James Kilgo (1941-2002)
James Patrick Kilgo, an essayist and novelist, wrote with a reverence for the natural world and a deep and abiding sense of family and history. His essays on hunting, nature, family, and personal introspection won him national attention, and his novel, Daughter of My People, earned him the Townsend Prize for Fiction.
The son of John and Caroline Kilgo,
Trained as a scholar in American literature, Kilgo wrote his doctoral dissertation on novels about World War II (1941-45) and taught courses in American and southern literature. From an early point in his life he tried his hand at wood carving, sketching, and other creative activities; his friends also knew him as an able storyteller. Dissatisfied with scholarly writing, Kilgo began to write creative essays in the late 1970s, at first in the form of hunting columns for a local newspaper.
Pleased with these early efforts, he began to write longer essays. Though many of them seem to concern his experiences as a hunter, they actually chronicle his gradual disenchantment with hunting. What attracted his interest instead was the comradeship he enjoyed with friends he made while hunting and the experience of nature itself. Kilgo organized these essays into his first book, Deep Enough for Ivorybills (1988), in which he uses hunting to discuss how certain experiences in the natural world have enriched his life. Hunting deer in the swamps of South Carolina allows Kilgo to know animals in nature not as an abstraction or an idea, but as an experience: "Their attractive force clapped me to them." Hunting also offers rituals of manhood that bind fathers and sons in a reverential sacrament: "the spilled blood" on hand and face "a baptism with all the rights and privileges thereunto pertaining." Hopes of seeing and hearing the nearly extinct ivorybilled woodpecker in the South Carolina swamps become in this book a metaphor for the powerful and persistent tug that the natural world, despite its vulnerability and fragility, exerts on us.
In his second essay collection, Inheritance of Horses (1994), Kilgo focuses on the relationship between nature and the rest of his life. What empowers this book is his dawning awareness that he is not a man of the wilderness but a professor, a writer, and a family man, and it is to his family that he must turn if he is to claim his full inheritance. Significantly, he leaves his hunting buddies behind in the essay "According to Hemingway" and goes fishing instead with his family. We still have the manly drama, in which Kilgo catches a marlin, but with him now he also has Jane, his wife, and Sarah Jane, his daughter, as he learns, before landing the catch, that there is more than fish to this story: his daughter is getting married. What this volume lacks in the unity of the first collection it gains in diversity and breadth. Some of the essays focus on natural subjects, such as bird-watching or a hornet building a nest outside his living room window. Others, however, reveal broader concerns: a tall-tale encounter with moonshiners in north Georgia, hunting for arrowheads, a hair-raising plunge in a jeep down Brasstown Bald, or a moving account of the close friendship of his grandfathers. The essays display a writer of considerable range and talent, at home in the natural as well as the domestic world.
Novel and Memoirs
Devotion to family gains full voice in Kilgo's 1998 novel, Daughter of My People, based on a story from his own family history. In the novel the protagonist Hart Bonner falls in love with Jennie Grant, a beautiful mixed-race woman who is the descendant of a union between Bonner's grandfather and a slave. When Hart's brother Tison also falls in love with and attempts to force himself on Jennie, the stage is set for the novel's primary conflict. In this novel Kilgo explores the deep paradoxes and ironies of the heritage of race in the South and of the United States—a history whose very divisions are built on connections and kinship. In a world of racial bigotry, cruelty, and family struggle, Kilgo creates in Jennie a character who defies human categories. He describes her in a way that emphasizes the meaninglessness of racial divisions: "[Jennie] has many colors. It depends on the light and on her temperature and mood and what part of her body. She is the color of pears and ribbon cane molasses and rye whiskey in a glass." In Hart Bonner he creates a character whose conflicts with family history, his own prejudices, and the racism of his region are emblematic of southern and national history. In recognition for this book, Kilgo received the Townsend Prize for Fiction in 1998.
Kilgo's final book, The Colors of Africa, was published in 2003, shortly after his death. This narrative of a hunting trip to Africa in 2000 combines his interests in hunting, the natural world, and family and friends with his concern over the developing illness that would eventually take his life. As a travel journal, natural history, and meditative autobiography, the result is a distinctive work. Neither endorsing nor criticizing the concept of the white hunter in Africa, it describes in straightforward and candid detail Kilgo's experiences and sensations. He notes early in the book that travel to Africa had always been his dream. In accepting a friend's invitation to accompany him on a safari, Kilgo did so planning to go only as a photographer. Once there he is offered the opportunity to shoot a kudu, the animal at the center of Ernest Hemingway's The Green Hills of Africa, one of Kilgo's favorite books. This becomes a test of his own physical sense of himself as a man who once could hunt with skill and confidence, but who now is not so sure of his energies.
Kilgo wrote about the remote and wild areas of the southern mountains in The Blue Wall: Wilderness of the Carolinas and Georgia (1996), a book done in collaboration with the photographer Thomas Wyche. His memoir, The Hand-Carved Creche and Other Christmas Stories (1999), recalls memories of Christmas with his family in Darlington. In all of his books, he suggests that we are a product of two shaping forces: our families and the natural world. Meaning, his books tell us, resides there.
David Miller, "Out Far and Deep," Sewanee Review 96, no. 4 (1988): 684-87.
Paul Schullery, "The Sporting Life," review of Deep Enough for Ivorybills, by James Kilgo, New York Times, April 24, 1988.
Hugh Ruppersburg, University of Georgia
Steve Harvey, Young Harris College
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.