"Menfolks Are Heathens": Cruelty in James Still's Short Stories

by Fred Chappell
Used with permission.
Approximately 6 pages.

My subject in these scattered and ramshackle remarks is the presence of cruelty in James Still's short stories. It is not an easy subject to define, and not always easy to recognize.

I expect that a sociologist would tell us that in a poverty-stricken society, among a people largely without education and with fiercely insular interests, a people whose daily anxieties are concerned with the effort toward bare survival, cruelty is a form of release and a necessary though regrettable mode of communal discourse. That is one indication why sociology is mostly pretentious humbug while good fiction is enduring and engaging truth.

Of course, I have set up a straw man to knock down and trample upon. So far as I know, sociologists have left Still's stories mercifully alone. That is a good thing because the author would, I believe, disagree with almost every one of a sociologist's premises about his Kentucky subject matter. If I read correctly the tone and temperament of these stories, then Still would not describe the condition on Troublesome Creek as poverty. The people have no money, it is true; but it is also true that one is poor only in comparison to someone who is wealthy, or at least better off than oneself. As no one is wealthy on Troublesome Creek, then no one is poor either. The lack of money is such an ordinary fact that, like the weather, it is simply taken for granted, usually not even noticed. If survival is sometimes a narrow squeak, it is this danger that gives relish to it and helps to define the character of the place and of the people. Poverty -- insofar as it is isolated as a fact unto itself -- is seen in Still's work as a positive value rather than a negative one.

The same with education. Very few of the charcters in these stories have much book-learning. So what? The older characters -- and even some of the younger ones -- voice a deep and abiding skepticism about the value of education. They do so not because they are envious and barbarian by nature, but because they recognize institutional education as an intrusion upon their native cultural values and think of it as fanciful and irrelevant to the world in which they live. There are some important exceptions to my description, but I think it is largely correct. And it is notable as marking Still apart from his colleagues in Appalachian fiction. If there is one single large theme that dominates the bulk of Appalachian fiction it is the coming of education to the backward knobs and hollers. From Thomas Wolfe to Jesse Stuart to Lee Smith, this story has much exercised our writers.

But education is a paradoxical theme. If the characters in these books are proud to have pulled themselves up by their multiplication tables, then they are forced to recognize that in doing so they have put some distance between themselves and the culture which nurtured them. They have become -- to greater or lesser extent -- outsiders, and have made themselves objects of wonder and scorn, admiration or contumely. And this queasy bit of alienation makes them, I would submit, not entirely trustworthy as reporters.

If I read Still's attitude correctly -- and, to be honest about it, I'm never certain that I do -- he has no illusions about education as panacea. He believes that Appalachia might have done as well without education as with it. He sides as much with the most thoroughly unlettered of his characters as with the proud readers. Education is associated with the inhumane coal mines and the scurvy attempts at industrialization as well as with the pleasures of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift.

He takes one side as much as the other: this ability, or propensity, is one that perhaps distinguishes Still's writing from all the rest of Appalachian writing. The rest of us are apt, consciously or unconsciously, to editorialize. And to editorialize, I must say, in an ambiguous and illogical fashion. "The old way," we say, "was often harsh, unfeeling, cruel, unhealthy, and disastrous. isn't it a shame that is is passing away?" We seemed proud of our birthright, sure enough, but are also willing to sell it for a mess of algebra.

Poverty and lack of formal education are two parts of Appalachian life that have drawn much liberal concern. Enormous and complex government programs have been set in place to combat these two evils which I believe Still does not regard absolutely as evils but simply as historic cultural conditions with their own cultural validity. I do not know how he feels about health care, another target of liberal govenmental programming; perhaps he feels the same distrust.

And maybe he is correct in these views that I have imputed to him. It is difficult to understand and accept the inner values of a culture when they collide with the notions of the larger American culture about what is right and wrong. We are all too quick to leap to judgments without closely observing what it is that we judge.

