The Seamless Vision of James Still

by Fred Chappell Used with permission
As published in Appalachian Journal, Spring 1981, pg. 196-202.
James Still's novel, River of Earth, was first published in 1940; it was reissued in 1978 by the University Press of Kentucky, with a brief but enlightening foreword by Dean Cadle. Here is a paragaraph from the novel:

The waters ran yellow, draining acid from the mines, cankering rocks in the bed. The rocks were snuffy brown, eaten and crumbly. There were no fish swimming in the eddies, nor striders looking at themselves in the waterglass. Bare willows leaned over. They threw a golden shadow on the water.

I do not know what writers may have had influences over Still's style and conception. From internal evidence in some of his short stories, one might guess at an eighteenth-century author like Swift. But if his prose reminds me of anyone else at all, it would have to be of Kipling. His severe and telling economy, his selection of pointed detail, the use of color, the cool and almost innocent dispassion -- these qualities wer find in the best of Kipling's fiction, and almost nowhere else in English literature. And a comparison might be drawn between Still's unobtrusive use of the Appalachian expression "waterglas" and some instance of Kipling's sprinkling-about of East Indian words and expressions.

Above all, one is struck by the force of understatement in both authors; and by the strategy of narration, a voice reporting, almost objectively from inside a context only dimly comprehended by the larger world outside. These latter two qualities lend to Still and Kipling their manner of quickly established authority. They both have suffered the times and places they write about; and while they hold to deeply caring attitudes, they are equally unsurprised at any vicissitude or inequity they find.

In his much-too-short "Afterword" to his book of stories, The Run for the Elbertas (University Press of Kentucky, 1980), Still says, "My writings drew on everyday experiences and observations. I only wrote when an idea overwhelmed me." A reader who has gone though Still's storie0s with even minimal attention will surely believe his latter sentence here. The stories are set down too clearly, too forcefully and economically, to have been written by someone writing for money, or writing for the sake of writing; each of them seems as necessary in its place in teh universe as every piece of metal or glass, every scrap of cloth, to be ffound in a mountain cabin.

But a reader might wonder about what Still would describe as an "idea" for a story. His stories seem not to have ideas in the usual fictional way; they are not stories about what would happen if (as in, say, Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" or James's "The Aspern Papers"), but about what did happen when. "The Fun Fox," for example, and "The Stir-Off" and "The Master Time" (the latter in Pattern of a Man, Gnomon Press, 1976) are not stories in the usual sense; they are accounts, so severe in the restriction of authorial intrusion that to the unaccustomed eye they might look like reportage. There are no surprises, no unexpected twists. Once the basic situation is set up -- teh conflict between a schoolmaster and a local mischief-maker, or merely a celebration party -- it plays itself out to the end. And when the situation comes to its natural ending, the story concludes. As simple as that. And as difficult.

Still's story lines are as clean and strong ast he lines of Shaker furniture. In one of his best stories, "The Nest," a little girl is sent by her parents to spend a night with her AUnt Clissa. She loses her way and dies of exposure. That's all there is. The narrative line is simpler than that of "Little Red Riding Hood," simpler even than Bill Monroe's ballad, "Footprints in the Snow."

Yet it is an effective story, eand deeply moving. Here is the final paragraph:

Nezzie came down the slope. She lost a shoe and walked hippity-hop, one shoe on, one shoe off. The pasture was feathery as a pillow. A bush plucked her bonnet, snatching it away; the bush wore the bonnet on a limb. Nezzie laughed. She was laughing when the cows climbed by, heads wreathed in a fog of breath, and when a fox horn blew afar. Her drowsiness increased. It grew until it could no longer be borne. She parted a clump of broomsage and crept inside. She clasped her knees, rounding the grass with her body. It was like a rabbit's bed. It was a nest.

