Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Looking the Story in the Eye: James Still's "Rooster"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Looking the Story in the Eye: James Still's "Rooster"

Article excerpt

In sheer quality, if not in abundance of production, James Still--who, well into his eighties, still thrives in Hindman, Kentucky--should surely be considered a major Appalachian writer. By coincidence, both Still and the much better known Jesse Stuart graduated from Lincoln Memorial Institute in the 1920s--and spent a year at Vanderbilt University when some of the Fugitives still taught there. If Stuart overproduced, Still by contrast has with lapidary precision written a mere handful of short stories (and one remarkable novel--River of Earth) of astonishing beauty. Some two dozen stories originally published between 1936 and 1959 were made available again not long ago in two collections, The Run for the Elbertas and Pattern of a Man (Still is a poet, too, of considerable gifts--as the recently collected Wolfpen Poems abundantly show).

In a recent interview Still spoke about his work and the effort he requires of his reader in these demanding terms: "The static rating of my fiction is rather low, and I press for absolute clarity. I demand of a reader his whole attention, his eyes and ears and his understanding. He must meet me halfway, not expect me to do the whole job" (139). In proposing a close reading of his short story "I Love My Rooster" (from the collection The Run for the Elbertas), I am trying to go that halfway distance, though it is altogether possible that, once one begins to read such a text as Still's, one will be led by that text a little farther, or even in another direction, than its author had in mind for one to go. But such a direction, and distance, is one his stories themselves require.

In his Foreword to the re-issue of River of Earth, Dean Cadle makes a remarkable claim for the simplicity of Still's fiction: "An emotional response is the one quality above all for which Still works. There are no games, no literary or historical allusions, no puns, no symbolism.... He simply sets down the experiences of a few human beings.... in a manner that is simple and unposed ..." (x). Elsewhere, in his valuable study, "Man on Troublesome," Cadle states his argument in similar, though more accurate, terms: "there is little conscious use of symbols, no allusions to classical or other literatures, and no reference to anything outside the immediate situation in which the characters are involved" (240). This absence of outside symbolic reference is evidently what is meant in the other passage by the claim of "no symbolism" (though attenuated here to "little conscious use"--leaving open the possibility that there is some, and that it is unconscious). The assertion, however, that there are no allusions to classical or other literatures is in fact contradicted by Still's clever integration of Gulliver's Travels into his story "School Butter" (in The Run for the Elbertas). And that there are neither games nor puns in the fiction of a writer who has compiled two volumes of Appalachian riddles and wordplay (Way Down Yonder on Troublesome Creek and The Wolfpen Rusties) would seem an especially dangerous claim to make. Puns in particular are precisely what one is quite likely to find in Still, as I intend to show here. His manner may be simple, but it is deceptively so.

"I Love My Rooster" is the story of a boy--the narrator--whose father has found employment in a coal mine but whose mother knows the boom won't last; she persuades her husband to bring home the pay envelopes unopened and let her manage the household expenses. The boy has a friend, Fedder Mott, who wears a black patch over a missing eye and who wants the boy to come with him to the watch the local cock fights.

      I studied the eye patch. It was the size of a silver dollar, hanging by
   a string looped around his head. What lay behind it? Was there a hole
   square into his skull? I was almost ashamed to ask, almost afraid. I drew a
   circle on the ground with my shoe toe, measuring the words: "I'll go to the
   rooster fight sometime, if one thing--"

      "If'n what? … 
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