- Jim Wayne Miller
Jim Wayne Miller (1936–1996) is quite simply an icon in the field of Appalachian Literature—one of its earliest and most ardent supporters. Fred Chappell has commented that “if it were not for Miller, the Appal-lit movement might have foundered before it got started.” Although the focus of Miller’s very impressive writing, his compelling public speaking, and his quietly effective leadership was the field of Appalachian Literature and Appalachian Studies, he was guided by a truly international consciousness. Often, those who feel they know his work well are surprised to learn that his academic field was German, not English or the social sciences.
Jim Wayne Miller lived life intensely. He drank prodigious amounts of coffee and smoked many cigarettes throughout every day and liked a good bourbon during his long nights. When talking to either an individual or a group, he listened intently and responded enthusiastically. He carried his erudition perhaps more gracefully than anyone I’ve ever met—never intruding upon a conversation in a showy way, and typically seeking out ways to learn from those who so often eagerly gathered around him. I don’t recall Jim Wayne Miller ever leaving a conversation to go to bed. Even after dawn, he would always be in the last group to retire for the night. He worked hard, and he played hard. He was an avid fisherman, and any unfilled blocks of time would quickly be spent at a lake or river. He titled one of his poetry books Nostalgia for 70 referring to his desire for higher speed limits. Indeed, he seemed to always be on the road—driving all the way from Bowling Green, Kentucky, to practically any kind of regional literary event throughout the Appalachian Region. For several summers in the 1980s, he led simultaneous seminars at both the University of Tennessee and Appalachian State University in North Carolina—simply driving back-and-forth across the mountains to present in both places almost every day. His car was a cacophony of papers and books and coffee cups, and I remember more than one morning at the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman [End Page 11] Settlement School—even though he had a bed he could go to—I found him, as I walked to breakfast, fast asleep in the driver’s seat of his car, amidst a tumult of books and papers—characteristically more often by other authors rather than his own work. Robert Morgan, in his Jim Wayne Miller Memorial Lecture at the Hindman Settlement School in 1997, commented on Jim’s car:
Perhaps the major archive of Appalachian literature at the time was contained in the back seat and trunk of his gray Buick. Wherever he went, to Hindman, to Boone, to Asheville, or the West Virginia Writers Conference, he carried his collection of files, books, lists, bibliographies, Xerox copies and works in progress. In conversations at Hindman, when an obscure poem or essay might be mentioned, Jim Wayne would hurry out to his car to dig up a copy.
Perhaps nobody has given more talks on Appalachian Studies and regional literature than Jim Wayne Miller, yet he never gave a reading that consisted primarily of his own very impressive body of work. Instead, he would share his enthusiasm for other regional writers by reading passages and expressing joy over the writings of others.
The impact that Jim Wayne Miller has had upon regional literature is huge. Almost ten years after his death, participants in the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky spontaneously began a lasting tradition of reading “The Brier Sermon,” one of his signature poems, aloud. Wednesday nights at the Workshop are devoted to a Jim Wayne Miller Lecture. Another Memorial Lecture occurs each year at Western Kentucky University, where he taught throughout his career.
Jim Wayne Miller was born in 1936 and raised with five brothers and sisters on a seventy-acre farm in western Buncombe County, North Carolina. The farmhouses of both sets of grandparents were nearby. His mother’s people were tenant farmers, while his father’s people were relatively well-educated and prosperous landowners. Jim Wayne’s father...