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Ted Olson: The definitive Appalachian novel turns 75

Seventy-five years ago this month the definitive “Appalachian” novel was published — James Still’s “River of Earth.” “Appalachian” literature did not exist then.

Still and his novel essentially spawned the phenomenon of people writing consciously and reflexively about Appalachia, a storied if misunderstood American region.

To be sure, earlier authors — Mary Noailles Murfree, John Fox Jr., and Horace Kephart, among others — had written about the region, but their works tended to view it through romanticized or stereotyped lenses.

Still’s contemporaries in Depression-era Appalachia — Jesse Stuart and Don West spring to mind — broke new ground toward fostering deepened understanding of that time and place.

But it was Still who by force of his published writings, personality, and mentoring roles convinced young writers emerging in Appalachia, from the 1960s forward, to observe the region unapologetically yet compassionately. He demonstrated how to see Appalachia objectively while imaginatively recreating regional life in vivid literary works.

First published by Viking Press on February 5, 1940, River of Earth excited many literary critics who had no discernible connection to Appalachia. They were enthralled by the novel’s poetical prose and by the author’s evocation of the everyday lives of eastern Kentuckians — people who refused to define themselves as disadvantaged despite the hard times they endured.

Still, critics recognized, took chances in writing his novel. Using dialect in writing is risky, but Still did so with a vengeance, crafting a literary approximation of Appalachian regional speech that was simultaneously earthy and graceful, literal and richly metaphorical. He also created his novel by weaving together nearly a dozen previously published short stories, and by all accounts he succeeded in crafting a seamless larger work that was greater than the sum of its parts.

River of Earth was not intended as “Appalachian” or “regional” literature. In fact, Viking Press thought it entirely possible that the novel might become a national bestseller like another Viking novel published the year before, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” That did not happen.

In the early 1940s the U.S. was recovering from its recent economic collapse and was bracing to confront another world war, and Still’s novel must have seemed to many readers at the time as reflecting the concerns of an earlier era.

While not commanding a lasting national readership, River of Earth flourished for 75 years, influential to those who sought it out but not beholden to any literary school. The novel may not have received the Hollywood treatment, but it never fell out of print.

Still (1906–2001) has cast a long shadow. A diverse canon of “Appalachian” literature has emerged in recent decades, and many authors, including Lee Smith, Ron Rash, and Silas House, have acknowledged River of Earth as the book that inspired them to write about their home region.

Some writers from outside Appalachia, such as Wendell Berry, have similarly cited Still as a formative influence. Still, were he here today, would undoubtedly not claim credit for founding a regional literary movement. He dearly loved the region to which he moved when a young college student (after growing up in Alabama).

Yet, Still often told interviewers and friends that he thought of himself as a Southern writer and that he yearned to be considered in the company of William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter and Flannery O’Connor.

Before enlisting in the military during World War II, Still published three critically acclaimed books with Viking Press, and he published poems and short stories in leading periodicals. He was a national literary figure who preferred working at the Hindman Settlement School in eastern Kentucky to participating in the New York City literary scene. Letting his work speak for itself, though, eventually resulted in people forgetting about him.

Fortuitously, beginning in the 1970s, three Kentucky-based publishers — the University Press of Kentucky, Gnomon Press and Berea College Press — issued new editions of his writings, including River of Earth. Because of their efforts and the timeless power of the literary works they disseminated to new generations, many younger writers, within Appalachia and increasingly outside the region, aspire today to be considered, someday, in the company of James Still.

Ted Olson, a poet and music historian based in Johnson City, Tennessee, has edited a collection of James Still’s poetry and another of his short stories as well as two anthologies of scholarly writings about Still.


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