Still's funeral May 1, 2001
A tribute by Carol Boggess
gather on this May day to honor a man
we all admire and love, to remind ourselves
of his good humor and inscrutable personality,
and to console each other over our loss. But
mostly, as he wanted us to do, we gather
to remember and celebrate.
For a few moments allow me to celebrate
James Still’s long and wonderful
life (almost 95 years)
and his work, his writing
– or what we might call his “literary”
Still will live on in our hearts because
we knew him.
Each of us has been personally
connected to him in a special way. We
will not forget. But
what about all those other folks who were
not fortunate enough to know him personally,
to hear him tell a story, repeat a turn
of phrase, deliver a one-liner as only
he could do—those folks who never
saw him plant a flower or read to a child? What
about them? How
will they remember him?
will know him by his books, and he has
left us many.
first was a collection of poems Hounds
on the Mountain
published by Viking Press in (1937).
most recent is also a collection of poems,
From the Mountain, From the Valley:
New and Collected Poems, to
be released by U Press of KY sometime
This book is edited by Ted Olson
and includes an autobiographical essay
with a wonderful title, “A Man Singing
between those two collections of poetry,
James Still published books, stories
and poems for 64 years; that should be
enough. Yet last week in the hospital
room he had with him a handwritten manuscript
he was still tinkering with.
On top of it was a pad of dull
white paper where he had scribbled a note
containing a phrase he wanted to get into
the story somewhere: an expression that
he had heard six- year-old Jake Bradley
make to a nurse just a day or so earlier:
“Bless his little gizzard”
When Mr. Still heard that, first
he laughed out loud then he wrote it down. There
he was – still writing.
couldn’t not write –
for him it was like breathing or eating. And
he couldn’t help but put his own
life into his writings.
His life and his work are intimately
did he get his ideas from?
life, of course. As
he says in “A Man Singing to Himself,”
hanging like pears from limbs, like gourds
Ideas rise up like birds from cover.
They spring from reports in the
Troublesome Creek Times, from a remark
in a country story, from a happening.”
To James Still everything was a
the first book of poetry and the last
he wrote the classic novel of Appalachia River
of Earth (1940), many short
stories, several children’s books
(the most loved being Jack and the
WonderBeans) and his own record
of Appalachian Life, The Wolfpen Notebooks.
can we celebrate a life of 94 years and
a writing career of 64 years in a space
of 10 minutes? It
would require some perfectly-chosen stories
or a string of powerful one-liners to
do that. I
can only remind us of some highpoints.
Still was born July 16, 1906 near LaFayette,
Alabama – the fifth child and (first
son) in a family that eventually had 10
children. It was a good life;
it seemed a life filled with characters
and James Still, the adult, remembers
them all. He
the poem he wrote in the early 90’s
“Those I Want in Heaven with
Me Should There Be Such a Place”
he draws from childhood.
First he wants his dog, Jack (of
course his parents and siblings, too). He goes on to name or describe
the grandpa who used to bite his ears,
and the other one who couldn’t remember
his name because there were so many kids,
Aunt Enore and Uncle Eddie Boozer,
the laughing Uncle Luther, and his pony
Rusty . . .
want the playfellows of my youth
gathered bumblebees in bottles,
flutter mills by streams,
kites nearly to heaven.
began to write his first novel at age
ten, after reading Balzac--a novel about
boats and sailors and whales though he
had never beheld a boat of any size, known
a sailor or seen the ocean.
18 he went to college, all the way to
in Tennessee with only $60 in his
There he began to read, seriously
read --a habit that he kept throughout
He was an outstanding student and
won numerous prizes, thus catching the
attention of a generous benefactor who
sent him to graduate school not once but
went to Vanderbilt to earn a Masters degree
at a time when that was the place to go
in the south. Then
he went to university of Illinois for
a degree in library science.
As he says, he had earned three
diplomas and had graduated three times
in the same pair of shoes.
But in the 30s he had no prospects
a Home, Becoming a Writer
he wandered looking for work, he found
this place—Hindman, Kentucky--what
he affectionately called “the jumping
off place.” In the summer of 1931 (70
years ago this summer) he came to Knott
County to help conduct Vacation Bible
School. He worked at the settlement
school for 6 years, earning a salary that
averaged over six years was six cents
age 26 he began to take writing seriously.
Maybe this interest interfered
with his work or maybe the work interfered
with his writing, but whatever the case,
he moved one day in June 1939 to a log
house between Wolfpen Creek and Dead Mare
Branch. It was said that he had
quit a good job and gone to the backside
of nowhere and just sat down.
Well, he did settle down
and finish River of Earth. For
that we are all grateful. The
novel was published Feb 5, 1940.
He didn’t just write in his
He grew things—he lived,
like Thoreau at Walden Pond.
years later, in March 1942, when he was
in his mid thirties, his idyllic life
came to an abrupt end.
He was drafted into the army.
As he says in his poem: “Mars
looked in and routed me out.”
took one book with him – Walden--
and in it he kept a journal for a while.
Mr. Still wrote very little during
his tour in the Army Airforce. Though
in recent years, he has held many a listener
spellbound with his army stories. He came home from the war
not angry but disoriented. After
he did readjust, he began working at Hindman
Settlement school again and then joined
the faculty at Morehead State University
where he taught for 10 years.
Reading, and Staying at Home
1970 he has made a life of travelling
(he spent 14 winters in Central America
studying Mayan civilization among other
topics and 5 trips to Europe).
reading (he probably averaged 3 hours
a day reading journals and books; over
the last few years he may have read 5
or 6 hours a day).
talking to and listening to students and
friends and neighbors.
said he had done everything he wanted
to do but climb Mt. Everest. He has certainly made a
life of living. Most importantly for all
those people who don’t know him
as a person: he has made a life of
we miss him, we should not despair because
we can find him here sitting walking and
can find him in the blooming redbud trees,
hear him through his neighbor’s
voices in the shops, see him in the foxes
or the leaping minnows, feel him in the
birds’ song on an otherwise quiet
me share an image not to make you sad
but to help us celebrate.
I was here on Saturday, the day
he died. When Mike Mullins and Teresa
Bradley were talking about arrangements
for this funeral celebration, I saw young
Jake walk over to his mom carrying a small
branch with a caterpillar creeping carefully
Still was there in that moment:
was he Jake or the caterpillar
or the stick?
No matter – he was there.
if those moments don’t happen for
you, or if you want his voice and vision
more directly, then all you need to do
is read his books. He has been compared to
Thoreau in the way he lived, to Frost
in his poetic voice, to Steinbeck in his
epic creation of the
you find his books on the bookshelf with
Jesse Stewart and Harriett Arnow or in
the section with Frost and Thoreau and
Wolfe, or whether you find them on your
own private bookshelf – the one
labeled James Still-- my advice to you
is just find them, take them down and
read, remember, and celebrate.
me close by reading a couple of short
selections from the newest book. The last
poem in the collection illustrates how
his life and works intertwine.
those were my days,
did I stand the times?
my tales, spin my rhymes.
finally, a bit of a story that concludes
“A Man Singing to Himself”:
answered a set of down-to-earth questions
at Carmus Combs’ store the other
fellow inquired, “How many years
have you lived amongst us?”
than half a century.”
the last ’possum up the tree. Everybody
your age when you come here is dead. Hain’t
thought they’d live forever.”
your notion about dying?”
is as natural as sleep,” I said,
quoting Benjamin Franklin. “We will
arrive refreshed in the morning.”