13 July 2010

Southern Appalachia: James Still - River of Earth

I've quoted the wonderful Lee Smith before, and I don't think she'll come after me with a copyright hammer for repeating what she says about River of Earth (1940), a novel by James Still (1906-2001), simply because any amount of publicity for either Smith or Still can only be of benefit to all concerned:

'[T]he beautiful and heartbreaking novel "River of Earth" [is] a kind of Appalachian "Grapes of Wrath" chronicling the Baldridge family's desperate struggle to survive when the mines close and the crops fail. This is not only one of the best Appalachian novels ever written, but it is also one of the best novels ever written.

'And yet James Still is not usually taught in so-called Southern literature classes.

'Why not?

'Because Appalachia is to the South what the South is to the rest of the country. That is: lesser than, backward, marginal. Other. Look at the stereotypes: "Hee Haw," "Deliverance," "Dogpatch" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." A bunch of hillbillies sitting on a rickety old porch drinking moonshine and living on welfare, right?

'Wrong. All of this is wrong; none of this is true.

'And I am here to tell all you people who are visiting Atlanta for the first time: You may think you're in the South, but you're not in the only South. There's another South, an almost secret South, waiting for you. All you have to do is get in a car and drive north, up into the beautiful wild mountains of North Georgia. Come on up and see us in North Carolina, in east Tennessee and Kentucky, and southwest Virginia and West Virginia.'

Lee is so right: if the South is the America of the outsider, Appalachia is the South's outsider. Appalachia is steeped in a widely unread literary wealth, of which James Still's novel River of Earth is a classic. But at the same time, it is easy to see why it is a neglected classic: it contains none of the Appalachian feud clichés or crude remarks about interbreeding, or details about moonshining, and is more a collection of stories than a single one. But it describes the dilemma of making a viable existence in the mountains as opposed to the ephemerally more lucrative lure of the mines in the lowlands.

And the unfamiliar vocabulary is difficult for some readers, although many linguistic nuances are very accessible: in Appalachian-speak, there seems to be a tendency to overcompensate for literacy skills by saying, for instance, 'hain't' and 'hit' for 'ain't' and 'it', as well as to say 'tuck' for 'took'.

Still's writing is not only a world away from more familiar Southern writing, but even a world away from better-known Appalachian novels such as John Fox Jr's The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1908). It is a world well worth discovering.

No comments: