Search This Blog

Monday, April 17, 2017

Some Reflections On One Hundred Published Posts

When I began this blog on April 15, 2011, I had some clear cut goals I wanted to accomplish with it and, in some ways, I was not certain exactly what I intended to do with it in the long run.  Now, after almost exactly six years, I am posting my one-hundredth blog post.  I have actually posted a few more than one hundred posts since I have previously posted and deleted a handful for various reasons.  I have accomplished a few things with this blog which have clearly made it worthwhile to continue and I have to say that, in the beginning, I was not exactly certain that I would make it a long term project.  As the masthead for this blog says, I had hoped that it could become "An ever growing site of non-fiction, flotsam, fiction, memoir, autobiography, literature, history, ethnography, and book reviews about Appalachia, Appalachian Culture, and how to keep it alive!!! Also,how to pronounce the word: Ap-uh-latch-uh."  

Partially because of my position on the appropriate pronunciation of the word "Appalachia", I came to know and sometimes converse with one of the best bloggers I have ever found on the Internet,  the man who prefers to be known as Greenbriar Jim who published a blog called "Wayfarin' Stranger".  The Wayfarin' Stranger blog is primarily a photographic blog of Appalachian photographs shot by a fine photographer who also happens to write some damn fine observations about Appalachia and the world.  He has not posted on that blog since March 13, 2014, although he and I have e-mailed some in the interim.  When he quit posting, the world lost a voice it needs to hear from time to time.  In some ways, Greenbriar Jim represents a large group of people who begin and later end blogs which are worthy of living much longer lives. I am also egotistical enough to say that he and I represent another minority group of Internet bloggers who want their blogs to become more than just a means to send trivial rants, autobiographical blurbs, and meaningless drivel.  I believe that in some ways both of us accomplished that.  I have referred his blog to many people who wanted to learn about Appalachia.  

I have also received a few cogent messages either through the blog comments section or by e-mail from people who also obviously wish to see the Appalachian lifestyle and culture continue for the foreseeable future of the world.  I have connected with a few relatives of some of my long dead friends whom I have written about.  I have accumulated 49 followers as of this post which is more than many bloggers ever have.  I naturally have no idea how many of those people continue to read my blog.  Some may have dropped off long ago but forgotten to delete me from their reading lists.  That is the way of blogs and blog readers.  I also have a few on my reading list which I haven't read in far too long.  The blog has had a total of 228,500 page views as of this sentence.  The most page views it has ever had in a month was 20,917 in April 2015.  Most months it has far fewer and I have no idea why for a couple of months it flirted with the 20,000 page view mark.  A few posts such as Appalachia What's In A Name, One Appalachian Man's Opinion Of Gun Control, and The Family Cemetery And Burial Practices In Appalachia are consistently the greatest recipients of attention.  In all three cases I believe I understand the reasons for their popularity.  Appalachia is the homeland for hundreds of thousands of displaced and urban Appalachians who long to come home to the hills whether those hills be in Kentucky, Alabama, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia, or Tennessee.  That explains why that post has more than 61,000 page views and leads the pack every month.  The blog post on gun control generates strong opinions on both sides of the issue and my side happens to favor strong gun control and rational use of guns as tools not adrenaline generators, substitutes for solid self esteem, or psychological splints for limber penises.  That explains why the gun control post has generated more than 48,000 page views.  In the Appalachian psyche, there is no more important place in all the world than the little family cemetery where each of us has buried our ancestors, siblings, children, friends, and other loved ones.  That explains why the post on family cemeteries has generated more than 24,500 page views and has been quoted extensively in a masters degree thesis at a major university.  There are also other posts which get little attention for reasons I do not clearly understand.  Posts on Appalachian Heroes like Florence and Sam Reece, Albert Stewart, and Cratis Williams receive little or no regular visits and all of them are some of the most important people to ever live and work in the region.  