Cruelty is a case in point. I certainly am not going to aver that James Still sees human cruelty as a necessary part of the Appalachian culture and approves of it. I think, in fact, that he condemns it as much as a literary artist is at liberty to condone or to condemn; but I also think that he is clear-eyed about cruelty; he takes it in stride in his fiction and is at some pains never to sensationalize it.

But first we must distinguish what cruelty may be defined as in Still's work. He sees, in the first place, one mode of Appalachian social intercourse as a complicated series of dares and challenges among the males. The story called "The Stir Off" is a good -- and goodnatured -- example of his delineation of the sort of behavior I am talking about. In this story the young boy goes to a molasses stir-off, a traditional social event, sponsored by the family patriarch, Gid Buckheart. This rambunctious father has five sons, "tough as whang leather," and four daughters. Plumey, one of the daughters, is to be married -- seemingly against her father's wishes -- to a fellow named Rant Branders. This impending surprise marriage requires the presence at the shindig of Squire Letcher, a "law-square" who is to legalize the wedding. Not only does old Gid Buckheart oppose the young Rant Branders, he also seems to feel that he has an ancient score to settle with Squire Letcher. The stage is set for many different conflicts.

Which begin soon enough. Jimp Buckheart is the narrator's friend and has invited him to attend. They are about the same age -- both quite young. Jimp is in favor of the marriage because the prospective bridegroom has promised to hammer out for Jimp a pair of brass knuckles. The narrator protests: "Hit's not honest to fight with knucks unless a feller's bigger'n you." But his sense of honor is assuaged when he finds out that Jimp only wants to fight his brother Bailus. Jimp, it seems, owns a pet weasel which Bailus wishes to borrow for rabbit hunting. "Ere I'd let Bailus borrow, I'd crack its neck," Jimp says.

The two boys then make a tour of the grounds, as Jimp explains the complexities of the situation and characterizes several members of his family for his guest. Then they stop to rest in a weed patch "where noggin sticks grew tall and brittle." Here Jimp comes up with a civilized suggestion for a pastime. "Let's crack each other's skulls and see who hollers first," he says. The narrator admits that he "winced, dreading the pain," but he does not back down. "We broke five sticks apiece, and felt for goose eggs on our head."

As the story continues, the narrator takes a ride on Jimp's "fly-jenny," a kind of crude Kentucky mechanical bull like those the urban cowboys test their manhood on nowadays. Two unnamed fellows provide the party with entertainment by "rooster-fighting," that is, by boxing without the use of fists. The tough father, Gid Buckheart, challenges Squire Letcher to a fight and menaces him into falling into the "sorghum-hole." The squire comes out "green as a mossed turkle."

This event is the signal for a pitched battle. "And then it was Old Gid's boys began punching, and fellows shoved and fought to keep clear of the hole. Jimp and I were in the midst of the battle. Gid's boys soused a plenty; they soused folk invited or not, and they ducked one another too."

Then the father, Old Gid, challenges his prospective son-in-law, grasping his hand, and Rant Branders satisfies him that he is indeed a proper man. "He stood prime up to Old Gid, and wouldn't be conquered." The wedding is allowed to take place.

Then Jimp must challenge his guest. "Me and you hain't never fit," he says. "Fighting makes good buddies." Of course, it is not in the other boy to withdraw. They fight, observed by Jimp's younger sister, Peep Eye, who has taken a liking to the narrator. "We fought with our fists, and it was tuggety-pull, and neither of us could out-do." When they stand apart, reconciled, Peep Eye runs up, strikes the narrator in the mouth, and runs away again. "Jist a love lick," Jimp explains. "The blow hurt," the narrator says, "but I was proud."

Rough and ready stuff. When Amy Vanderbilt throws a party, this is not how the guests go at it. But maybe they don't have as much fun, either.