Ironic pathos gives this paragraph much of its strength. Nezzie has survived a freezing night alone on the mountain, only to succumb when very close to shelter and the comfort of kinfolk. (It is her Uncle Barlow sounding the fox horn in order to direct her steps.) The choice of detail reinforces that ironic strength; she is close enough to her destination to meet the cows coming from milking, those cows whose warmth ought to be solace and comfort, their "heads wreathed in a fog of breath." Still allows himself few allusions in his prose, and when he does they are to the basic and primeval texts, to the Bible or to folk myths or fairy tales. Here he enjambs two allusions to nursery rhymes, "hippity-hop, one shoe on, one shoe off," emphasizing not only Nezzie's extreme youth -- she is six years old -- but also to the lost protection of her family. Earlier she had remembered how her father sang to her baby brother, "Up, little horse, let's hie to mill." The bush snatches off her bonnet to wear; it is anthropomorphized as in an Arthur Rackham illustration for a children's book. The last two sentences underscore both Nezzie's close feeling for the world of nonhuman nature and her terrible true distance from it: "It was like a rabbit's bed. It was a nest."

Still's poem, "Spring on Troublesome Creek" (in Hounds on the Mountain, Viking Press, 1939) begins, "Not all of us were warm, not all of us." That kind of bitter, half-mocking statement exemplifies the litotic attitude toward natural hardship thoughout all his work. His idea seems to be that we can know nothing of nature until we have endured it in its calamitous aspects. Knowledge of nature must be earned; love of nature must be earned, and can be. The same poem ends, "We have come through/To the grass, to the cows calving in the lot."

Human nature is no less a trial than nonhuman. Many of Still's characters have hard protective shells and thorny borders, and other characters must undergo certain ritual tests in order to make and to preserve friendships. Characters rarly meet one another; they are ritually intitiated into each other's confidence. There are even bad characters -- villains, if you will -- in Still's work. I would name Aus Coggins and Harl and Tibb from River of Earth, and maybe Crafton Rowan form "Pattern of a Man," though he is treated humorously. Should we include Hodge Mulddraugh from River of Earth? He has probably murdered -- Still does not absolutely say so -- the schoolmaster. Should we include Godey Spurlock form "A Ride on the Short Dog"? Godey is no more than uncontrollably obtuse and mischievous, but see what destruction resultes. Yet if we mark down Godey Spurlock as a "bad" person, why not Mace Crownover or even that marvelously alive character, Uncle Jolly?

One factor which complicates our moral categorizations is the ancient mountain tradition of the "rusty." To play a mischievous prank on someone, especially a prank that causes him to lose face, is "to pull a rusty." (To do something merely foolish, to make fun of oneself, is "to cut a dido.") But the rusy is susceptible of ambiguous social judgements. To clip a man's overalls galluses while he stands talking is a good rusty; to cut the cinch strap of his saddle is unacceptable behavior. Every rusty demands revenge; the victim is expected to return prank for prank, but when it gets out of hand -- as in the case of a cut cinch strap -- then revenge amounting to bloodshed may be called for.

"The Run for the Elbertas" is a story which is a string of rusties. On a 500-mile round trip to pick up ripe South Carolina peaches to sell, Godey Spurlock and Mal Dowd torment the entrepreneur Riar Thomas unmercifully, and are satisfied only when the whole truckload of peaches is spoiled and finally dumped. The personal fault attributed to Riar is avarice, though no hard evidence is adduced to support the accusation. The reader is at a aloss how to place his sympathies until the end of the story, when Riar dumps sacksful of stinging peach fuzz down the shirts of the two adolescent boys. Then there is a refreshing sense of relief. Even as outsiders we realize that the boys' tricks have been just too mean and costly. But it is a funny story all the way through, if we can accept the rough-and-ready tradition of the old southwest humorists. A similar episode occurs in Huckleberry Finn, where Huck pulls such a rusty as to make his friend Jim believe him dead. Again, a reader's sympathies are confused until Huck apologizes, humbles himself "before a nigger." Then there is the same feeling of relief, of jsutice restored, that we feel at the end of "The Run for the Elbertas."