The blog also brought me a phone call from one of the more famous people I have ever written about here and that person bought me lunch one day so we could talk.  Because that person is a major representative of the most conservative branch of Appalachian Studies and I have friends who have fought loudly and often for many political issues in the region and the world, they referred to me as "pretty radical" and I considered it a compliment although it was probably not intended that way.  I have been contacted by one potential author who interviewed me for a book she was working on about Appalachia.  To date, I have not seen that book or heard from that writer again.  Maybe I disappointed them, who knows.  I am sometimes contacted by people who are doing genealogical research on the Hicks family and wish to question me about my writing or question my ideas in general about the ancestry of most of the Hicks' in Eastern Kentucky.  I love a good, respectful intellectual discourse.  If you fall into one of those groups of people, feel free to contact me at any time.  My e-mails and telephones are listed and can be found on many sites on the internet.  I answer all of them every time they ring or a message pops up.  I have been able to review a few books for some of my writer friends and I hope I managed to sell a few copies for them.  I have managed to cast some of my literary bread upon the waters and I hope that some of it has floated onto fertile ground.  I sometimes find my writing both here and in other venues quoted, misquoted, and even appropriately cited.  If I have generated honest, open thought, I have succeeded.  If I have led someone to work to preserve Appalachia and Appalachian Culture, I have been extremely successful.  I am looking forward to the next six years and the next one hundred posts.  I hope you are too.  

As I reflect on what I can do with this blog in the next five or six years, I would love to continue to write about Appalachian Heroes, Appalachian Values, and Appalachian History.  I suspect that I will post less of my fiction on this blog since it has been published in other venues of late and I hope to continue to do so.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"The Hills Remember The Complete Short Stories Of James Still" Book Review

Still, James and Ted Olson (Editor) 2012  The Hills Remember The Complete Short Stories Of James Still (Lexington, University of Kentucky Press) 

Growing up in Knott County Kentucky where James Still lived for most of his 94 years, I knew about James Still at about the same time I became aware of Appalachia and Appalachian Studies sometime in the late 1960's. I honestly do not recall the first time I met James Still.  I cannot say that James Still and I were friends but we were acquaintances and I was flattered to be able to refer to him as Jim to his face.  I was also able to introduce Jim Still and my long time friend and mentor, National Book Award Finalist P. J. Laska at a James Still reading at Black Swan Books in Lexington, KY, sometime in the early 1990's.  As I recall, it was some time shortly after the release of the "Wolf Pen Notebooks". That was a highly interesting evening for several reasons.  Lexington socialite Anita Madden was at the reading wearing a pair of skin tight bright blue pants and she and Jim flirted for most of the evening.  If you have never seen an 85 year old man flirt with a 60 year old woman and find that flirtation reciprocated, I highly recommend it as entertainment especially if the man and woman are of the caliber of Madden and Still.  After the reading, Laska, Still, and I went to eat at a Shoney's Restaurant on North Broadway near the Springs Motel where he usually stayed when he was in Lexington.  We stayed in the restaurant until about 1am talking about Appalachia, literature, Appalachian Literature, Still's travels around the world, the Southern Appalachian Circuit of Antioch College writers group of which Laska and I were both members, and the triumvirate of Appalachian writers of which Still was a member, the 1929 class from Lincoln Memorial University which included Still, Jesse Stuart, and my friend and mentor as well as Laska's professional colleague, Don West.  That evening deserves to be addressed in a completely separate blog or essay and will be some day.  

James Still Photo by University Of KY

Over the years I had read large chunks of Still's writing but had never had the pleasure of reading his complete short stories.  I recently bought the book "The Hills Remember..." and plowed through it in something less than record time.  It contains 53 stories of which a couple are published in the book in two versions, usually one as it was published in a magazine and another as it was included later as a chapter of a novel or part of a major short story collection. Still  had a practice of often publishing short stories in magazines and later using them as book chapters both as originally published and sometimes with significant edits.  "The Hills Remember..." is believed to contain every extant story written by Still.  Ted Olson, the editor, did an excellent job of locating, editing and collating the works.  Olson had worked with Still prior to his death, was aware of his idiosyncrasies, and was an excellent choice as the editor.  The stories are arranged in somewhat chronological order as they were originally written or published and contain all the stories which were included in "River Of Earth", "The Run For The Elbertas", "Pattern Of A Man", and "On Troublesome Creek".  The book is an excellent way for the economically minded reader to achieve as broad as possible a sampling of Still's short fiction.  But I would not recommend that the person seeking to fully understand his prose output read the book and assume they are done.  The stories which were included in "River Of Earth" are not always exactly as they were published in the novel. There may also be slight differences in these versions of the stories included in "The Run For The Elbertas" and the other two aforementioned collections.  The stories which are included as chapters in the novel "River Of Earth" are also not necessarily published in this collection along the timeline of the novel.  If you are a real aficionado of Appalachian Literature or James Still, you will want to read his entire body of work.  Still was a widely known short story author in America as evidenced by the body of stories which were previously published in national magazines such as "Atlantic", "Yale Review", and "Virginia Quarterly Review".  This book attempts, in part, to reassert Still as a major American short fiction author in addition to his prior recognition as a novelist and poet.

