Still’s “River of Earth”

by Jerry Salyer on August 7, 2009 · 10 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Writers & Poets

appalachia

Given domination of the Commonwealth’s institutions by progressivist ideology, it’s unsurprising how few Kentucky students and teachers are familiar with poet-novelist James Still and River of Earth (1940).  After all, Still was of rural folk, and his novel uses the rich speech of mountaineers to depict bygone life in eastern Kentucky hills.  Hence neither could possibly interest today’s commercialist, upwardly-mobile “educated” class, most of whom regard the career of Rick Pitino as infinitely more significant than that of Daniel Boone.  Cubicle-trolls who live for the Basketball Circus Maximus aside, Bluegrass intellectuals are for their part preoccupied playing catch-up with the avant-garde of Manhattan and Seattle – and so can’t be bothered with stories of the land in which they live.  Too bad, for everybody.

The son of a country vet, Still was born in northern Alabama’s Appalachian foothills in 1906.  He received his undergraduate and graduate educations at Lincoln Memorial University and Vanderbilt respectively, attending the latter institution during the climax of the Vanderbilt Agrarian movement.  Prominent Agrarians such as John Crowe Ransom and John Donald Wade were his instructors, and clearly made a strong impression:  Later Still would praise I’ll Take My Stand as “a pioneer undertaking” and “seminal work”, and agrarian themes were to echo in his writing.  At age 26 he moved to a log cabin in Knott County, Kentucky, to take a job as a librarian.  Though he traveled worldwide, Knott remained home until his death in 2001 at age 94.

Still’s own seminal work chronicles the day-to-day, early 20th Century existence of a 7-year old eastern Kentucky boy and his nomadic family.  Via River of Earth we see through a child’s eyes as the boy’s father moves the Baldridge family from coal camp to coal camp in pursuit of work, and dialectic arises between father Brack and mother Alpha.

While Brack Baldridge is generous, hard-working, and even philosophical at times, he sees no danger in the industrial forces transforming the hills.  In contrast, his wife Alpha is far more skeptical of progress, yearning desperately to return to the farming and family-centered existence which preceded King Coal.

Both sides have their say, because unlike today’s ideologues “Still eschews the easy answers,” as eminent poet and literary scholar H.R. Stoneback has noted.  Even though “James Still is the central exemplar of the agrarian tradition”, River of Earth is hardly “an agrarian thesis novel.”   Crudely didactic propaganda is alien to the serious storyteller:

Mother was on the rag edge of crying.  “Forever moving yon and back, setting down nowhere for good and all, searching for God knows what,” she said.  “Where air we expecting to draw up to?”  Her eyes dampened.  “Forever I’ve wanted to set us down in a lone spot, a place certain and enduring, with room to swing arm and elbow, a garden-piece for fresh victuals, and a cow to furnish milk for the baby.  So many places we’ve lived – the far side one mine camp and next the slag pile of another.  Hardburly.  Lizzyblue.  Tribbey.  I’m longing to set me down shorely and raise my chaps proper.”

Father’s ears reddened.  He spoke, a grain angrily.  “It was never meant for a body to be full content on the face of this earth.  Against my wont it is to be treading the camps, but it’s bread I’m hunting, regular bread with a mite of grease on it.  To make and provide, it’s the only trade I know, and I work willing.”

Brack has no knack for farming but is a natural-born miner, and his lazy, parasitic cousins sweep in like locusts whenever the Baldridges remain in one spot for too long.  Thus his nomadic “bread-hunting” is hardly unreasonable, in context, and his remonstrance to his wife that “it was never meant for a body to be full content on the face of this earth” exemplifies anti-utopian wisdom.  Obviously Still respects miners, as practitioners of serious and honorable work; as Stoneback points out, the subterranean “mole-feller” Brack Baldridge seems “a haunting autochthon”, a primordial archetype. He is no cliché of polluting evildoer or exploited victim.

Yet clearly the narrative supports Alpha’s lament for the loss of place and roots, warning of the new lifestyle’s treacherous unreliability.  Thanks to coaligarchy Appalachia’s old socioeconomic fabric of extended family ties, self-sufficiency, and barter was torn apart by the feverish spread of corporate-ruled boom towns and an intoxicating influx of cash currency.  When the winds of finance capitalism inevitably shifted and camps withered, the natives found themselves with neither cash nor land upon which to support their families.

Naturally the significance of land is a recurring topic.  At one point the Baldridges attend a church meeting to hear a renowned preacher named Brother Mobberly, and from his sermon comes the novel’s title:

The preacher raised a finger.  He plunged it into the Bible, his eyes roving the benches.  When the text was spread before him on the printed page he looked to see what the Lord had chosen.  He began to read.  I knew then where his mouth was in the beard growth.

