James M. Aton was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1949 and was educated there in Catholic schools. He received a B.A. in English from Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL in 1971, an M.A. in English from the University of Kentucky in 1977, and a Ph.D. in American Literature from Ohio University in 1981. He has taught in the Department of English at SUU since 1980, where he is Professor of English. He teaches classes in Writing, Mythology, American Studies, and Continental European Literature.
Aton has twice been a Visiting Fulbright Scholar in American Studies, first in 1989-90 at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and second in 1997-98 at Sichuan University in Chengdu, Peoples Republic of China.
Aton has published articles on environmental history in Utah Historical Quarterly, Western American Literature, South Dakota Review, and Southwest Art. He has presented the SUU Distinguished Faculty Lecture three times, most recently in September 2009. His monograph, John Wesley Powell, appeared as part of the Boise State University's Western Writers Series. His book with Robert S. McPherson, River Flowing from the Sunrise: An Environmental History of the Lower San Juan, was finalist for the 2000 Utah Book Award in non-fiction and was awarded the 2000 Norris and Carol Hundley Award for "best book on any historical subject" from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association. His book with photographer Dan Miller, The River Knows Everything: Desolation Canyon and the Green, appeared in May 2009; it was a finalist for the 2009 Utah Book Award in non fiction. In January 2010 the University of Utah Press published his book, John Wesley Powell: His Life and Legacy. He has produced two films, Jimmie Jones: Redrock Painter (with Jon M. Smith) and Voices of Desolation Canyon (with Jennifer Little). He has received two N E H Summer Seminar Grants. His book, Jim Jones: The San Blas Years, was published by SUU Press in 2013. His biography on the art and life of Jimmie Jones will appear in spring 2015 from Gibbs Smith Books.
Aton is the father of Jennifer Wilks Aton, a registered dietician at Seattle Children's Hospital. He is an avid river runner, skier, hiker, and backpacker.