The book contained several stories I had not read and several of those are well above average.  The first and best surprise I received from the book was a story called "Sweet Asylum" which is set in James Still's native Alabama.  This story is about an Alabama cotton plantation owner who is deep in debt, widowed, and seeking a way to resolve his debts and save his family plantation.  It is a masterpiece which instantly reminded me of the work of Kate Chopin.  In terms of technique, it is highly reminiscent of her classic "The Story Of An Hour".  It is not quite as masterful a work but uses the same type of double twist ending to slam doors in the faces of both the protagonist and the reader. It may well be the best short story James Still ever wrote.  James Still has so thoroughly been identified as a master author of Southern Appalachia that many of his readers either forgot or never knew that he was born and grew up in Chambers County Alabama, an area that is very different culturally and physically from Knott County Kentucky and Central Appalachia. I should state for the record that I have traveled extensively in Alabama in general and Chambers County in particular and know that area quite well.  James Still did, however, spend the great majority of his life in Knott County and Appalachia and will forever be seen as an Appalachian author.  He went to Lincoln Memorial University in 1925 and graduated there in 1929 as a member of that incredible threesome of Appalachian writers: Still, Don West, and Jesse Stuart. LMU is located in Harrogate, TN, in Claiborne County, which is just as much the heart of Appalachia as Knott County. Hindman, KY, and Harrogate, TN, are only 100 miles apart.  During his time at LMU and later throughout his life, Still was a classmate and friend of both Jesse Stuart and Don West. During that time frame, John Crowe Ransom and the Agrarians and Fugitives were key components of the literary world at LMU. Collectively, Still, West, and Stuart of the LMU Class of 1929 are arguably the best single graduating class of regional writers to ever graduate from any university in the same academic year. That is a particular feather in the hat of LMU since it is a decidedly small university with only 1,675 undergraduate students as of this writing. Still then completed a Master of Arts Degree in English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  After completing his work at Vanderbilt he was employed by the Hindman Settlement School and remained in Knott County for the rest of his life.

The second observation I made as I read "The Hills Remember..." was that in many of Still's short stories there is a level of violence which could almost be called gratuitous.  Several of his stories, including one which I consider among his best, culminate in or originate from murder.  The second story in the book and the title piece "The Hills Remember" is a fine piece of work but also inordinately violent.  The main character, Old Aus Hanley "...had a graveyard all his own across Stormspur filled with men he had killed."  As the story begins, Aus Hanley is lying in a pool of his own blood after being ambushed by a drunk man, shot in the back by someone whom no one in the area  would have believed capable of murder and especially not capable of the murder of Aus Hanley.  A crowd gathers to watch Aus Hanley die.  The sheriff arrests the drunken perpetrator and stands near the victim also waiting to see him die.  The crowd all believe that one of Aus Hanley's family members who are too far away to attend the death will eventually seek revenge against the shooter.  But Aus Hanley calls the sheriff from his death throes to bring the shooter to him so he can learn who killed him.  The story concludes with Hanley pulling his murderer close to him and "...his right arm lunged in a single driving stroke toward Luke's breast...The handle of a Barlow knife protruded from his breast."  With his final dying act, the murdered man has also murdered his killer.  It is a wonderful story but the level of violence portrayed is well beyond that found in most short American fiction.

Speaking as a native of Knott County which is generally assumed to be the setting of most of Still's work, I must say that it is not a level of violence I found common in the time I was growing up there. I was born in Knott County roughly 20 years after James Still moved to the county.  I grew up in a country store in the Beaver Creek area of the county. My father was born in 1887 on Bruce at Mousie and lived most of his early life in Mousie, not far from Hindman where Still lived.  My mother had been born and reared on Rock Fork Creek in still another area of the county.  I was exposed to people from all over Knott County and the surrounding area.  Although I knew several people during my childhood who either had already or later committed murder, the area was never as violent as Still portrayed it in many of his stories.  A second story which is incredibly violent is called "The Scrape".  In that story, two men induce the protagonist to tie their arms together with a wire, take charge of their guns, and observe as they fight with knives to a mutual death.  "Jiddy produced a wire...He ordered me to tie an end around his left wrist, and the other about Cletis's.  A thing they had agreed on.  I did what I was bid do..."  The story ends with both men dead in the dirt road and the narrator heading off toward his original destination with the comment "I thought about Posey Houndshell.  Nobody stood between me and her." 