There is, however, no cruelty in "The Stir-Off," apart from Jimp's threat to crack his pet ferret's neck. I might even go so far as to say that there is not much aggression, if by aggression we mean serious intent to do another person bodily harm. Bodily pain is not regarded as harm but almost as the memorable part of friendly communication. The pain is real enough, and the narrator admits that he dreads it -- but there is no anger in it. In order to stage the final fight that makes them "good buddies," the two boys have to trade ritual insults, working up enough artificial cause to make the blows convincing.

But we can admit that it takes a special cultural context to enjoy this kind of party. The cheerful wililngness to give and take painful blows -- especially to take them -- is not a talent all of us are born with; and I imagine that an observer with a different cultural background, someone from Rome, say, or from Newport, Rhode Island, might see this molasses stir-off as a convocation of murderous lunatics. Still intends it as an account of a genial and quite well-behaved social event. "The Stir-Off" is a happy story.

It is in unhappy stories that we find cruelty, and it is interesting to compare the cheerful violence of "The Stir-Off" with the sullen nonviolent cruelty we find in another story, "The Moving." The central narrative of the "The Moving" is quite simple, as in most of Still's work. Hardstay mine has closed down and a family is moving out, probably for good. Other members of the community come out to see them off. These include Loss Tramble, a jeering man with a misshapen sense of humor, Cece Goodloe, a mischevious fellow, Hig Sommers, a retarded person who gets events reversed in his head, and Sula Basham, "tall as a butterweed, and with a yellow locket swinging her neck like a clockweight." There are some other characters who mostly just stand about.

The people of the settlement bid the family goodbye, exchange a few remarks among themselves, and then the family departs. That's all there is, in probably not more than 3000 words.

Yet in these words a great deal is shown and intimated; there are many impressive shifts of tone and feeling and judgment.

I surmise that in order to interpret a possible reading of "The Moving" we must understand that the mining community is sad to see the family leave. We are not told that the citizens are sad; sentimentality is not James Still's stock in trade. The one indication the reader gets is in the widowed Sula Basham's exchange with the mother. "You were a comfort when my man lay in his box," she tells her. "I hain't forgetting. Wish I had a keepsake to give you, showing I'll allus remember." The mother replies that she will always remember Sula, and Sula says, "I'll be proud to know it."

From these brief remarks we learn that the departing family is of a kindly nature and has fulfilled its community responsibilities. It is a family well thought of. But the sorrow felt at their departure is couched in language that is mostly scornful and querulous. Sill Lovelock says, "Hit's mortal sin to make gypsies of a family. I say as long's a body has got a rooftree, let him roost under it." Lovelock is not accustomed to voicing sadness; words of frustrated anger are as close as he can come, and his last farewell is: "You're making your bed in Hell!" It is likely that the mother and father can interpret the sad feelings behind Lovelock's harsh sentences, but the story is told by a young boy who cannot. For him it is a comfortless leavetaking.

During the process of departure, Cece Goodloe pulls two practical jokes, "rusties," as they are called in Appalachian dialect. He snatches off the hat of the retarded man, Hig Sommers, and he unhooks the harnessing of the mare to the departing wagon. "Father smiled while adjusting the harness. Oh, he didn't mind a clever trick." In fact, this sort of rusty really is regarded as a clever trick, but it may seem to the reader a particularly inopportune time for one to take place. It is not in itself a cruelty, though the occasion may make it seem so to the narrator.

What is most cruel in this story is the ill treatment of Sula Basham, the tall widow-woman, by a character named Loss Tramble. As soon as he lays eyes upon her he begins to torment. "If I had a woman that tall," he says, "I'd string her with gourds and use her for a martin pole." And the young narrator records the fact that a "dry chuckle rattled in the crowd."

Again, when the father wants someone to return his housekey to the mining commissary, Tramble volunteers. "I'll deliver that key willing if you'll take this beanpole widow-woman along some'eres and git her a man." Sula remarks with some heat that it's a certain fact there's no man in Hardstay worth her time. Tramble will not let go his single ugly joke. "I allus did pity a widow-woman," he says a few moments later. "In this gethering there ought to be one single man willing to marry the Way Up Yonder woman." he says a few moments later. By now Sula has had enough of this guying and takes a threatening step towards Tramble -- and Sula is a formidable physical specimen. "I want none o'your pity pie," she says.

