The Definitive ‘Appalachian Novel’ Celebrates Its Diamond Anniversary

Posted by | February 19, 2015

ted olsonPlease welcome guest author Ted Olson. Based in Johnson City, TN, Olson has edited a collection of James Still’s poetry and another of his short stories as well as two anthologies of scholarly writings about Still. Olson, the author of two books featuring his own poetry, has received three Grammy Award nominations for his work as a music historian.


Seventy-five years ago this month the definitive ‘Appalachian’ novel was published—James Still’s River of Earth. ‘Appalachian’ literature did not exist then. Still and his novel essentially spawned the phenomenon of people writing consciously and reflexively about Appalachia, a storied if misunderstood American region.

To be sure, earlier authors—Mary Noailles Murfree, John Fox Jr., and Horace Kephart, among others—had written about the region, but their works tended to view it through romanticized or stereotyped lenses. Still’s contemporaries in Depression-Era Appalachia—Jesse Stuart and Don West spring to mind—broke new ground toward fostering deepened understanding of that time and place.

But it was Still who by force of his published writings, personality, and mentoring roles convinced young writers emerging in Appalachia, from the 1960s forward, to observe the region unapologetically, yet compassionately. He demonstrated how to see Appalachia objectively while imaginatively recreating regional life in vivid literary works.

River of Earth

First published by Viking Press in February 1940, River of Earth excited many literary critics who had no discernible connection to Appalachia. They were enthralled by the poetical prose in the novel and by the author’s evocation of eastern Kentuckians’ everyday lives—people who refused to define themselves as disadvantaged despite the hard times they endured.

Still, critics recognized, took chances in writing his novel. Using dialect in writing is risky, but Still did so with a vengeance, crafting a literary approximation of Appalachian regional speech that was simultaneously earthy and graceful, literal and richly metaphorical. And he created his novel by weaving together nearly a dozen previously published short stories, and by all accounts he succeeded in crafting a seamless larger work that was greater than the sum of its parts.

River of Earth was not intended as ‘Appalachian’ or ‘regional’ literature. In fact, Viking Press thought it entirely possible that the novel might become a national bestseller like another Viking novel published the year before, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. That did not happen. In the early 1940s the U.S. was recovering from its recent economic collapse and was bracing to confront another world war, and Still’s novel must have seemed to many readers at the time as reflecting the concerns of an earlier era.

While not commanding a lasting national readership, River of Earth flourished for 75 years, influential to those who sought it out but not beholden to any literary school. The novel may not have received the Hollywood treatment, but it never fell out of print.

Still (1906–2001) has cast a long shadow. A diverse canon of ‘Appalachian’ literature has emerged in recent decades, and many authors, including Lee Smith, Ron Rash and Silas House, have acknowledged River of Earth as the book that inspired them to write about their home region. Some writers from outside Appalachia, such as Wendell Berry, have similarly cited Still as a formative influence.

Still, were he here today, would undoubtedly not claim credit for founding a regional literary movement. He dearly loved the region to which he moved when a young college student (after growing up in Alabama). Yet, Still often told interviewers and friends that he thought of himself as a Southern writer and that he yearned to be considered in the company of William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Flannery O’Connor.

James Still in 1938. The John Jacob Niles Photographic Collection, University of Kentucky

James Still in 1938. The John Jacob Niles Photographic Collection, University of Kentucky

Before enlisting in the military during World War II, Still published three critically acclaimed books with Viking Press, and he published poems and short stories in leading periodicals. He was a national literary figure who preferred working at the Hindman Settlement School in eastern Kentucky to participating in the New York City literary scene. Letting his work speak for itself, though, eventually resulted in people forgetting about him.

Fortuitously, beginning in the 1970s, three Kentucky-based publishers—the University Press of Kentucky, Gnomon Press, and Berea College Press—issued new editions of his writings, including River of Earth. Because of their efforts and the timeless power of the literary works they disseminated to new generations, many younger writers, within Appalachia and increasingly outside the region, aspire today to be considered, someday, in the company of James Still.

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