(Approximately 4 pages.)
Dear Professor Stoneback,
Vanderbilt was long ago and to answer your questions about my graduate year there will require a bit of head scratching. I had my noggin inside one book or another the whole year. Edwin Mims picked the courses for me, which did not include one of his own. He was the spit image of my Grandpa Lindsey down in Buffalo Wallow, Alabama. I attended his lecture on the subject of evolution, the "monkey trial" at Dayton, Tennessee, being a sizzling issue of the day. At term's end I presented my thesis for his approval and signature and he said he would sign it after Dr. Curry and Professor Ransom affixed theirs. He did, without riffling a page. In a lecture at Alumni Hall he introduced me to the poetry of T.S. Eliot, a newcomer on the literary horizon. His recently published The Advancing South was held in considerable disregard by some faculty members. They would shortly offset it with a publication of their own.
The "Fugitives" of Vanderbilt University were on the verge of publishing I'll Take My Stand, a manifesto on Jeffersonian agrarianism as well as presenting a sardonic view of industrial society, and which over the past sixty years has built up a literature of its own. Those present read their chapters to us. Robert Penn Warren, who later recanted his part, was at Oxford University, Andrew Lytle at nearby Sewanee University. Lytle read a play to us, not his contribution. John Crowe Ransom with his book The New Criticism inaugurated a method of close reading of poetic texts which caught hold in English departments here and abroad. One of the great teachers, according to the American Scholar. Quiet, kindly, a Southern gentleman of the old school, he stretched our imaginations beyond the subject at hand, "The English Novel."
During the first week in the American Literature class, Dr. John Donald Wade tested our familiarity with the authors of merit from the Civil War forward. I made a perfect score. Nobody else managed a passing grade. Dr. Wade called me to his office next day, told me he was now my advisor, and said, "You don't have to bother with my class. Just drop in once in a while and learn what we're up to." Or some such statement. I took him at his word and skipped every other class. I was being sorely pressed by Chaucer. My contribution to the History of American Literature the class composed was the chapters on Cotton and Increase Mather. Some twenty years later when Katherine Ann Porter told me she was writing about the Mathers I was prepared to discuss the subject.
The Chaucer class under Dr. Walter Clyde Curry, as we would say here, was "a horse." Attended by me with fear and trembling as I suspect did others, and yet it was the most rewarding of all. I once calculated that I spent seventeen hours in preparation for each of the two classes per week. And I chose to write my thesis under his direction: "The Function of Dreams and Visions in the Middle English Romances." Why, given a choice, did I opt to do a thesis under this strictest of professors, unrelenting, a perfectionist, some said cruel? Or select a subject which required learning practically overnight to read Middle English and to wade through more than one hundred volumes of the Early English Text Society? Dr. Curry read each section of the thesis as I presented them during the year, gave no suggestions, never the slightest hint I was doing acceptable work. At school's end he remarked to me in class, "From where you started you have made more progress than anyone in this course." But how far did I get? I was never called for orals or to defend my thesis. Probably an oversight. The professor's wife wrote to me at a later date after reading a story of mine and added the comment, "I understand that while you were at Vanderbilt you did not have a course under my husband."I spent a weekend at Wilder, Tennessee, where a strike had been in progress for more than a year. I had gone to this benighted mine camp along with two other Vanderbilt students to deliver a truckload of food and clothing collected in Nashville for the strikers. I was to ride in the truck with the driver, Barney Green, who was to lose his life in the cause later. Barney thought it an unnecessary risk as he was subject to being highjacked. We found the people drawn and pale from malnourishment, although their resolve was strong and unshaken. They were held together by their common misery. The town was divided, the scabs living in the camp houses on one side, the strikers on the other. There was a "dead line" and one crossed it at his peril. On the strikers' side, the water and electricity were cut off. It was my first inkling that folk could starve to death in the United States of America in plain view of a largely indifferent populace. At that time the Red Cross had not yet allowed their flour to be distributed to these people. I lodged in the home of Jim Crownover, president of the union that year, and caught "thrush," an infection of the mouth, from which his children were suffering. We attended a gathering at one of the homes after dark, blowing out the light before leaving, thus not to provide a ready target for a sharpshooter. Arriving men deposited pistols, rifles, and shotguns on a bed. The conversation was as gloomy as the light shed by a coal-oil lamp. When the meeting was over a banjo picker provided music for a bit of square dancing. Until spring, when my benefactor increased my stipend a bit, my two meals a day consisted of a ten-cent bowl of cereal in the morning and a thirty-five-cent supper at a boardinghouse. I lived in the home of a widow at 1913 Broad Street, the only roomer in a house of heavy mahogany furniture and drawn curtains and silence. The widow considered it an aberration that I insisted on a hot bath every day. I blew the speckles of soot from the railroad yards off my pillow at night. The widow's children were adults, rarely encountered. The son operated a nightclub on the river; the daughter, probably in her late twenties, had some sort of night work, presumably at the club. The few times I passed the daughter in the hall she was swathed in mink and her "Night in Paris" perfume lingered after. She never spoke. The nightclub burned in March, the son in it. I never set eyes on the widow again. I pushed the rent money under her door when due.
