Behind the scenes with Appalachian writer James Still

Posted by | April 23, 2013

Please welcome guest author Ted Olson. Olson is the editor of collections of literary works by James Still, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Sherwood Anderson, and the author of Blue Ridge Folklife, Breathing in Darkness: Poems, and Revelations: Poems


In the final few years of his life—he died at 94 on April 28, 2001—James Still had many friends, most of them much younger than he was since he had outlived most of his contemporaries.  I was one of Mr. Still’s younger, and certainly one of his newest, friends.  Our friendship, to be sure, had a singular purpose:  to help him prepare his poetry for a mutually planned “new and collected poems” book, eventually published by the University Press of Kentucky as From the Mountain, From the Valley.
from the mountain from the valley

In 1990 when a graduate student attending the University of Kentucky, I “met” the legendary author at a celebration of his masterful novel River of Earth.  At a book-signing held during that literary event I stood in line with many others to meet Mr. Still, and he signed my copy of his novel (in truth he hardly looked up from his table).  Our paths would not cross again for several years.  In 1995 I was surprised to receive a postcard from Mr. Still thanking me for writing a scholarly article on River of Earth; from the formal tone of his note he apparently did not realize that we had “met” in 1990.

Then, in June 1998, while teaching at Kentucky’s Union College, I invited Mr. Still to speak in an Upward Bound class I was helping to coordinate.  After I drove him from Hindman to Barbourville, he charmed those high school students by telling perfectly paced, quietly subversive anecdotes about his life and writing career.  Toward the end of the hour, a student in the class asked Mr. Still if he would be publishing more of his writings; he paused, then said that, yes, he had written some pieces people hadn’t read yet.

Such a statement caught my attention, since many if not most of his longtime readers—myself included—at the time generally assumed that everything he had written of any consequence had already been published.

I drove Mr. Still back to Hindman.  As I dropped him off at his house, he thanked me for the ride and invited me to attend his 92nd birthday party, which would be held a few weeks later at the Knott County log house where he had written much of River of Earth six decades earlier.  I immediately accepted the invitation.

At the party, I said “hello” and “happy birthday” to Mr. Still, and that was all (it was a busy scene, with dozens of people already gathered there, intently listening to him hold court).  A few days after the party, though, I mustered up the courage to write him about an idea I’d had.  Essentially, I offered to assist him with the publication of the works he had mentioned to the Upward Bound class.  Mr. Still replied quickly by postcard, stating that he’d welcome—he’d appreciate—the help.

courtesy University Press of Kentucky

courtesy University Press of Kentucky

Shortly thereafter, I began editing the manuscript that became From the Mountain, From the Valley. The editorial process involved visiting Mr. Still in Hindman on at least three occasions over two years to discuss his poetry.  During my final visit to his house, we wrapped up some loose ends with the poetry manuscript and then began discussing another possible book project—a complete collection of his short stories.

He encouraged me to edit such a book, but then paused, and said that such a project would be rather difficult to do.  I left Hindman that day with a feeling of happiness that the poetry book would be published soon, but also with a sense of uncertainty about whether or not I was up to the challenge of editing the short stories book, given Mr. Still’s obvious backtracking on the idea.  Before I could figure out what he had meant, he died—just a few weeks before the publication of From the Mountain, From the Valley.

Mr. Still was certainly prescient: preparing a collection of his short stories took persistence and patience.  More to the point, it took ten years.  There were complex copyright issues to resolve, and many of his previously published stories existed in multiple versions, which complicated the determination of “definitive” versions.  Also, there were unpublished short story manuscripts scattered, not yet cataloged, among Mr. Still’s papers at his home in Hindman; when eventually located, those manuscripts provided little or no written information regarding the author’s intentions for revision.

By 2007, Mr. Still’s daughter Teresa Reynolds had donated many of his papers to the University of Kentucky’s Special Collections Library, and the staff there soon began the task of carefully cataloguing those papers.  (While waiting to edit the aforementioned complete short stories volume, I compiled two collections of essays on James Still for McFarland & Co., a scholarly publisher).

By 2010, Mr. Still’s estate had clarified the whereabouts of all his short stories, whereupon I began preparing the manuscript of a volume published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2012 as The Hills Remember: The Complete Short Stories of James Still. This book would feature all of the author’s 53 short stories, including ten that had never been published.

the hills remember

It was unclear to me and to everyone else concerned—the press, Teresa, and his closest friends—how The Hills Remember would be received.  That is, we wondered if there would be significant affection for Mr. Still’s literary achievement a decade after his death.

In 2011 the University Press of Kentucky published a manuscript he had never told me about during our discussions of his work; this book, a novel entitled Chinaberry, was unlike much of his previous work because it was primarily set in Texas, not in Appalachia.

The chronologically presented short stories in The Hills Remember, on the other hand, reflected the deepest strain of his literary identity and bore evidence of the evolution of his much-praised fictional style (for instance, twelve of these stories, written during the 1930s, were subsequently incorporated by Mr. Still into River of Earth).

Despite my longtime contention that he should be considered an author of national significance, The Hills Remember has received appreciative reviews within Kentucky and across Appalachia, yet has been ignored beyond the already established domain of his longtime fan base.

But perhaps I’m too close to these short stories to understand the larger narrative.  In March 2013, during a presentation I was giving at the annual conference of the Appalachian Studies Association, I expressed my concerns to conference attendees that Mr. Still was being neglected in American literary circles.

Ted Olson

Ted Olson

The caretaker of this blog, Dave Tabler, was in attendance that day, and he asserted that, from his observation as a prominent blogger on Appalachian topics, there is a new generation—mostly but not exclusively natives of Appalachia—who are indeed discovering Mr. Still and his work.

Dave, thinking that his readers will want to know more about The Hills Remember, encouraged me to write this guest blog piece to let people know (if they don’t know already) about this very worthy author of Appalachia whose work can be characterized as balancing a fully realized regional consciousness with a profound universality of theme.  People who discover James Still’s writings now and in the future are indeed fortunate in that they will get to be part of a meaningful, ever-widening circle.

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