I hope that you-all are as happy as I am to discover that Sula's patience finally runs out. In the last paragraph of the story, the narrator hears the smashing of glass; someone has heaved a rock though a window of the family's deserted house, and the boy looks "back upon the camp as upon the face of the dead." More happily, he sees "the crowd fall back from Sula Basham, tripping over each other. She had struck Loss Tramble with her fist, and he knelt before her, fearing to rise."

My heart leaps for joy when I read that sentence.

Earlier in this episode, the mother has felt constrained to calm Sula, to soothe her in her vexation at Loss Tramble, in her anger at the heartless crowd gathered round. "The Devil take 'em," she says. "Menfolks are heathens. Let them crawl in their own dirt."

Menfolks are heathens: that seems to be about the size of it. The mother, in her remark here, shows the depth of her weary resignation to what she regards as an inescapbable fact. Men are heartless violent creatures who lack not only gallantry and any respect for the dead, but also have not the least conception that other people have feelings and may be hurt. Men have, in her view, no true sense of humor; humor is for these heathens merely an excuse for cruelty, merely a pretext for excoriating the feelings of another person in a socially acceptable way. The worst is, there is not even that much purpose in it. Tramble intends to vex Sula; the point of the joke is to get her riled and cause her to lose her temper. But he cannot see how far he has transgressed the bounds of charity, of ordinary human decency. It is not as much his petty malevolence, bu this ignorant blindness that makes him a "heathen;" he has not the imagination to place himself in another person's shoes. That kind of sympathy is as alien to him as the concept of the neutrino would be.

This blindness, this total incomprehension, on the part of men is summed up in "The Moving" in the figure of Hig Sommers, the witty. Hig is not a cruel person, but well-meaning; but he is retarded and reacts to situations in a backward, upside-down manner. When the departing father wants someone to take his key to the commissary, Hig volunteers. "I'll fotch it," he says. "I'm not a-wanting it fotched," the father says. "You've got it back'ards, Hig. I'm wanting it tuck."

And the final image we get of the mining settlement as we leave it behind forever is that of the witty. "And only Hig Sommers was watching us move away. He stood holding up his breeches, for someone had cut his galluses with a knife. He thrust one arm into the air, crying, 'Hello, hello!'"

These are the last sentences of the story and they follow immediately those sentences which had made me so happy, the ones in which Sula Basham knocks down Loss Tramble with a blow so powerful that he is afraid to get up again. Such a compact juxtaposition of contradictory emotions is rare in fiction and, I would think, extremely difficult to bring off. There are many stories which leave the reader not knowing whether to laugh or cry, but there are very few stories which leave him actually disposed to do both.

We know who has cut the galluses of Hig Sommers' overalls. It was Cece Goodloe, who also unhooked the trace chains of the family wagon. To cut the galluses of someone's overalls is regarded as an acceptable and even a clever rusty; it is recorded as such other times in Still's fiction. But surely it is not acceptable, surely it is despicable, to pull rusties on a retarded person. If, up to this point in the story, we had regarded Cece Goodloe as a mischievous but probably harmless joker, our perceptions of him must now change. He goes into the crowd with the rest of the "dead," the "heathens." And perhaps we were wrong all along. Maybe these men of the mining community feel no inarticulate sadness at the family's departure; maybe they are only little, sneaking, hard, unfeeling men who lack the courage to move from this one place they know and are envious of the father's courage. It is Sula who tells them that "This mine hain't opening ag'in. Hit's too nigh dug out." And their answer to that is: "They's Scripture ag'in a feller hauling off the innocent."

I admitted early on that I am often uncertain how to read some of Still's finely laconic stories. And here I don't know how to read the character of this group of men. Are they saddened at the family's leaving but with no way to voice their sadness? Or are they only contemptibly ugly little creatrues to be left to stew in their own pettiness?