I must admit that I have not read the two books which might help me to further understand the violence in Still's fiction.  They are: "James Still In Interviews, Oral Histories, and Memoirs" by James Still and the aforementioned Ted Olson; and, "James Still: Critical Essays On The Dean Of Appalachian Literature" edited by Ted Olson and Kathy H. Olson.  What I would really love to see is a book length work solely addressing that issue of violence in Still's work. 

Still is also frequently referred to as one of the better, if not the best, writers in Appalachian dialect.  I do not dispute that he is a fine writer in Appalachian dialect.  But I will always believe that Mildred Haun is a far superior writer of Appalachian dialect.  Her classic work "The Hawk's Done Gone" is far and away the best dialect writing ever done in Appalachian Literature.  As I said earlier, I spent the first twenty years of my life in Knott County Kentucky, was educated there through high school and began my college education at Alice Lloyd College.  I was also reared by my parents, maternal grandparents, and an extended family of aunts and uncles who all grew up in Knott County early in, and in some cases before the turn of the twentieth century.  I know Knott County Appalachian dialect as well as any human on earth and I must insist that there are times when I see that  James Still wrote linguistic expressions which I never heard from my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, farmers at the livestock sales or jockey grounds, or the elderly customers at my parents' country store.  The one word which he used frequently, especially in "River Of Earth" and his short stories and which I never once heard in Knott County is "chaps" in reference to small children.  In my childhood, small children were "young'uns", "chillun", "yard apes", "curtain climbers", and several more conventional, less colloquial terms.  But they were never "chaps".  I suspect that is an expression from Still's youth in Alabama.  Getting back to the comparison between Still and Haun, I will defend Still to the degree that the two of them were writing dialect based on two different subregions of Central Appalachia.  I have also traveled extensively in the Cocke County, TN, area where Haun spent her life and did extensive research among Appalachian serpent handlers there.  The two subdialects have significant differences.  But Haun's consistency and accuracy in writing dialect is superior to James Still's.  It is also worth noting that it is only 63 miles from Harrogate, TN, where Still attended college to Newport, TN, where Haun lived her life.  I do not know that Still ever spent time in Newport but since he and Haun both attended Vanderbilt University it is possible that he did know her and might have even visited the area which would have also exposed him to the dialect which she wrote so admirably.  It is also possible that Still's travels from Chambers County Alabama to Claiborne County Tennessee to Davidson County Tennessee to Knott County Kentucky could have provided a plethora to opportunity for Still to blend the dialects of the four to a degree that not even he recognized. 

Do not allow anything I have said in this post to leave you with the impression that I do not respect and value the writing of James Still in all genres in which he wrote.  He is definitely at the vanguard of writers about Appalachia.  His short fiction can stand up well in comparison to nearly any other writer in American Literature.  The book "The Hills Remember..." is a compulsory read if you intend to believe or say that you understand the literature of Appalachia.  Buy a copy and read it sometime soon.  You will enjoy it greatly. 

Visiting The Smithsonian Exhibition At Wayland, KY

On Saturday, April 8, 2017, my wife Candice and I took a short road trip back to my roots to visit a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution at the old Wayland High School Gymnasium in Wayland, KY, which is about midway between three key points in my life: Lackey, KY, where I was born; Steele's Creek where my parents lived for the first six years of my life; and Dema, KY, where I lived with my parents until their deaths in 1970 and 1971.  The exhibition is titled "Hometown Teams" and will be touring a variety of small towns all over the country where high school sports have been a major part of local history, culture, and family life.  A full list of the Kentucky schedule for the exhibit in Kentucky can be found at this link.  The exhibit is supported by local volunteers and local items of interest and is well worth seeing at any of its stopping points. The exhibit will be in Wayland until April 22, 2017, and will move on to a sizable list of other sites in Kentucky.  If you can't catch it in Wayland, try to see it in another town near you. It is a part of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum On Main Street program.  I strongly recommend that you see this exhibition if it is anywhere near you.  The current illegitimate administration in Washington is attacking every kind of cultural, social, educational, and medical program within the federal government.  See this exhibition while you can.  The Smithsonian could be the next program under attack.  

