James Still: “River of Earth”

James Still’s beautiful 1940 novel, River of Earth, is one of the defining works in Appalachian literature. It tells the story of the Baldridge family right at the moment they are leaving their home place in the mountains of eastern Kentucky to seek work in the coal mines.

Though the family has been struggling to live off the land, Alpha, the mother – much like Gertie Nevels in Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmakersees what her family is losing as it leaves behind subsistence farming and a life in the mountains. “I had a notion of staying on here,” she tells her husband, Brack. This sad, searching book makes clear that the Baldridge family will never quite find its way again. As Alpha says,

Forever moving yon and back, setting down nowhere for good and all, searching for God knows what. Where air we expecting to draw up to? Forever I’ve wanted to set us down in a lone spot, a place certain and enduring, with room to swing arm and elbow, a garden-piece for fresh victuals, and a cow to furnish milk for the baby. So many places we’ve lived – the far side of one mine camp and next the slap pile of another. Hardburly. Lizzyblue. Tribbey. I’m longing to set me down shorely and raise my chaps proper.

But Brack falls for the lure of working in the mines, always certain that the next mine will prove their fortune. He says, “It was never meant for a body to be full content on the face of this earth. Against my wont it is to be treading the camps, but its bread I’m hunting, regular bread with a mite of grease on it. To make and provide, it’s the only trade I know, and I work willing.”

“Write what you know,” writing teachers tell their apprentices. “Tell what you see.” James Still was not a coal miner – far from it. Born and raised near Lafayette, Alabama, in the Buckalew Mountains in the northern part of the state, Still was one of ten children in a poor farming family. Eventually, Still left home and ultimately earned a master’s degree in English from Vanderbilt University. He spent time selling Bibles, riding the railroads, and picking cotton, and in 1932 at the age of 26, he moved to Kentucky, where he took the job of volunteer librarian at the Hindman Settlement School. As part of that job, according to his obituary, he traveled throughout Knott County, “carrying books to remote one-room schools that did not have libraries.”

Though Still had been raised among farmers and though he himself was a bookish man, he nevertheless knew those who were being drawn into the coal mines. At Hindman, he lived among those who were losing their home places, who were becoming coal miners. They were very much his adopted kin. In this way, Still was writing what he knew, documenting what he saw.

River of Earth documents this community at a critical time in its history. It is rich with the “thinginess” of the world – first the home place and the garden patch, then the coal camps. When Still wrote the book in 1940, the vast majority of Americans knew little to nothing about Appalachians beyond caricatures and stereotypes. Through his loving and sensitive portrayal of mountain people, he legitimized them, respected them, and in recognizing and displaying their humanity, he makes us care about their loss, their suffering, their plight.

Still fell in love with the people of Knott County and ended up staying there the rest of his life. He settled in a cabin between Wolfpen Creek and Dead Mare Branch and lived alone in the cabin for more than half a century. He continued his association with Hindman Settlement School until his death in 2001 at age 94.

Last week, I talked about the impact River of Earth had on the young Lee Smith, a budding writer enrolled at Hollins College in Virginia. When she got to the end of the novel and saw that the family was moving to her hometown of Grundy, Virginia, a lightbulb went on. This is what her professors meant by “write what you know.”

What Lee couldn’t have known then was that discovering James Still’s novel would prove to be the watershed moment for her. Through River of Earth, she found herself as a writer. She also couldn’t have known then that she would herself become an acclaimed Appalachian novelist, a colleague, peer, and friend of James Still.

For eventually, James Still and Lee Smith did meet and did become close friends. Decades after she’d pulled River of Earth off the library shelves at Hollins College, Lee Smith started doing her own stints at Hindman, teaching in both the famed Hindman Settlement School Writers Workshop and in the school’s community literacy program. I imagine there were many nights when Lee Smith and her husband, Hal Crowther, joined James Still in his cabin on Wolfpen Creek.

River of Earth is an elegy of sorts, a hymn to and a lamentation for a disappearing way of life. But it is also an opening, a gateway to the many riches of Appalachian literature it ushered in. James Still led to Lee Smith, who led to Silas House and Lou Crabtree, among so many others.

Ready to explore James Still’s work? Begin by reading River of Earth. You can stream a free, hour-long Kentucky Educational Television documentary about James Still and River of Earth. You’ll see Still at his cabin on Wolfpen Creek (and you’ll also see plenty of the outstanding Appalachian poet Jim Wayne Miller and Kentucky’s current poet laureate, George Ella Lyon). Appalshop – the great preserver of Appalachian culture – has a marvelous recording of James Still and Randy Wilson. James Still reads from his work, and Randy Wilson accompanies him by playing traditional music on hammer dulcimer, lap dulcimer, and fretless banjo. Finally, for a great collection of James Still resources, visit Professor Sandy Hudock’s webpage hosted by Colorado State University at Pueblo. You might also want to check out Still: The Journal, which features contemporary Appalachian writing. It is named in honor of James Still.

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Watch:To learn more about River of Earth, watch the free, online Kentucky Education Television documentary about James Still. The River of Earth segment runs from 21:00 to 31:00. Still reads the first paragraph of the novel from 24:27 to 25:30. Starting at 25:51, the great Appalachian poet Jim Wayne Miller reads the preacher’s sermon, which includes the reference to the “river of earth,” and performer Randy Wilson finishes the sermon at around 27:00.