Magazine article Appalachian Heritage

Letters of Understanding: James Still's Correspondence with Marjorie Rawlings and Katherine Anne Porter, 1936-1945

Magazine article Appalachian Heritage

Letters of Understanding: James Still's Correspondence with Marjorie Rawlings and Katherine Anne Porter, 1936-1945

Article excerpt

In his later life, James Still would allude to the summer writing workshops he had attended at the beginning of his career and the writers he had met there. For example, he made the following notes in preparation for the talk "Memories of Marjorie," which he delivered at SAMLA (Southern American Modern Language Association) in 1992:

    It has been my "luck," sometimes coincidence, to
   have met some of the writers of merit of my day, some
   on a howdy-do basis, some who left me with tales to
   tell if anybody ever bothered to ask me--Robert Frost,
   Carl Sandberg, Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Madox
   Roberts, Katherine Anne Porter, Delmore Schwartz,
   Eleanor Clark, Paul Green, Josephine Herbst, John Gould
   Fletcher, Eudora Welty, the Massachusetts poet Robert
   Francis, John Crowe Ransom (my teacher at Vanderbilt),
   and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
   I met them at the various literary "watering holes":
   the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.,
   Bread Loaf in Vermont. I met Marjorie at the Blowing
   Rock School of English in North Carolina.
   I particularly cherish the correspondence I had with
   Elizabeth Roberts, Katherine Ann Porter and Marjorie
   Rawlings--letters of content, common understanding-- 

Clearly, Still knew many writers, but details of his friendships remain sketchy. Since we can no longer ask him to tell us the tales, our best source for exploration is the correspondence he cherished. Letters are a major part of Still's collected papers because he was diligent about keeping those written to him. He rarely kept copies of ones he wrote, but in a few cases his letters are preserved in the papers of other writers. This study explores selections from the letters he exchanged with two important twentieth-century writers--Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Katherine Anne Porter. By reading this correspondence, we can know firsthand the content and common understanding to which he alludes in his notes.

James Still began to pursue his goal of becoming a writer when he was twenty-nine years old. His publications in the first half of the 1930s were limited to a poem in Boys Life and an article in Our Dumb Animals, but by June 1935, his poetry was appearing widely. One key to his early success was help from friends and mentors. That, along with his own effort and talent, meant that between 1935 and 1942, he went from being an unknown young man who worked at Hindman Settlement School to being a known writer who had published three books with Viking Press and had won prestigious awards while establishing friendships with "writers of merit."

One early mentor was Edwin Grover, librarian at Rollins College in Florida and director of the Blowing Rock School of English in Western North Carolina. Still knew him through his daughter Frances, who was on the staff at Hindman Settlement School. In December 1935, Still visited the Grover family in Florida and while there was invited to attend the 1936 summer program in Banner Elk. Noted professors would lead the classes and would be supported by distinguished lecturers, including Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Still and Rawlings

Born in 1896, Marjorie Rawlings was the age of Still's second oldest sister and ten years older than Still himself. In 1928 she and her husband purchased a seventy-two acre orange grove in rural Florida; after their divorce in 1933, she continued to live on the farm and manage it. When her first vignettes were published in Scribner Magazine in 1930, she realized that her material would be the place and the people of her Cross Creek area. By 1935 she had published two novels, South Moon Under and Golden Apples. When Still met Rawlings at the Blowing Rock School of English in 1936, she was beginning work on her best-known novel, The Yearling.

His first workshop experience was a trial for Still. One of the professors, Theda Kenyon, informed the young man that he needed to learn more about metrics before he could be a competent poet. …

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