Wayland High School & Gymnasium Photo by Wikipedia

Wayland High School Entrance Photo by Jamie In Wanderland

The exhibition is in two separate locations in Wayland.  The first is called the Gymnasium Annex which is a simple, cinder block building which sits on the site of the former Wayland Grade School on the same property as the historic Wayland Gymnasium and the sadly decrepit Wayland High School where many of my family members attended school.  The sight of the former high school with most of its windows shattered and obvious damage throughout is a powerful reminder that everything about consolidation was not good.  The grade school was demolished years ago when the property was first sold into private hands in order to build the building which is now the Gymnasium Annex which is another in a line of several lives which that building has had including its original purpose as a store.  My sister Barbara and nearly a dozen cousins attended school at one or both of the old schools.  I never attended school there since my parents left the Wayland area in 1957, the year in which I turned six and began school at Salisbury in Knott County.  But I did attend several basketball games in the gymnasium over my high school years both as manager of the Knott County Cardinals team for one year and simply as a spectator later.  

"King" Kelly Coleman photo by Gordon Moore

The gymnasium is a classic example of a rectangular wooden cracker box gym built all over the south more than a hundred years ago.  It is one of the few such still remaining and very few if any hold the history which that gym holds. The ground floor had no real concession area and limited bathrooms, few spectator seats by today's standards, and the playing floor ended so close to the end walls that pads were required to prevent player injuries.  But a lot of Kentucky basketball history was made on that floor.  The original scoreboard is still in place with large sign which lists the scoring records set by "King" Kelly Coleman on that beat up old hardwood floor.  The building is now being used for periodic league and pickup games as well as social events.  

Wayland High School was the home school for the most famous high school basketball player in the history of the state, "King" Kelly Coleman, who still holds many individual scoring records both in regular season and tournament games.  Kelly played at Wayland in the late 1950's when I was too young to be a basketball fan.  But during the 1960's, both of his brothers, Phillip and Keith, played basketball for Wayland High School.  Both Kelly and Phillip led Wayland teams to the Kentucky High School Basketball Tournament, the Sweet Sixteen.  Keith had a far less lustrous career but he and I became good friends after we both graduated from high school in 1968 and briefly attended Alice Lloyd College.  During this visit to Wayland for the exhibit, I learned for the first time that Keith Coleman had died in Lexington, KY, on January 14, 2017.  Phillip Coleman had died in Viet Nam in 1966 shortly after he played in the Kentucky State Tournament and graduated from Wayland High School.  Learning about the death of Keith Coleman and another dear friend of ours, Kim Watkins who had been a Wayland Cheerleader in the 1960's, was the one dark spot in that day for Candice & I.  

Phillip Coleman photo by the Coleman Family

On a brighter note, Candice & I encountered a cousin of mine, Charlotte Hicks Caudill, and her husband Ted Caudill at the exhibit also.  Charlotte writes a weekly column for The Troublesome Creek Times in Hindman, KY, and had come to the exhibit to cover it for the paper.  We also encountered retired attorney Jim Hammonds from Prestonsburg and Charlotte included a photo and comments about several of us in her article about the exhibit. I also encountered a relative of two other friends long dead, Avery Chaffins and Snap Conley, who had died in a car wreck at Garrett, KY, in the 1970's near a gas station which was operated by another cousin of mine and Charlotte's, Winfred Rice, who had died in 1988 after operating that gas station for many years.  Incidentally, we also drove past that gas station which was being auctioned off that morning and that also was a bittersweet moment.  I have no idea who the last owner of that property was and I would not have been remotely interested in owning it but I would have loved to be able to attend the auction. But the schedule for the exhibit on Saturdays is only four hours long and time was short. 

Keith Coleman photo by the Coleman Family

Getting back to the exhibition, it is housed both in the Gymnasium Annex and in the Wayland City Hall building just up the street.  It contains a multitude of sports trophies, athletic equipment, and sports letter jackets from several high schools in the area and is well worth seeing for anyone who grew up in the area surrounding Wayland, played high school sports, or simply just loves Eastern Kentucky History and memorabilia.  It is my understanding that as the exhibition moves from location to location it will change somewhat in the memorabilia shown in order to highlight the particular area it is in.  The Wayland Historical Society also has an excellent collection of high quality antiques in the City Hall building which would be worth seeing at any time even after the Smithsonian Exhibition is gone.  Pick a day and go to see the exhibit.  You will enjoy it just as much as Candice, Charlotte, Ted, and I, and you might also run into some old friends or relatives too.