Still has rung a very effective change on this pattern. In "A Ride on the Short Dog," we meet Mal Dowd and Godey Spurlock again, this time in company with an unnamed narrator, a boy of their own age. One favorite primitive rusty among boys is to "frog" someone's arm, to give him a blow that raises a charley horse. Godey is expert at frogging, and this is a recurrent motif in a story full of other sorts of rusties. His forgging of the narrator's arm finally reduces the speaker to tears, whereupon Godey, feeling an unaccustomed remorse, invites the narrator to retun him a "rabbit lick," a powerful chop at the base of the neck. Godey fears nothing. But the enraged narrator strikes with all his might and does Godey grave if not mortal injury. They have been riding a bus, and one of the other passengers inquires what is wrong with Godey Spurlock. "Mal opened his mouth numbly. 'He's doing no good,' he said."

How are we to feel about this story? Godey menas no one any serious harm; he merely like to irritate people and mock their pretensions, and to see if he can find in them any hidden vein of cowardice. He does not deserve his accidentally terrible punishment. Or does he? Our sympathies are never quite with Godey; we share with the other passengers --- as we did with Riar Thomas -- their indignation and consternation. Godey intends no evil, but he has been taking unconscionable liberties with the tradition of the rusty; he is just barely this side of being purposely cruel. But who is to say when he oversteps the line? THe rusty permits a wide latitude of freedom, even to point of cruelty. One hint we may take is that Godey is rude to Liz Hidey, an old lady; rudeness to one's elders is one of the worst breaches fo Appalachian manners.

Finally, though, Still imputes no blame. Even his characters rarely judge one another on moral grounds. They do often fling about the epithet "witty," meaning fool, but this is mostely in judgement of a man's capacities as a breadwinner. The law too makes no moral judgements and seems to have little connection with justice.

There is a point in reading Still at which we take his restraint, his careful understatement, as impassiveness. The reader must supply all the feeling about the events of the fiction. Still's objectivity and reticence are so unrelenting that we have few hints about what kind of feeling to supply. Some of the stories are almost as difficult to interpret as a pokder player's face. Still's intention is not hard to descry; he soaks his fiction in the same attitudes his characters share: a stoic indifference to physical discomfort and pain, a strait (but not always entirely clear) code of behavior, a fierce and even harsh independence of spirit, and a certain cold insularity of understanding.

It may be that this latter quality is in some respects a drawback. Still's characters are never highly educated; the wisdom they possess they have acquired by dint of harsh personal experience. Much of their information is mere superstition or misinformation. Yet they hold stubbornly to their notions, right or wrong, and are skeptical about the knowledge and intuitions of others. There is something a little suffocating about their narrowness, and the reader is so thoroughly immersed in their milieu that he can form no accurate judgement about how the characters are to be perceived outside it. Yet his curiousity is aroused. How would a doctor or qualified veterinarian -- if only there were some around! -- receive all these smug home remedies and folk homilies?

In "The Sharp Tack," we have a clash between an enlightened world-view and an extremely narrow fundamentalist mountain world-view. It is an epistolary story; the ignorant backwoods preacher, Jerb Powell, begins to write a series of fire-and-brimstone letters to Talt Evarts, a veteran of the Second World War, newly returned to Baldridge County, Kentucky. The Reverend Mr. Powell is riled because Mr. Evarts claims to have visited the Holy Land while in service, crossed the Rijver Jordan, toured the town of Bethlehem, and returned home with a a sprig from a cedar of Lebanon. The preacher regards these tall tales as mortal sin, damaging to the beliefes and even to the salvation of local gullibles. Powell does not believe the Holy Land exists on earth; it is the georaphy of the afterlife. "The Holy Land is yonder in the sky and there's no road to it save by death and salvation." Talt Evars then, with his accounts, is an instrument of Satan, if not the Antichrist himself. "Hell's bangers! Are you in cahoots with Beelzebub? Aye, your tongue is a viper which continues to wriggle even after its head has been cut off."

