James Still was born on July 16, 1906 at Double Branch in Chambers County, Alabama located in the foothills of the Appalachians. Still was the sixth of ten children, but was able to be named after his father because he was the first boy to be born into his family. From 1906 to 1924, he lived with his family as they moved around the region into at least six different homes in Double Branch, Lafayette, Shawmut and Jarrett Station, all in Alabama.
As a young child, Still worked with his other brothers and sisters in their family’s fields, wherever they may have been. His father being a veterinarian, the Still family lived a fairly modest life, though they were forced at least once to move out of a home due to mortgage problems. James began school at the age of seven in LaFayette, where his love of books and writing began. In his autobiography, however, Still recollects that his family only owned “three books at home: The Anatomy of the Horse, The Palaces of Sin, or the Devil in Society, and…the Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge.” Still recalls that the Cyclopedia was his “first stab at a liberal education.”
When he reached the age of eighteen, he moved away from his family in an effort to continue his “liberal education.” After many years of hard work, Still had earned three college degrees at the Lincoln Memorial University and at Vanderbilt University, both in Tennessee. After Still completed his extensive education, he was lead to Knott County, Kentucky in 1932 to search for a job during the Great Depression. He finally settled into working as a librarian at the Hindman Settlement School, where he began to write River of Earth. Knott County, where Still lived alone in a log cabin for the remainder of his life, was centered near the heart of the eastern Kentucky’s coal fields, and served as the setting and inspiration for his short stories, novels and poems.
River of Earth was published in 1940, and for this, his first novel, Still received the Southern Author’s Award. Throughout his lifetime, Still received many other awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1941 and 1946, and from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1994 he was honored as Southern Fiction Writer by the South Atlantic Modern Language Association. Finally, there have been awards from numerous Kentucky organizations and honorary degrees from Kentucky universities, as well as fellowships established in his name, including those funded by the Mellon Foundation for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Studies and by the University of Kentucky Appalachian Studies program.
James Still’s literary reputation was gained mainly through his early works. Later works, popular among certain circles, never seemed to achieve the same success of books and poetry writings like River of Earth, Hands on the Mountain and On Troublesome Creek.
Aside from writing books during his adulthood, Still traveled extensively throughout his lifetime, exploring at least 26 different countries in Europe and Central America. Despite his travels around the globe, Still always returned home to his log cabin in Knott County and lived there until his death at the age of 94 in early 2001.
Still never married, nor did he have any children. He is, however, lived on by Teresa Perry Bradley, whom he considered his surrogate daughter. When her family faced difficulties, he helped pay for her education through college and a master’s degree, and years later, after both of her parents had died, Still made her his legal heir.
River of Earth (fiction), 1940
From the Mountain, From the Valley: New and Collected Poems (poetry), 2001
Chinaberry (fiction), 2011
The Hills Remember: The Complete Short Stories of James Still (fiction), 2012
Pablo Tanguay’s review of Chinaberry at Chapter 16:
The James Still homepage:
A biography/obituary for James Still:
Still info at the Kentuckiana Digital Library: