Kanah: The Life of J. E. James

Kanah: the Life of J. E. James provides a revealing look at the life of a poor family living on the edge of civilization and a window into the goings-on of the day. It affords the modern reader a new insight into the strength of character and determination it took to survive the unbelievable hardship of life in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Edmonds said, "My interest in Kanah was first aroused by Ruth McKee McGrath, my Latin teacher when I was a sophomore in high school, only a few years removed from Kanah’s life time. J. E. James or Kanah was Ruth McGrath’s maternal grandmother’s brother. When my teacher was past age ninety she asked me to preserve Kanah’s narrative."

Kanah used the Southern art of storytelling to write his narrative. Southerners excel at telling stories. The absence of wealth and the memory of shared defeats in the South threw people back upon themselves, upon the only possessions they had – their autobiographies and the sagas of their families and often their military and folk heroes.

Aspiring to create new and productive lives for their families, Kanah’s father, John James and other family members left their North Carolina farms for new homes in northern Georgia’s Campbell County. There John James farmed and utilized his carpentering skills. In the economic environment he competed with the institution of slavery to eke out a meager living. He owned no slaves. Yet he marched off to war and died on the bloody field of Virginia in the Seven Days Battle for what he thought his duty to defend his home and family against an invading army. John James left a widow and eight children.

Kanah’s story is about men and women acting within their particular time and place – a page-turner about evolution during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and its impact on the emerging nation’s social, economic, political, and cultural issues. It provides drama and insights way beyond fictionalized sagas; ordinary people engaged in ordinary living often make for extraordinary reading where people are creating a new social order.

But most important, Kanah’s narrative flies in the face of the stereo-typical presentation of poor white people bent on conquering the problems of everyday survival. Hearing Kanah’s views is refreshing and revealing. His narrative is an honest report told straight from the heart – no posturing or artifice. As a child and young man Kanah sought – literally begged – for honest employment, handouts, and helping hands to get past critical times.

Somehow that distant era of Kanah’s struggles does not feel so distant. The irony of the matter is that we like to think that those Americans who endured such hardships and sacrifice for a cause – any cause – were not so different from ourselves. We like to feel that such strength of character says something about us. The hardship does for us what we often seem unable to do for ourselves. It defines us. It validates us. So it should not be surprising that, in many ways, the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction is still with us. In the persistence of racial divisions, in the struggle for civil rights, in the quest for economic justice, elements of the period appear familiar. In a sense these issues are timeless, especially in the South. Of course, for Southerners the past is not dead, it is not even past.


Kanah: The Life of J. E. James - $8.95

Softcover, 95 pages, 4"x7", ISBN 978-0-9749976-8-1