I think that I finally incline to the latter reading for two reasons. The first reason is that the family is leaving Hardstay, which is a mining settlement. Mining communities are generally seen in Still's fiction as bitter ugly places that one ought to escape as soon as possible. That powerful novel, River of Earth, is careful to oppose the hell of a mining community with the paradise of a mountain farm. Nowhere in Still's work is the mining settlement life seen as a happy experience; an individual family may be happy at times -- as in "I Love My Rooster" -- but as a social and communal life it is usually portrayed as being quite dreadful.

That is an extraneous reason for my seeing the group of men in "The Moving" in such an ugly light. It is not an entirely convincing reason because of the fact that no wirter is obliged to be consistent in his attitudes from story to story, from one literary work to another. Each single story or poem has its own needs and laws, and both writer and reader must be content to abide by them.

My other reason for preferring a gloomy reading of the characters of "The Moving" is attached to a detail in the story. When we first meet the tall woman, Sula Basham, we see that she has "a yellow locket swinging her neck like a clockweight." It is a characteristic of Still's writing to portray scenes with dark or gray backgrounds and then to set just one single bright primary color against this background. In "The Moving" the yellow locket is this single bright color. I have already quoted the passage in which the mother and Sula exchange endearments and in which Sula wishes she had a keepsake to give the mother to remember her by. The mother has already, a few minutes earlier, looked at the locket, "not covetously, but in wonder." The little boy thinks of his mother's "unpierced ear lobes where never a bob had hung, the warm stems of her fingers never circled by gold, her plain bosom no pin-pretty had ever hooked." Then, when the father at last clucks up the mare and the family drives away with that cheerful admonition, "You're making your bed in Hell!" ringing behind them, the little boy makes a discovery. "Then it was," he tells us, "I saw the gold locket about Mother's neck, beating her bosom like a heart." Sula has given the mother as keepsake what was her own one thing of value.

The importance of the locket is not only to show the love and friendship that obtains between the two women, feelings of a sort the miners can never know or participate in. It is important that the mother is carrying it away, taking out of Hardstay the last bit of bright color. There is to be not one speck of joy left in Hardstay, not for the callous men and -- more terribly -- not for Sula either. The tall woman is condemned to stay behind to endure the insults and the mockery of these men, perhaps -- most terrible of all -- to marry one of them.

Small wonder then that the boy looks back upon the camp "as upon the face of the dead."

All this is dramatized, as I noted, in a story probably not more than 3000 words long. "The Moving" ought to be for writers an object lesson to show what effects can be got out of cruelty in fiction when that cruelty is not gratuitous or sensationalized or used as an excuse for the author to indulge in a sermon. When it is observed dispassionately, drawn in a work as a cultural condition, it can arouse in readers feelings not of anger or indignation but of tenderness and compassion and regret. To get a sharp idea of what Still has accomplished, we have only to imagine how Erskine Caldwell might have handled the same material.

Would James Still agree with the mother's weary generalization? I doubt it. I don't think he sees all menfolks as heathens; that was just the attitude that "The Moving" called for. In another equally masterful story, "Snail Pie," it is the woman's coy sentimentality that amounts to cruelty, in a more complex situation.

Cruelty in Still's fiction is a large topic, and that is why I chose two comparatively simple stories to talk about in my limited space of time. I think that it is a subject worth pursuing for some scholar more intrepid and more adventurous than I. But it must be a scholar who understands the ways of Appalachia and who can discern what cruelty actually amounts to in this context.

Here I am content simply to let the topic show how beautifully Still can handle a single one of the elements of his fiction. I might have chosen any other subject matter -- animals, memory, girlhood, money -- and examined it in his work and have come to the same conclusion: that James Still is one of the best writers we ever had.

FRED CHAPPELL is Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of four novels; four volumes of poetry which have been published together as Midquest (1981); another collection of poems, The World Between the Eyes; and a collection of short stories, Moments of Light. He has won the Roanoke-Chowan Award for poetry four times and numerous other awards.