In December, en route to Florida, Mr. Loomis stopped by Nashville and had me to lunch. It was raining and he inquired, "Have you no raincoat?" Instead of saying no, I skirted the question with, "You said you would make it possible, not easy." Though he didn't provide the coat --- I believe he forgot about it as we talked --- he seemed impressed enough with my progress to mention staking me to another year in school. To learn something practical, with earning possibilities. He would choose this time. The library school of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I had never considered being a librarian, yet the Depression was still with us and it was something to do. A force-put, as we say.
After a year at Illinois I had earned three diplomas; I had graduated three times in the same pair of shoes. And I had no prospects for employment. First, I applied to the Library of Congress for their reference division. They waited three years to suggest an interview. I was ashamed to go home. I tried the CCC -- Civilian Conservation Corps. I attempted selling Bibles for Nashville's Southwestern Publishers in Lee County, Mississippi. I picked cotton in Texas. I recollect a hungry night atop a lumber pile in Shreveport, Louisiana. I walked, thumbed, rode the rails. An open freight car I jumped into as it departed a station bore a contingent of World War I veterans on the way to join the Bonus Army in Washington, D.C. I tried Sears, Roebuck, in Atlanta. Signed up with an employment agency. When I tackled the boss of a stove foundry in Rome, Georgia, for a job he burst into laughter. Nothing worked.
In Nashville I looked up Don West, a former classmate, at that time preparing for the ministry. He informed me he and his wife would be conducting vacation Bible schools in Knott County, Kentucky, during July and August. He invited me to join his son-in-law, Jack Adams, in organizing a recreational program at three sites, three Boy Scout troops and three baseball teams. As a volunteer. So it came to be. We camped and played ball all summer and I became enamored with the forested mountains, the valleys and hollows of this backwoods country, and with the independent and forthright folk. I was toying with the notion of moving into an abandoned log house and trying my hand at writing when the Hindman Settlement School at the forks of Troublesome Creek offered the job of librarian, again as a volunteer -- room, board, and laundry furnished. At that period the school was in severe financial straits.
Don West departed and I was not to see him again for many years. He went on to found Highlander Folk School with a partner near Chattanooga, Tennessee, where they trained blacks and whites in social awareness and union organization. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were among his students. He headed the National Miners Union in Harlan County, Kentucky, during the "mine wars" and suffered every indignity -- jail, beatings, maiming, and visits from the Ku Klux Klan. When the Freedom of Information Act was passed and he had access to FBI files, his record covered more than four hundred pages. J. Edgar Hoover had stayed on his trail. Jack Adams joined the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and died in a trench in Spain.
Founded in 1901 by two Kentucky women, graduates of Wellesley College, the Hindman Settlement School evolved from a summer session in a pitched tent to eventually eight buildings at Hindman, the county seat. The instructors were mostly Wellesley graduates. Men on the staff usually locals. The students were drawn from adjoining counties and rigidly selected. At most this boarding school could accomodate one hundred and there was no tuition. It was not church-related. Students worked in the vegetable garden, dairy, or upkeep of grounds and buildings. Outstanding graduates sometimes achieved scholarships at Wellesley and Harvard though most continued their education at Berea College. A member of the first graduating class obtained a doctorate at the Sorbonne.
Hindman was a village of some two hundred souls with a single blacktop road leading from Hazard in Perry County and terminating abruptly in midtown at the creek bank where a bridge had washed out. Until another bridge was in place, a body had to walk a plank during low-water or resort to a jumping-pole when there was a "tide." You could cash a check at 4:00 a.m., the cashier an early riser, and call for mail at midnight, the postmaster an insomniac. I was assigned Box 13. Nobody else would have it. I had come to the "jumping off place." The first week I witnessed a fatal shooting and admitted the fact whereas several bystanders would not. There followed warnings to stay out of town, a court trial, an embarrassment to the school, and a sense of being in the"doghouse."
I remained at the Hindman Settlement School for six years. The library was excellent, the students eager, the staff highly motivated. Aware that the many one-room schools of the county were without access to a library, I began spending one day a week --- my own undertaking --- walking from school to school with a carton of children's books on my shoulder, and changing the collection every two weeks. I could serve only four schools in this manner. Often as I approached I would hear the cry, "Here comes the book boy." The first three years at the Hindman Settlement I received no salary. The Depression slackening they paid me a few dollars the next three. Averaging it out I had worked six years for six cents a day. One of the summers I served as a social worker for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and this evidence sparked my novel River of Earth. And the murderer my testimony had helped to send to the penitentiary was pardoned and came to see me. An encounter too complicated to relate here. He lost his life shortly after in a shoot-out.
I started creative writing rather suddenly. I can almost point to the day. I was twenty-six. First were poems which appeared in the Atlantic, the Yale Review, the Nation, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals. The few dollars earned kept me in razor blades, socks, and other human necessities. The Viking Press published a collection of poems in 1937. I took up the short story and my first appeared in the Atlantic. Several were chosen for the O. Henry Memorial Prize Stories, one winning an award, and in Best American Short Stories in the years following. Martha Foley, editor of the latter, commented: "A delight to read are James Still's warm-hearted stories of his Kentucky neighbors whom he depicts in an English language as unspoiled as when Chaucer and the Elizabethan first made it into glorious literature." A heady encomium for a novice.
I recall distinctly the Saturday morning I began writing a novel in the storeroom of the high school. Here I always retreated for my one hour off during the school day, and on Saturdays when my duties allowed. The principal was to remark, "He goes in, bolts the door, and only God knows what he does in there."
I began River of Earth:
It was time to move on.
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