James Still is a well-known Appalachian author and poet. Though he spent most of his life in Knott County, Kentucky, he was originally born in Chambers County, Alabama. He had nine siblings and all ten children worked on the family farm. As a young child, he was deeply interested in books related to philosophy and physics and often read the Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge at home. He was particularly a fan of Shakespeare and Keats.
After high school, Still attended Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. He got a job as a janitor at a local public library and often fell asleep there at night, reading. After graduating from Lincoln, he attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville where he developed an interest in the miner strike that was going on in Wilder, Tennessee. Still delivered truckloads of food and clothing to the strikers at the picket line.
Still took on many jobs, but none quite “fit.” He did work with the Civil Service Corps. He worked as a Bible salesman and traveled to Texas to pick cotton. While in Nashville looking for employment, James Still contacted his former classmate, Don West. Don West was an adamant civil rights activist and a poet. West told him about his current endeavors in Knott County, Kentucky and offered James a volunteer job as a recreational organizer for a Bible school. James gladly took the position. He moved into a log cabin, once occupied by Jethro Amburgey, a dulcimer craftsman. After spending time in Knott County, James was offered the opportunity to volunteer as a librarian for the Hindman Settlement School.
The Hindman Settlement School was established in 1902. The mission of the school reads, “to provide educational and service opportunities for the people of the mountains, while keeping them mindful of their heritage.“ James spent six years at the Hindman Settlement School. He stated, “The library was excellent, the students eager, and the staff highly motivated.” While there, he became a literacy advocate, delivering children's books weekly to the four one-room schoolhouses in the county. The kids affectionately called him “the book boy.”
During Still’s first three years at the Hindman Settlement School, he received no pay at all. He later calculated that throughout his time spent at the school, he had averaged making six cents per day.
In 1944, Still was stationed to Egypt to serve as a sergeant in WWII. After serving his time, however, he returned to his cabin in Knott County. He began creative writing when he was 26. Many of his poems appeared in popular journals, such as the Atlantic, which provided James with enough money to get by. Some of his poems include Madly to Learn, Of the Wild Man, Death of a Fox, Heritage, and Rain on the Cumberlands. Although Still had traveled all over the world, being a war veteran, most of his writing depicted life in Appalachia.
Still's most well-known novel, River of Earth, described the hardships of an Eastern Kentucky family who is trying desperately to survive the times, transitioning from farming to the instable world of coal mining. He was inspired to write the novel while working with FERA (Federal Emergency Relief Administration) when he witnessed a murder. River of Earth was published February 4, 1940.
Still is very popular for his insight into the effects of coal mining on Appalachian families. Some of his other novels include Sporty Creek, The Wolfpen Notebooks, From the Mountain From the Valley, and Pattern of a Man. Not only did Still write novels, he also wrote poetry and children's books. His poems were influenced by simple observations he made about his surroundings. For example, he wrote his poem Spring on Little Carr while he was freezing in his log cabin. One of his children's books, Jack and the Wonder Bean, was an Appalachian adaptation to the story, Jack and the Beanstalk.
The characters created by Still tend to be highly curious and adventurous. While they are full of wonder, they have a strong sense of home and family. Jim Wayne Miller states in his essay, Appalachian Literature: At Home in this World, “Journeying out into the world serves only to heighten the sense of belonging to one familiar spot of earth.” Most are dedicated to religion, as is standard for most members of Appalachian communities.
For the most part, Still strayed away from written dialect. He stated, “Dialect too strictly adhered to makes a character appear ignorant when he is only unlettered.” He said he wanted to “invoke speech” and leave the voice of his characters up to the reader.
Still died in April of 2001 at the age of 94. He was still living in his log cabin in Knott County at the time of his death. Over the course of his life, he received many honors, including the Southern Author Award. Some of his short stories gained recognition by the O. Henry Memorial Prize Stories. One of the stories even won an award for the Best American Short Stories. In 1992 his children's book, Jack and the Wonder Beans, was adapted into a play by the Lexington Children's Theatre. Still even had the opportunity to take part in one showing of the play, reading an excerpt from his book as an opening to the show. He was named Knott County's “Citizen of the Year” in 1997. His work has appeared in Appalachian Journal, the Yale Review, Atlantic, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Nation, amongst many others. Both Morehead State University and the University of Kentucky have rooms dedicated to Appalachian authors, such as Still.
The James Still Learning Center exists today in Knott County, Kentucky. The school promotes literacy and offers help in all subjects to children in the community through after-school and year-round classes. The school is perhaps most well-known for its specialized summer program for kids with dyslexia from all over the United States. Over 2,000 students have been served by the James Still Learning Center since it’s birth. The school provides a comfortable atmosphere for students, while encouraging them to take an interest in their educations and in literature.