An Unsung Appalachian Literary Heritage: The Significance of James Still's Undergraduate Experience

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Regional scholars have long marveled that Jesse Stuart, James Still, and Don West were all members of Lincoln Memorial University's Class of 1929. Yet for decades scholars have assumed that Still's literary gifts went unnurtured at his Appalachian alma mater, and that he had to sojourn into the rarified world of Vanderbilt's Agrarians for any such fire to be lit. Of course they came by this notion honestly--Still encouraged it, insisting in autobiographical accounts that the only role LMU played in his development as a writer was providing him access to the library in which he labored as a rag-clad janitor and, shades of Lincoln, taught himself late into the night.

The impact of regional economic woes on Still's middle-class family's cotton farm prompted him to seek out a university providing him with work-study opportunities. Yet the record reveals that Still's campus identity was anchored in the consensus that the boy hailed from a culturally advantaged background. "Jimmie," we are told in LMU's 1929 annual (for which he served as senior editor), "grew up on the banks of the Chattahoochee and came to LMU a highly cultured Southern Gentleman," although we are reassured a few lines down that he was "a strict apostle" of the Fabian Socialist, George Bernard Shaw. This, along with his choice of a quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, establishes Still's early literary tastes as more high-brow than those of page-mate Jesse Stuart (who quotes from the commercially successful but forgettable 1924 American play, What Price Glory?), as well as Still's early affinity with the sort of leftist ideology we better associate with Don West.

The Senior Superlatives published in the May 14, 1929, edition of the student paper, The Blue & Gray, are also telling. The student body voted the supposedly-shabby youth best dressed, most original, and fourth most scholarly man on campus. In the category titled "Man Done Most for LMU," Still came in third, wedged for all eternity between second place winner Don West and a fourth-placed Jesse Stuart.

But perhaps the most powerful glimpse of Still-as-undergraduate is in a 1929 tribute written by Stuart for The Blue & Gray entitled "James Still Wins Honors." In it, Stuart announces that for the second year in a row Still had claimed the majority of writing awards on campus, but stresses that the young essayist and playwright's "modest[y]" prevented him from acknowledging "any aspiration toward professional ... writing." As Stuart describes it, young Still "live[d] his life as a student almost in seclusion." His dorm room was especially remarkable, "filled" as it was "with odd and interesting books--[some] modern, some just off the press and others old as the ages," and "files of manuscripts and queer paintings usually [Asian]." Most intriguing of all is Stuart's assertion that "No one knows how much [Still] writes or what he writes until it appears."

Which brings us to the vexed question of just when Still began his apprenticeship as a writer. He never admitted to one, most often claiming that he didn't begin writing until he embarked on his career in earnest. And while he always insisted that as a boy he hadn't "know[n] about writing as a profession," the fact is that by the age of fifteen he had shown enough foresight and initiative to write to Thomas E. Watson, magazine publisher, newspaperman, and Democrat U.S. Senator from Georgia, to gain advice on pursuing a career as a journalist. "I would suggest," Watson replied, in a letter housed in the James Still Collection at the University of Kentucky, "that any school or college giving literary degrees could give you such training."

It is possible that the boy who arrived at LMU three years later had long since forgotten his interest in writing, but, if so, it's fortunate that he happened upon an Appalachian college with its own proud literary culture. Nineteen-twenties LMU was not the literary wasteland Still liked to suggest. …