“‘The sea saw it and fled:  Jordan was driven back.  The mountains skipped like rams, and the little hills like lambs.  Tremble, thou earth…’ ”

He snapped the book to.  He leaned over the pulpit.

“I was borned in a ridge-pocket,” he said.  “I never seed the sun-ball withouten heisting my chin.  My eyes were sot upon the hills from the beginning.  Till I come on the Word in this good Book, I used to think a mountain was the standingest object in the sight o’ God.  Hit says here they go skipping and hopping like sheep, a-rising and a-falling.  These hills are jist dirt waves, washing through eternity.  My brethren, they hain’t a valley so low but what hit’ll rise agin.  They hain’t a hill standing so proud but hit’ll sink to the low ground o’sorrow.  Oh, my children, where are we going on this mighty river of earth, a-borning, begetting, and a-dying – the living and the dead riding the waters?  Where air it sweeping us?”

Brother Mobberly speaks in Appalachian dialect – a dialect typically associated with “stupid hicks”, to use the term I once overheard a college English instructor repeatedly, unprovokedly, and carelessly employ to describe local Kentuckians.  But maybe even multiculti diversity-colonists can learn something from the “stupid hicks” they’ve colonized:  A vision of Man’s temporal and physical smallness, conveyed not by geological textbooks nor NASA photos nor French existentialists, but by a Bible-citing hillbilly who proclaims that titanic mountains go “a-rising and a-falling” as “dirt waves, washing through eternity.”

Elsewhere the narrator’s uncle, a farmer, warns that erosion – “land a-wasting and a-washing”—is the inevitable consequence of careless, soil-abusive agriculture.  He frets:  “What’s folks going to live on when these hills wear down to a nub?”  Amazingly, this conservationist sentiment is expressed long before Green-minded philanthropists began manufacturing Enviro-Kidz breakfast cereal … before Al Gore invented recycling, even.

Perhaps my point is the inherent irony of what Wendell Berry has dubbed “The Prejudice Against Country People” — the notion that, compared to mainstream America, rural folk are somehow “socially, intellectually, and culturally inferior to ‘us.’ ”  Today anyone who speaks truth in the Appalachian dialect of Brother Mobberly and the Baldridges is in danger of being dismissed as a “stupid hick”, while the most outrageous inanities are peddled throughout the Commonwealth via the pompous, pseudo-scientific jargon of corporations and academia.

The fact is that if Appalachian dialect truly was “socially, intellectually, and culturally inferior” then River of Earth – with its vivid imagery and seamlessly interwoven dialogue, action, and insights – could never have been composed.  As it is, we should ask ourselves if the cultural displacement of folk poets and artists by slick-talking advertisers and marketers really reflects progress.  Words are for communion, not for salesmanship or sounding clever.  Is the “ecomagineering” of General Electric an improvement over Still’s depiction of mining life?  Or, for that matter, is it an improvement over the original work of a Kentucky coal miner’s son?  Only to those who have no respect whatsoever for the struggles, sufferings, joys, and dignity of their fellow-men.

Jerry Salyer writes from Louisville, Kentucky.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bob Cheeks August 7, 2009 at 6:49 am

Salyer, thanks for the book recommendation, it sounds like a ‘must have.’ And, thanks for this essay. For me, it’s one of the best written here at FPR, where essays are noted for their excellence. Very well done, much appreciated!

“…the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel,
they tortured the timber and stripped all the land”
The Irishtown Jacobin and fellow ‘hick’

avatar Katherine Dalton August 7, 2009 at 7:30 am

I love River of Earth, which is a wonderful book, and though not forgotten in Kentucky I don’t think it’s read much outside the state. So I thank you, Mr. Salyer, for mentioning it here. Still was a fine poet but I have always thought his finest poetry was in his prose, and your quotations here show that.

I wonder if anthropological societies will ever start giving awards to writers like Still who have made an artistically distilled but (I feel certain) accurate record of a manner of speech which is not completely lost, perhaps, but largely diluted now. Books like his, aside from their merits as literature, are also sociological and linguistic records, and as valuable as history for that.

avatar Mike at The Big Stick August 7, 2009 at 7:30 am

Jerry, as I’m sure you are aware, us Louisvillians are always caught between two worlds. The rest of the state thinks we’re Yankee-wannabee snobs and the rest of the country still thinks were hillbillies. The Appalachin dialect though, or the true Kentucky drawl, is in our genes. I think it bubbles up through the limestone and we drink it daily, whether we realize it or not. For my job I’m often on conference calls with folks in other parts of the country. I catch myself adopting a generic midwestern dialect when I speak to them. Occasionally someone will ask me if I’m from KY originally and when I tell them yes, they remark on my lack of accent. I joke that it’s a product of private schools and I assure them that it’s there, just lurking below the surface. Give me a couple of beers or let me spend a weekend at the farm, and I can pass for a resident of more rural locales.

