James Still's funeral May 1, 2001       
A tribute by Carol Boggess

We 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” legacy. 
James 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?
They will know him by his books, and he has left us many.
The first was a collection of poems Hounds on the Mountain published by Viking Press in (1937).
The 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 in June.   This book is edited by Ted Olson and includes an autobiographical essay with a wonderful title, “A Man Singing to Himself.”    
In 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.
Why did he write?
He 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 intertwined. 
Where did he get his ideas from?  
From life, of course.  As he says in “A Man Singing to Himself,”  “Ideas are hanging like pears from limbs, like gourds from fences.  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 happening.  
Between 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. 
How 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.
James 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 remembered everything.
In 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 . . .
I want the playfellows of my youth
Who gathered bumblebees in bottles,
Erected flutter mills by streams,
Flew kites nearly to heaven. 
He 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.  That’s imagination! 
Leaving Home 
At 18 he went to college, all the way to Lincoln Memorial  in Tennessee with only $60 in his pocket.  There he began to read, seriously read --a habit that he kept throughout his life.  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 twice.  He 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 for employment. 
Finding a Home, Becoming a Writer 
As 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 per day. 
At 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 log house.  He grew things—he lived,  like Thoreau at Walden Pond.
The Army and Back 
Two 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.” 
He 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.  
Travelling, Reading, and Staying at Home
Since 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).
Of 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).
Of talking to and listening to students and friends and neighbors.
Of visiting schools/colleges/bookstores.
He 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 writing.
When we miss him, we should not despair because we can find him here sitting walking and wandering.  We 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 morning.
Let 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 along it.
Mr. Still was there in that moment:  was he Jake or the caterpillar or the stick?  No matter – he was there.
But 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 1930’s.  Whether 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.
Let 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.
My Days
Those, those were my days,
My thoughts and my ways.
How did I stand the times?
Read my tales, spin my rhymes.
And finally, a bit of a story that concludes “A Man Singing to Himself”:
I answered a set of down-to-earth questions at Carmus Combs’ store the other day.  A fellow inquired, “How many years have you lived amongst us?”

“More than half a century.”
“You’re the last ’possum up the tree. Everybody your age when you come here is dead. Hain’t that so?”
“I thought they’d live forever.”
“What’s your notion about dying?”
“Death is as natural as sleep,” I said, quoting Benjamin Franklin. “We will arrive refreshed in the morning.”


Carol Boggess