Adding the stories of James Still to the Appalachian canonWritten by Thomas Crowe
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For those who don’t know, James Still (1906-2001) is one of the most beloved and influential of all Appalachian writers. He left an enduring legacy of novels, stories, and poems during his nearly 70-year career. He is known formally and to many writers in the region as “the Dean of Appalachian Literature,” or more simply said “the Godfather of the Appalachian Literary Tradition,“
Originally born in Alabama, Still adopted eastern Kentucky as his home during the early years of the Great Depression. Life in Kentucky and the Cumberland Plateau became an integral theme in Still’s work, which evokes Appalachian culture, language, and landscape. Although best known for his novels and poetry, Still was also a prolific short story writer whose works often appeared in prestigious journals such as the Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, and Prairie Schooner, as well as general interest magazines like the Atlantic and the Saturday Evening Post. When Still died in 2001 at age 94, he had secured a lasting reputation among readers of Appalachian literature based on a relatively small number of literary works.
The Hills Remember honors Still with the first comprehensive collection of his short fiction. The book includes stories from other Still collections such as River of Earth but also includes several lesser-known stories as well as 10 stories which have only recently been discovered and that have never-before been published. Ted Olson, who teaches in the Appalachian Studies and English programs at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., will be familiar to readers in Western North Carolina from his reviews, etc., as editor of the Poetry Page of Asheville’s Rapid River monthly magazine. Olson, in his landmark book, writes a comprehensive introduction concerning Still and his work and examines the author’s short fiction within the contexts of his body of work and within the canons of Appalachian and American literature. In his introduction, Olson favorably compares Still’s short fiction to that of other notable American writers as Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Welty and Cheever. Presenting all of Still’s compelling and varied short stories in one volume, The Hills Remember is a testament to a master writer.
Still’s stories in The Hills Remember are distinctive in style and universal in theme. Still’s stories in this collection stand out as evocative and timeless yet remarkably accessible to the general reader. Simply said, these are “tales from the soul of Appalachia.” Not until recently with the writing of Charles Frazier, Wayne Caldwell and Ron Rash has the spirit of James Still and the mountain South been unleashed to a whole new generation of appreciative readers. And with Ted Olson’s new book of Still’s short stories, we can look for a whole new wave of popularity among a new and larger generation of Still fans — much as he was a household name in Kentucky during the 1960s.
If asked to choose amongst the 53 short stories in this collection, I would be hard-pressed to choose only one as an out-and-out favorite. However, the story “Hit Liked To a’ Kilt Me” stands out in my mind as one that is unique in this book as well in all of Appalachian literature. It is all about how this story is written in the dialect of what Appalachian poet (and friend of James Still) Jim Wayne Miller called “Southern Mountain Speech.” James Still is the only Southern writer, to my knowledge, who attempts to literally duplicate the southern mountain dialect. The title of this particular story being indicative of what the reader will find in his reading of this rich and at times raucous poetic language.
In the book’s title story “The Hills Remember,” a crowd gathers near the bank of Troublesome Creek to watch the villain of their Kentucky hill-town lie back in his own blood after being accidentally shot in the back. In its telling this story thrusts forward the universal themes of good and evil, right and wrong, and fate and chance. On the other end of the spectrum, in the story “Mrs. Razor,” Still gives us a whimsical story about six-year-old Elvy and her fantasy life as a wife and mother. “Mrs. Razor” gives us a glimpse into a child’s world of pretend and offers a heartwarming look at the relationship between father and child. In “Horse Doctor,” a young boy accompanies his father (Still’s father was a horse doctor with no official training) on a visit to a sick mare at a neighbor’s farm. Through stark prose and subtle imagery, the story reveals the naivety of the young narrator and explores the intricate relationship between Appalachian neighbors and families.
In one of Still’s most loved stories, “The Nest,” a young Nezzie Hargis becomes lost during a snow storm. In a seemingly unfamiliar terrain of isolation, in actuality Nezzie is never far from home. As she painfully struggles to find her way in the blinding storm, we see Nezzie mature from childhood innocence to adulthood. And in the story “Brother of Methuselum,” Still focuses on his character Uncle Mize, who by a strange twist of fate begins to grow young again at the age of 103 — his hair and teeth return, he props his walking stick in a corner, and he tosses his glasses away. “Brother Methuselum” explores the theme of immortality while offering us a story of Appalachian mysticism.
In a book that is endorsed on the University Press of Kentucky’s handsome cover by Appalachian luminaries Ron Rash, Loyal Jones, Gurney Norman, Chris Offutt and Jeff Daniel Marion, this is a must read for anyone who is “from here” or that has embraced the Appalachian mountain region as their own. We will learn more about ourselves than we knew and will be the better for having done so. The Hills Remember rests, as we speak, on my bedside table. It will remain there until I have read it from cover to cover — one story, each night, at a time. There is no better way to read a book of short stories. And this one’s a classic.
The Hills Remember: The Complete Short Stories of James Still edited by Ted Olson. University Press of Kentucky, 2012. 406 pages.