Appalachian Studies: A Personal History


 I’ve read River of Earth by James Still once a year since my first time in Silas House’s Appalachian Literature class my first year at Berea. Each time, I get something new from the story, and each time I fall more deeply in love with Still’s writing, with the deeply moving plights of the novel’s characters. The first time I read the novel, I could never have predicted how important Appalachian Literature and Appalachian Studies would become to my life.

After taking the course with Silas, I decided I was deeply interested in studying Appalachia, studying the region I call home, and I declared a minor in Appalachian studies. Since then, I have learned a lot about myself as a person and as a writer. I have learned about why my people are the way they are, backed up with historical context and the nuanced complexities of the region.

Now, as I get ready to graduate in May, I recognize the importance of paying tribute to those writers and scholars who have paved the path for my generation of Appalachian writers and scholars. Last fall, I had the opportunity to get to know Loyal Jones, the Appalachian Center’s namesake and one of the most important figures in developing the Appalachian Studies program. Not only did I get to interview him with Silas, but when he gifted his book collection to the Appalachian Center, I jumped on the chance to sort through every one of Loyal’s books.

Among the collection were many beautiful books, most signed by writers who have befriended Loyal over the years. Of course, the 1940 copy of River of Earth caught my eye. This semester, when Silas asked me to make a reading guide for the novel for his Appalachian Literature class, I knew which copy I wanted to go to: Loyal’s copy now stored in Faber Library. As I did my fourth read of the novel, I found myself immersed in a different way. I felt like a real part of a tradition I started out unfamiliar with. As I was getting ready to put the book back in its case, I happened to notice inscribed by James Still in the beginning pages, “For Loyal Jones, my tale, my friend.” I left feeling like I was part of something larger than myself, like the next link knitted into the Appalachian studies tradition. I’ve found a home in Appalachian literature, and I plan to reside there always with those who have written before me.

Article Written by Emily Masters