"The Sharp Tack" is a funny and also a clever story. All the letters are from Preacher Powell; his adversary never answers. But the ranting minister gets his come-uppance little by little, as he becomes more informed about the character and war record of his antagonist, and about the geography of the world. "I learnt a speck, I'll admit it," he says. But even at the end, he has accomodated the facts of the case to his narrow fundamentalist notions. "I'm willing to allow you vitied a town called Jerusalem. I hold it was labeled after the city On High -- like Bethlehem, Nebo and Gethsemane here in Kentucky. The Holy Land on earth is the namesake of the Country Above." This silly notion satisfies him; it reduces the unknown to his own small purview and familiarizes the unimaginable truth. The veteran Evarts is content to let him rest with this idea, and the schoolmaster and postmaster who have been scorning the old fundamentalist follow Evarts' tolerant lead.

A clever and funny story, as I say. It is good to see Jerb Powell distressed and good to see the humane tolerance of Evarts; the story regards the old preacher as an antediluvian throwback, out of touch with reality, a loud but harmless nut. But mayn't that be too simple a view? Jerb Powell's mentality is the kind that is liable to break out in social violence and to incite others to violence. He is funny partly because he is isolated and powerless, but suppose that he had a television station at his command. Would he not then be capable of major harm? This stiffnecked militant ignorance has possibility for real danger; it is not just a Pickwickian foible.

I am not criticizing Still for not writing a story he had no intention of writing. And surely he is correct in taking satire as his mode; laughter is the best weapon against the kind of attitude Jerb Powell represents. But maybe the satire is too gentle and the story too hopeful. "The Sharp Tack" was first published twenty-five years ago; (NOTE: this essay published in 1981) but the world-view it attacks has not lost force with the passage of time and the spread of education -- as Still evidently surmised would happen. This world-view is still very much with us, and at this hour comes nigh to being the most socially acceptable one in American society.

Well, we do not hold even science fiction writers to blame for not accurately predicting the future. "The Sharp Tack" is instructive about Still's mild and cheerful liberalism because this is one of his few stories which deals with change and with the relationship of Appalachia to the outside world. Most of his stories depict his Appalachia as sealed away in time and space, resistant to and mostly unknowing about th eforces of larger history. The changes his fiction depicts are the most ancient ones, the changes of seasons, the changes of human life, form youth to maturity to old age to death.

In that masterful novel River of Earth change is restricted indeed. It consists mainly in change of season and change of landscape. The Baldridges move from a coal mining settlement to an almost idyllically drawn farm and then back again to the bleak mines. The life depicted is impecunnious, even precarious, and dangerous, but not miserable. The joys the Baldridge family experiences are as deep and genuine as their sorrows, and it is this knowledge about life and poverty that sets River of Earth far apart from so many facile protest novels.

The center of the novel portrays the happiest time for this family. They have moved to a farm, found a healthy and provident environment, sent the boys to a pretty good school, and gathered a plentiful harvest. The farm represents a kind of Paradise Gained, but it is soon Paradise Lost, as the family moves back to the Blackjack coal fields.

They move back because the father, Brack Baldridge, is a coal miner by calling as well as by profession. He gives hay fever as an excuse, but the truth is that he is called to mining the way another man might be called to baseball or religion. "I'm longing to get me a pick and stick it in a coal vein," he says. The notion of such dangerous sad drudgery as a vocation is startling but true nonetheles, Clancy Sigal's fine documentary novel, Weekend in Dinlock, is a corroborative and more thorough examination of this feeling.

And so the Baldridges move to Blackjack, back to the hunger, uncertainty, apathy, and tragedy. The younger son, Fletch, loses most of his hand in an accident with dynamite, and the grandmother, who is not present in Blackjack, dies. These events are not consequences of the move back -- though it may seem so to the eight-year-old narrator -- but they do contribute to the darkening of the book. The vision of the free sunny farm life has flickered and dimmed like a dream unraveling from memory. Here is the beautiful final paragraph of the book:

I waked, trembling with cold, and it was morning. The coffin box had been taken away. The chairs sat empty upon the hearth. I ran outside, and there were only wagon tracks to mark where death had come into the house and gone again. They were shriveled and dim under melting frost. I turned suddenly toward the house, listening. A baby was crying in the far room.

