James Still was born in Double Creek, Alabama, in 1906. He attended Lincoln Memorial University and Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, and the University of Illinois, earning B.A. degrees in both arts and sciences, and the M.A. degree in English. Beginning in the early 1930’s, he lived in Knott County, Kentucky (except for time spent in travel and in military service in Africa and the Middle East in World War II). His home on Dead Mare Branch was a two-story log house built before 1840, given to him for life by a farmer and dulcimer maker named Jethro Amburgey. Still served as librarian for the Hindman Settlement School and taught at Morehead State University and a number of other institutions.
Still kept his private life and his life as a writer separate—in order to remain “intact.” Those who knew him as a teacher and writer knew little about his day-to-day life among neighbors, for the most part farmers and coal miners, who knew next to nothing about him as a writer. To them he was a farmer, a gardener, and the librarian at the Hindman Settlement School. Still’s success in keeping separate his private life and his life as a writer resulted in misunderstandings about both his life and his writing.
Because he lived an apparently isolated life and made no effort to advertise himself or promote his writing, or even to accept awards and honors, and because he published infrequently, Still was perceived as a hermit writer. His failure to accept either the award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters or an invitation to be Phi Beta Kappa poet at Columbia University in the 1940’s contributed to his reputation as a recluse. This is a misperception. According to Still, he declined in both instances because he lacked bus fare and suitable clothing for the occasions.
While he appeared to be living an isolated life at the Hindman Settlement School, Still was a constant reader of The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Times. He was publishing in The Atlantic Monthly, Yale Review, Poetry, and many other magazines and journals. At this time, he numbered among his friends Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, and Robert Frost. Still considered himself fortunate to have lived in Knott County, Kentucky, lucky to have been...
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