I mourn the loss of our ‘native tongue’ in kids. With each generation it gets more dilluted. My parents sounded more ‘country’ than I do and my kids have it less than me. While I don’t always share the sentiments of the Front Porchers on the reasons why we need to return to the farm (or find it for the first time) there is a real temptation in my heart to get my kids out there before they get mistaken for someone from Ohio or (shudder) Indiana.

Alas though, my one true love is Louisville. My wife accepts that she will always be second to the city and the thing that makes it more palatable is that it’s her true love as well. So if we can’t leave the city, I’m going to start looking for more ways to bring the country to us.

avatar Salamander August 7, 2009 at 8:00 am

I will have to find a copy of this book! My father grew up in eastern Kentucky — our family has lived in the mountains there for two hundred years. In fact, Mr. Salyer — you might well be kin to me, there are more Salyers in my family tree than I can count…

Regarding the “native tongue” of Kentuckians, my dad kept his accent til the day he died despite thirty years in New England. As a small child, I apparently had picked up enough of his mountain accent to baffle my first grade teachers; they called in a speech therapist to find out why I kept saying things like “Hand me that thar pin so I can rat.” Once they met my dad, it all became clear.

avatar D.W. Sabin August 7, 2009 at 10:09 am

There is a flip side of this rustic lingo issue and it still exists. The Nightly News locution-dominated lawyers will preside over the various meetings of our lives and then, once in a while, one of the local rustics…say an attorney in bow tie and dungarees with calloused hands or maybe even a well-read farmer who likes to play in both the mud and the written page will stand up and drawl no more than three terse sentences and promptly sit down before the assembled speechless crowd comes rapidly to the conclusion that the rustic has furnished up the summary statement and anything else said will be farce.

I knew an old Yankee Lawyer who I loved working with on land-use applications because he was a man of few words, sturdy cane and devastating simplicity. He’d let everyone wallow around in their foolishness and then stand up and automatically bring the meeting to both a head and a close on a wonderful economy of words spoken with a rural tang. I used to see him on the weekend buzzing around his fields on an old Farmall. He did this well into his 80′s. He has been gone for a while and he is missed.

avatar steve August 8, 2009 at 3:52 pm

River of Earth is a fantastic novel! It’s actually one of my favorites. Where did you find the quotes about Still and the Nashville Agrarians?

avatar JD Salyer August 10, 2009 at 2:08 pm

There is some very fascinating research out there on the Appalachian dialect — debates about the origins of different grammatical features, and so on. I suspect the study of dialects, history & evolution of the language, etc., might be one of the few serious endeavors still going on at university English departments.

For those interested in Still’s connection to the Nashville Agrarians, I recommend H.R. Stoneback’s scholarly essay “The Agrarianism of James Still”, which is available in a PDF file online. In the event this link

http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/excerpts/0-7864-3076-1.Chapter1.pdf

doesn’t work, you can easily find it via Googling his name and the title. It’s definitely worthwhile reading for anybody interested in agrarianism.

avatar Sam Bevard August 17, 2009 at 3:46 pm

This is a wonderful essay that brings memories of a wonderful human being who was also a wonderful writer. James Still was my teacher long ago at Morehead State. His “Advanced Writing” was required (and somewhat dreaded) for all English Majors. He taught by requiring a wide variety of reading so that students would see how successful authors peform wordcraft. We had to make a journal of original writings, some topics he assigneed and for some we were on our own. I was abudding poet and when he arranged for Robert Francis to come to MSU, he saw to it that I had a personal with Francis. We got to be friends and I would visit with him during our non-class days. He showed me his novel, which was in the drawer of a filing cabinent; it’s yet to be published, but I understand it will happen. We re-connected when he came here to Maysville in ’96 to be Writer-in-Residence for a week at Maysville Community College.

He didn’t like my hunting and killing game–he was a gentle soul–and I found out that he had made me a character in his “Hunter” poem.

This essay also tells it straight by chiding those who look down upon things rural. And I loved the references to basketball. Give me a sharp country boy or girl with the glow of green on his or her person over the counterpart tht knows only the sterile, manufactured world of man’s contrivances anyday. I’ve read “River of Earth” twice. James Still is probably Kentucky’s greatest writer.

avatar steve August 17, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Thank you for sharing your memories, Mr. Bevard. Do you recall any of the assigned readings in your course with James Still? I’m sure anything else you could remember would be appreciated by the readers of Front Porch Republic.

avatar Janet September 14, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Hi Jerry, thank you for these insightful comments.

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