James Still's River of Earth: A Neglected American Masterpiece

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James Still's River of Earth: A Neglected American Masterpiece

James Still's River of Earth is a novel about life in Appalachia just before the Depression. Furthermore it is a novel about the struggles of the mountain people since the settlement of their region. However great it may be at depicting Appalachia's mountain people and culture, though, Still's novel has remained mostly invisible compared to other novels of the period which depict poor white southern life, such as John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre (Olson 87).

As scholar Ted Olson notes, there are several reasons for this neglect. First of all, Still's novel has been labeled as "regional" and therefore not as "universal" in its
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And some critics thought it fudged fact and fiction. Still's novel, on the other hand, which never caught on with the mainstream, garnered consistently excellent acclaim. W.J. Gold commented that the story is "told with clarity and strength born of restraint. The economy of its style and the directness of its aim give evidence of a mature and intelligently used talent" (qtd. Olsen).

In addition, some of the best American writers of the time had great things to say. Robert Frost, for example, one of the best poets of the Modernist era, commented that he had stayed up all night reading the novel. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was struck by the novel as well. She called it "vital, beautiful, heart-breaking and heart-warmingly funny" (Cadle 197).

Many of these critics who advocated for Still's novel tried to make it more publicly known and read. But in their attempts they took a serious misstep. When speaking of the novel they talked of other Appalachian writers such as Jesse Stuart and compared Still's work to his work and that of other regional writers. They made no mention of Grapes of Wrath or other popular books. They just grouped Still with other Southern and Appalachian writers and said his book was wonderful and much better than anything Jesse Stuart ever wrote. The problem with this was that most Americans did not read Jesse Stuart's work and those who had found it to have a kind of fake heartiness, a certain forced quality (Olsen