J. Frank White Academy Students
The latest offering in McFarland’s Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies series is an insightful look into the life and work of the Dean of Appalachian Literature, James Still, in the book James Still in Interviews, Oral Histories and Memoirs, edited by Ted Olson. Olson has compiled a remarkable collection of essays by some of the most respected and widely recognized names in Appalachian literature, writers who credit Still as their inspiration. Unlike Olson’s 2008 collection on Still for the Contributions series, James Still: Critical Essays on the Dean of Appalachian Literature, this one is less academic in nature and more biographical. The book is divided into two sections. The first section, “Still in His Own Words: Interviews and Oral Histories,” is a compilation of virtually every interview conducted with James Still. Reading the text, rich with Still’s own words, is like having the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Still for a one on one conversation.
In the oral histories and interviews section, Still shares details about his work, his family, and his youth. He talks about his close kinship with the part of Kentucky he called home for so many years and what he loved about the place and its people, and how it affected his writing. In “Pattern of a Writer” by Dean Cadle, Still talks to Cadle over dinner at the Hindman Settlement School about his own writing process. “I’ve got a jillion stories to write,” he says. “I’ll never get them all written.” He tells Cadle about his system of dropping ideas and notes about possible story ideas into folders. “Whenever I see something that appeals to me, I jot it down and drop it in the appropriate folder.”
Still was certainly not known for seeking recognition or fame for his work. “I don’t think a writer should allow himself to be used to promote his writing,” he tells Cadle. “My writing speaks for itself. What I wear or have for breakfast or even my opinions have nothing to do with my writing.” Still himself confirms the value of Olson’s meticulous research in collecting material that allows readers to know a little bit more about the man himself.
The authors listed in the table of contents of the second section, “Still on Other People’s Minds: Memoirs,” reads like a who’s who of Appalachian writers. Still’s voice resonates throughout the essays by well-loved writers, such as Jesse Stuart, Lee Smith, Gurney Norman, Silas House, and Jim Wayne Miller. They share what Still has meant to them as writers and his important contribution to raising awareness of the beauty and the significance of Appalachian literature. The titles speak to the reverence and admiration with which these writers remember Mr. Still and his influence: “Green Peppers and a Straw Hat,” “Terrain of the Heart,” “His Side of the Mountains,” “Reflections on Pappy Still.” The essays in this section are personal tributes to a remarkable man whose craft has stood the test of time and who is even today garnering new fans.
In his essay “Remembering James Still,” Silas House writes, “James Still will be remembered for many things. Above all, he will be remembered for his writing. But for those who knew him. . . Still will be remembered for his humanity, for his ongoing discovery.” Ted Olson’s well-researched collection will help ensure that both old and new James Still fans have the opportunity to benefit from his “ongoing discovery.”