Search This Blog

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. 

No comments: