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 concerns and subject matters. And in 1940 when it was first published the American people were running low on desire to plod through more regional novels; even Faulkner was hardly read at this time (Olsen 92). In addition, we were at a period as a nation when people were coming off a decade of extreme poverty and did not want to hear or read about more poverty.
Still, in many ways it is hard to explain the longterm success of Grapes of Wrath and the longterm fadeout of River of Earth. To begin, Steinbeck's novel, which tells the story of the plight of a poor white family in Oklahoma during the Depression, is no less "regional" than Still's chronicle of poor white life in eastern Kentucky . Yet somehow Grapes of Wrath escaped the "regional" stereotype and went on to become an American classic.
Ironically, though, when the two novels were released, Still's grabbed more critical acclaim (Olsen 89). Though Grapes of Wrath did earn some rave reviews and was called the "great American book" by...
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...people anywhere. And refreshingly, Still's characters do not spend all their time trying to "rise above" their poverty. Instead they love their mountain world and take pleasure in the small but important things in life like a simple meal or a good laugh. They are not weighed down by the glittery world or overindulgent trappings of Jay Gatsby. Maybe that's the real reason most Americans couldn't handle the book then and now. Instead of presenting them with the excesses of a gilded age, it told them about a people content to enjoy a great spiritual wealth even if their economic conditions were supposed to make them "poor."
Cadle, Dean. "Man on Troublesome." The Yale Review 57 (December 1967): 236-255.
Olsen, Ted. "`This Mighty River of Earth': Reclaiming James Still's American Masterpiece." Journal of Appalachian Studies 1.1 (Fall 1995): 87-98.
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