncle Jolly,” and he’s also in other stories, such as “The Ploughing,” which I will tell you about here. On an April morning, Uncle Jolly is ploughing (the spelling used in the story). He asks the narrator to go get some water to drink, and then he will begin teaching him to plow. The placename mentioned is Troublesome Creek. A mule is pulling the plow, and the young boy is now holding the handles. The plowing goes well at first, but after awhile the mule goes in every direction, even “catty-cornered.” Uncle Jolly is asleep.
Now the boy plowing hears Uncle Jolly walking toward him — he’s drunk. The mule sees this and is nervous. He licks Uncle Jolly’s mouth when he gets closer. Is the boy James Still and is this uncle his genetic great grandpa? What matters is the boy is learning about adults. If I were teaching this story I would ask my students What will the boy take away from this experience? Can you write about a great grandpa you have?
Still writes that Uncle Jolly appears in two of his books, River of Earth and Sporty Creek. I haven’t read any of Still’s novels yet, but a form of this short story may appear in them.
Hindman Settlement School is still in Kentucky. In fact, as I am writing this in late February, the School is having a Chef’s Night, where fifteen of the region’s chefs will teach the students about cooking (www.hindmansettlement.org). The evening is “for the benefit of children with dyslexia and local families facing food insecurity.”
Reading James Still I feel like I am living with him in eastern Kentucky and learning from him about the people who live close by. Here are lines from his poem “Uncle Ambrose.”
Your hair is growing long, Uncle Ambrose,
And the strands of your beard are like willow sprays
Hanging over Troublesome Creek’s breeze in August…
Your face is a map of Knott County…
Your hands are glacial drifts of stone
Cradled on a mountain top:
One is Big Ball Mountain, rock-ribbed and firm,
One the Appalachian Range from Maine to Alabama. p. 46
Next time I will tell you more about Appalachia, James Still, and his writings. I’m hoping to find more books related to my interest in Kentucky at the Marshall Lyon County Library Spring Book Sale in late March.