A reader will discern from this quotation that it is James Still's prose style, as much as his observation and characterization, which lifts his work, ennobles his themes and gives them latitude and broad application. In a letter written to Still, October 5, 1940, Katherine Anne Porter remarked on the style of the book:

I love the evenness and unity -- do you know what that is like to me? A man telling an old beautiful tale who almost imperceptibly drops into poetry at the right point, saying again what he has just said but in different rhythms and deeper words, and then taking up his narrative again.

Still's style is indeed consistent, maintaining a certain level of intensity and lyricism which becomes, in a certain manner, unobtrusive, and thus able to handle the more mundane concerns of a novel, those entrances, exits, introductions and transitions which are necessary if a story is to get told. A reader after a while accustoms himself to style on the writer's special level, and is able to detect a lowering into dullness for requisite mechanical passages or a straining for effect in lyric set pieces. But there is none of that in Still; his style is very nearly seamless.

Here is a quick sketch of mountain folks going to attend a funeral:

Beyond, at the mouth of Defeated Creek, we came on folk walking toward Seldom Churchhouse. The men wore white shirts, with collars buttoned. One had a latch-pin at his throat, for the button was gone, and another fellow's neck was wrapped around with a tie, rooster-comb red. The women walked stiffly, dresses rustling like wind among corn blades, their hair balled on their necks. They carried yard flowers and wild blooms in their arms; honeysuckle adn Easter flowers, adn seasash.

This paragraph marks no special dramatic point in the novel. In fact, it is a preparatory section, leading us to the sermon by Sim Mobberly from which the book takes its title. But the lyric use of specific detail is admirable. There are the irresistible and characteristically bleak place-names, "Seldom," "Defeated." There is the buttonless shirt collar with its telling -- and colloquial -- "latch-pin." There is Still's customary touch of primary color, the "rooster-comb red" necktie. Here are the women, modest and sapless, as much a part of their environment as plants, but given an underecho from the Biblical story of Ruth. And the paragraph ends appropriately -- since a preaching is a real celebration for these people -- with a mass of flowers, named by their local names.

But what engages one most is Still's retraint. In his careful distinguishing between similar, but never identical, tones, in his tipping-in of the single bright color, in his intently faithful localism, he is reminiscent of the Dutch landscape painters of the seventeenth century. I think particularly of Albert Cuyp or Meyndert Hobbema, who produced subtle and searching canvases of scenes that an Italian or French artist would have found unpainterly, flat and monotonous and indistinguishable. He shares also with the Dutch painters their love of generic anecdote and of characteristic personal detail -- the disposal of a sleeve or collar, the positioning of a hand that tells us so much about a character we believe it is all we need to know.

None of this works if it is obtrusive. It is the consistency of Still's style which allows these effects to achieve themselves. And I think that this consistency has been accomplished by the writer's imbuing himself thoroughly with the values of the region and the inhabitants he treats with. Not an easy preparation, perhaps especially not easy for an Appalachian writer, whose background accommodates literary training with some difficulty. Writing requires a fair amount of sophistication, and an Appalachian writer has been brought up to distrust sophistication, to distrust bookishness. So that composition is for him often a matter of re-achieving a kind of nonliterary (and even nonliterate) innocence, of going back into a world of values he no longer fully shares. And this he must do without guilt or condescension.

Still is able to bring it off. His mastery of values that he must have in some sense passed beyond, his very reticence and restraint, argue for a steadfast self-confidence on his part. He knows what person he is; he understands and fully (though I would wager, not easily) accepts his relationship to his heritage. In fact, in his sonnet, "Heritage," he has spoken of this relationship in positively determined language. Here is the sestet:

Being of these hills, being one with the fox
Stealing into the shadows, one with the new-born foal,
The lumbering ox drawing green beech logs to mill,
One with the destined feet of man climbing and descending,
And one with death rising to bloom again, I cannot go,
Being of these hills I cannot pass beyond."

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