James Still: Critical Essays on the Dean of Appalachian Literature, edited by Ted Olson and Kathy H. Olson. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007. 260 pp. $35.00 paperback.
WHEN JAMES STILL DIED IN 2001 SHORTLY BEFORE HIS NINETY-FIFTH birthday, his stature as a major author of the mountain South was firmly established. In the years leading up to this country's entry into World War II, Still had published three books in three different genres, all with Viking Press: Hounds on the Mountain (1937), a collection of poems; River of Earth (1940), a novel; and On Troublesome Creek (1941), a volume of short stories--books that placed him in the first generation of native voices from Appalachia. Though born in Alabama, Still made his home in Knott County, Kentucky, from 1932 until his death, living most of those years in a log cabin near Hindman. The 1968 paperback reprinting of River of Earth and the publication of two collections of Still's short stories in 1976 and 1980 brought the author to the attention of a younger generation of creative writers and literary scholars just as Appalachian literature began what Robert Bain and Joseph M. Flora have termed, in Contemporary Poets, Dramatists, Essayists, and Novelists of the South, "a Renaissance within a Renaissance" (14). Yet outside the realm of Appalachian studies, Still's remarkable fiction and poetry remain largely unknown. Neither The Literature of the American South (Norton 1998) nor Voices of the American South (Pearson Longman 2005) contains a single selection by him.
One of the aims of this collection of critical essays--the first on Still--is to enhance the author's reputation beyond, not simply within, the mountain South. That aim is ably advanced by some of the essays reprinted here, most notably those by Dean Cadle, H. R. Stoneback, Fred Chappell, Jim Wayne Miller, Wendell Berry, and Hal Crowther, but it seems at odds with the honorific epithet that appears in the book's subtitle and with the collection's publication as volume seventeen in McFarland's series called Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies. Yet one would hope that this book will, indeed, bring Still new readers across the nation, for his literary excellence merits such attention, as other twentieth-century American authors ranging from Katherine Anne Porter and Robert Frost to Delmore Schwartz and Allen Tate have acknowledged.
Of the twenty-seven essays gathered in this volume, twenty-two have been previously published, several of them in journals with limited circulation. Others originally appeared in books now out of print, as is the case with Miller's introduction to Still's 1986 collection The Wolfpen Poems. Among the best of the new essays are Tina Hanlon's survey of Still's five books for children (four of them published between 1974 and 1978) and Chris Green's assessment of the early poetics of Still, Jesse Stuart, and Don West. One of this book's principal strengths is that it brings together most of the best available commentary on Still's work (other than book reviews), including Dayton Kohler's 1942 College English essay comparing Stuart and Still as "mountain regionalists" and Cadle's 1967 Yale Review essay, which led to renewed interest in Still's writing at a time when the author had not published a new book since 1941.
The editors have divided the volume into six (sometimes overlapping) sections, the first titled "Early Literary and Philosophical Influences." Here readers will find Stoneback's essay on Still's Agrarianism, as well as the essays by Green and Kohler. The following three sections are organized by genre, with four essays on River of Earth, five essays on Still's short stories, and four essays on his poetry. Some of these essays analyze a single story or poem (such stories as "I Love My Rooster," "The Nest," and "Mrs. Razor" receive …