Not every true Tennessee author has to be born and bred in the state. Some were raised elsewhere, but stumbled into Tennessee at the prospect of a job or scholarship, and discovered much more about themselves. That is how Jim Wayne Miller found himself in Tennessee.
Miller was born in Leicester, North Carolina, in 1936. He was raised in a rather large family of five younger brothers and sisters. However, the children had plenty of room to roam the family’s seventy-acre farm. His parents were from humble beginnings, working hard to support the large family and to give Miller and his siblings every chance of a good life. Not much is known about Miller’s childhood. What we do know picks up in 1954 when Miller enrolled at Berea College in Kentucky. He became in enthralled with Journalism, German, and English, and studied abroad in Germany during his junior year. Four years after entering Berea, Miller graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. During this time that he also married fellow Berea coed, Mary Ellen Yates. Shortly after marriage, Miller landed a German and English teaching job in Fort Knox, Kentucky. In 1960 Miller received an NDEA Fellowship to further his studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Once he was a resident of Music City, Miller and his wife became the proud parents of two sons. Literarily speaking, this was also a huge time in Miller’s life: he wrote Copperhead Cane, his first major work. The collection of mountain-oriented poetry was adored by fans and credited by critic Fred Chappell as starting the “Appal-lit movement.” Although short-lived, Miller’s time in Nashville garnered his first, and perhaps, most influential work. By 1963 Miller was dividing his time between teaching at Western Kentucky University and earning his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt. Four years later, Miller was a new father again, this time to a baby girl. Miller continued to teach at Western, supporting his wife as she earned her degree and eventually landed a teaching job alongside him.
In 1971 Miller wrote The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same, a collection of poetic ballads revolving around the mining industry in Kentucky. During the 1980s, Miller found himself conducting numerous academic seminars at the University of Tennessee and Appalachian State University. The arduous drive helped inspire Miller to pen his Nostalgia for 70—a collection of poetry that Miller has said represents “life in the American funhouse.” Having won several awards in his lifetime, such as the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and the Outstanding Contribution to Appalachian Literature Award, Miller solidified himself as the godfather of Appalachian letters.
Prematurely, lung cancer took his life in 1996, but his legacy is carried on by Western Kentucky’s Jim Wayne Miller Celebration of Writing conference. Hosted annually, it helps to infuse Miller’s joy of teaching and creating literature and pays homage to his Appalachian roots.
Copperhead Cane (poetry), 1964
The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same (poetry), 1971
Nostalgia for 70 (poetry), 1986
Newfound (fiction), 1989
Jim Wayne Miller’s website:
Selected poems by Miller:
“Clearing Newground,” an essay about Miller and his work, by Robert Morgan:
A biography and bibliography for Miller at KYLIT, a site devoted to Kentucky Writers:
“Appalachian Literature: At Home In This World,” an essay by Miller:
A conversation between Miller and James Still: