James Still Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

James Still’s highly acclaimed novel River of Earth first appeared in 1940. Sporty Creek (1977) continues the story of the family introduced in River of Earth. Still’s short stories are collected in On Troublesome Creek (1941), Pattern of a Man (1976), and The Run for the Elbertas (1983). Like his novels, Still’s short stories are admired for their deceptively simple narrative technique, skillful character delineation, and psychological insight. They have been compared to the stories of Anton Chekhov, Katherine Anne Porter, and Bernard Malamud.

The exact, colorful language of Still’s novels, short stories, and poems is often achieved through the artful use of folk speech, examples of which are found in two collections of Appalachian riddles and rusties (playful, formulaic uses of language): Way Down Yonder on Troublesome Creek (1974) and The Wolfpen Rusties: Appalachian Riddles and Gee-Haw Whimmy-Diddles (1975). Jack and the Wonder Beans (1977) is a delightful retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” in the local idiom. Still also prepared his version of the Mother Goose rhymes as An Appalachian Mother Goose (1998).

In The Wolfpen Notebooks: A Record of Appalachian Life (1991), Still drew from the notebooks that he kept for more than fifty years, recording the distinctive expressions and customs of the Appalachian region.

Critical attention has been more often directed to Still’s novels and short stories than to his poems. Still was rightly admired for his prose, however, because he was first of all a poet. After reading his novel River of Earth and the poems in Hounds on the Mountain, Katherine Anne Porter said in a letter that the two books should be read together. The novel was “an extension of the poems,” while the poems were “further comment on the experience that made the novel.” Still’s poems, then, are doubly deserving of critical attention. Rewarding in themselves, they also belong to any assessment of his total achievement.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

James Still’s poems, short stories, and novels consistently received high critical acclaim. Hounds on the Mountain was reviewed favorably in Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Book Review, and other newspapers and journals, while The Wolfpen Poems was praised by James Dickey in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Still was the recipient of a number of awards, honors, and prizes. These include two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Southern Authors Award, the O. Henry Memorial Prize, and the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for the “continuing achievement and integrity of his art.” He received a number of honorary doctorates as well. Scholarships and fellowships have been established in his name, including fellowships funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Science and in Appalachian studies at the University of Kentucky. The James Still Room at Johnson-Camden Library, Morehead State University, was dedicated in 1961. In 1981, Still received the Milner Award, given by the Kentucky Arts Council, in recognition of outstanding leadership in the arts. In 1987, he was awarded a Book of the Year citation from the Appalachian Writers Association. He served as Kentucky’s poet laureate in 1995-1996.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Berry, Wendell. “A Master Language.” Sewanee Review 105, no. 3 (Summer, 1997): 419-422. Berry discusses the works of Still and the poet’s masterful use of dialect and language.

Cadle, Dean. “Pattern of a Writer: Attitudes of James Still.” Appalachian Journal 15 (Winter, 1988): 104-143. Cadle presents notes from conversations he had with Still in 1958-1959. Includes Still’s views on writing; also has photographs of Still, his house, and neighbors and friends.

Dickey, James. Review of The Wolfpen Poems. Los Angeles Times Book Review 1 (December 7, 1986): 19. Dickey states that these poems establish Still as the “truest and most remarkable poet of mountain culture.” Notes his sincerity and modesty and commends him for the feel of the country in his poems. Sees the strength of The Wolfpen Poems collection in that it underscores the necessity of Appalachian culture and its values.

Foxfire 22 (Fall, 1988). This special issue on Still concentrates on The Wolfpen Notebooks; it contains an interview and selections from the book (not yet published at the time of the issue).

Iron Mountain Review 2 (Summer, 1984). This issue devoted to Still contains an interview with Still, essays on his poetry (“James Still’s Poetry: ’The Journey of a Worldly Wonder’” by Jeff Daniel Marion), short fiction, and a Still bibliography.

Olson, Ted, and Kathy H. Olson, eds. James Still: Critical Essays on the Dean of Appalachian Literature. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2007. This first book-length collection of scholarly essays on Still provides valuable information on his works.

Still, James. James Still in Interviews, Oral Histories, and Memoirs. Edited by Ted Olson. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009. This volume collects numerous interviews with the poet and reminiscences by writers who knew him.

Turner, Martha Billips. “A Vision of Change: Appalachia in James Still’s River of Earth.” Southern Literary Journal 24, no. 2 (Spring, 1992): 11. Still’s writings have established his reputation as a serious, talented writer of the Appalachian region. Discusses his portrayal of Appalachia in River of Earth.