James Kilgo is best known for his essays and novels that feature character-driven drama and musings on the intricacies of nature. His works use his personal experiences and family stories, as well as classic Southern themes, to weave tales of hunting, friendship, interracial love, jealousy, fratricide, and suicide.
Kilgo was born in Darlington, South Carolina in 1941. He graduated from Wofford College, then went on to receive his MA and PhD in American Literature from Tulane University. In 1967 Kilgo joined the faculty of the University of Georgia in the English department, teaching English and English literature. A few years later, he became a frequent contributor to the Georgia Review and Sewanee Review, as well as the Gettysburg Review and New England Review/Bread Loaf Quarterly.
Kilgo taught at the University of Georgia for 32 years total, serving two years as the Director of the Creative Writing program. Kilgo retired from his position in 1999, and died of cancer three years later. His friend and fellow Athens author, Philip Lee Williams, acknowledged him upon his death as "a fine stylist, a highly respected craftsman in his approach to his work. His work is very beautiful and enduring."1
Kilgo did not begin doing creative writing until he was in his 30s, though his excellence as a writer was obvious almost immediately to his colleagues and critics. He claimed that he found inspiration in the works of Cormac McCarthy, Annie Dillard, and especially William Faulkner; one reviewer1 even compared his contemplation of hunting in Deep Enough for Ivorybills to that of Faulkner in his works. Nature itself, in the form of birds or deer, exerts a kind of force on him that he must "do something about" 2; in the end, this primarily takes the form of stories. He also turned to carving and painting as alternate forms of expression, and frequently illustrated his own works.
Kilgo's first book of essays, Deep Enough for Ivorybills, was published in 1988. It was soon followed by another book of essays and multiple novels. His final book, Colors of Africa, was published posthumously by the University of Georgia Press in 2003. While at UGA, he received five Outstanding Honors Professor awards and the Honoratus Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Kilgo won numerous literary merit awards for his work, including the Townsend Award for Fiction for Daughter of My People. Kilgo's first novel, Daughter of My People fictionalizes a town legend about two brothers and their relationships with a mixed-race woman named Jennie. One reviewer praised the descriptions of the "culture and class system of the Old South, particularly the well-steeped denials, disguised as polite manners, that prevent ugly truths and family secrets from ever raising their heads in conversation."3 Kilgo demonstrates a deep understanding of the South in all of his works, revealing the best and worst of the region with equal curiousity and compassion.
Kilgo taught at the University of Georgia for 32 years total, serving two years as the director of the college creative writing program. Kilgo retired in 1999, and he died of cancer three years later. His friend and fellow Athens author, Philip Lee Williams, acknowledged him upon his death as "a fine stylist, a highly respected craftsman in his approach to his work. His work is very beautiful and enduring."4
1 Schullery, Paul. "'The Sporting Life,' review of Deep Enough for Ivorybills, by James Kilgo." New York Times, Apr. 24, 1988, Late City Final Edition: 40. LexisNexis. Web. July 13, 2010.
2Kilgo, James. "Actual Field Conditions." The Georgia Review, Summer 1987: 280. Paper.
3 Anderson, Laurie Smith. "In his first novel, James Kilgo handles sensitive issue deftly." The Advocate, July 5, 1998, Sunday Metro Edition: 15. LexisNexis. Web. July 14, 2010.
4 Powell, Kay. "James Kilgo, author, UGA English professor." Atlanta Journal Constitution, Dec. 10, 2002, Tuesday Home Edition: 17D. LexisNexis. Web. July 13, 2010.
Photo by Bethany Riggs, courtesy of Jane Kilgo.
The following titles by James Kilgo may be found in the Hall of Fame collections of the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library:
Deep Enough for Ivorybills. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1988.
Inheritance of Horses. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
The Blue Wall: Wilderness of the Carolinas and Georgia. Englewood, CO: Westcliffe, 1996.
Daughter of My People. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1998.
The Hand-Carved Creche and other Christmas Memories. Athens, GA: Hill Street Press, 1999.
The Colors of Africa. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2003.
Ossabaw: Evocations of an Island (with Jack Leigh, Alan Campbell). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
Dai luoghi profondi. [Deep Enough for Ivorybills. Italian.] Genova : Terra e per l'Uomo, 2012.
James Kilgo's manuscripts, correspondence and other personal/career materials are held by the University of Georgia's Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library.