“I have never strived to imitate anyone,” Mr. Stuart says. “The writing just comes out of me. I have never tried to develop a style. I just feel the compulsion to write, and I write.” – Jesse Stuart by Everetta Love Blair, University of South Carolina Press, 1967.
JESSE STUART’S novel, The Land Across the River, left me seething. He is always at his worst when he uses his writing to preach or to point out a moral, and it is fortunate that he rarely does this; but I consider it just plain bad taste for a well-to-do writer to use his skills in fiction to attack the welfare system. God knows there’s plenty wrong with the welfare system, but its wrongs are not centered about Ohio farmers, nor about the possibility that welfare is destroying the will and independence of dirt-scratching farmers in the hill country of Kentucky or the adjacent Ohio River valley area.
I have been an admirer of Stuart’s work for many years, partly because I know what he’s talking about. In an article about Kurt Vonnegut I said I was about Vonnegut’s age and had shared similar experiences and that, in general, what he believed about our society and our human predicament pretty well paralleled my own beliefs. I do not share Jesse Stuart’s beliefs to any great degree, but I do know precisely what he’s talking about. My background assures that.
I happened to mention to Al Fick, a year or so ago, my reaction to Stuart’s Land Across the River, and he said that in his opinion Jesse Stuart had never quite come up to early expectations. In thinking about this, I have become convinced that not only did he fail to come up to early expectations, but that Jesse Stuart’s finest works were his early ones.
He seems to be a writer who required no development. It’s as if he were writing at the top of his form as soon as he had, literally, learned to write. Ruel Foster, in Jesse Stuart, says his early poems were derivative and plainly the work of a beginner struggling to find his style, but I see little evidence of this in his short stories or novels.
If we take Jesse Stuart at his own evaluation, it is clear that he considers himself a poet, a short-story writer, and a novelist in that order; and that poetry is to him, by far, the most important of these. In Beyond Dark Hills, he said, “It is poetry that is in my veins and not the story.” And when he sold his first short story (to Story magazine for $25), he said, “But it was not the same kind of money the poetry money was. It was fun money. Poetry was blood-money.”
Stuart’s most successful poetry, without a doubt, was in his first published book of poetry, Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow. This was the book that brought him to national notice, and none of his later poems have gained anything like equal critical acclaim.
In the introduction to A Jesse Stuart Harvest, Stuart says that a theme, “Nest Egg,” handed in to his sophomore class in Greenup High School was submitted a number of times in later college classes and garnered at least 28 A’s before being sold unchanged to the Atlantic Monthly 20 years later. It is today one of his better-known short stories and one of those often selected for college textbooks on the short story. It is certainly amazing that a 16-year-old boy with barely any education could write a story like “’Nest Egg,” but it’s also amazing that it is still one of his best short stories.
Stuart’s most famous novel, and in my opinion his best one by far, was not his first but it was quite early. None of his later novels has anything like the quality of Taps for Private Tussie which was published in 1943. It was this book that made Stuart a famous writer, no book of poems could do that, and I guess it has been his only authentic “best seller.” In 1946 he published Foretaste of Glory, his second-best novel, in my opinion, and in 1949, The Thread That Runs So True, his third-best long fiction. From there his novels lost the spark. There is no question but that his writing skills have continued to grow, but he has lost some of the early freshness and spontaneity that so marked his early work.
Jesse Stuart’s first long prose piece was handed in as a term paper at Vanderbilt University in 1932. In 11 days he wrote Beyond Dark Hills, an autobiography. According to Stuart, his teacher, Dr. Edwin Mims, told him that it was very crudely written but was “tremendous, powerful, the most beautiful thing I have ever read.”
In spite of my 30 years of reading Jesse Stuart, I had not read this book until I decided to publish this piece. I can see why Dr. Mims said that it was crudely written, but I would have thought of that last. In fact, it is a powerful, moving book whose very crudeness adds to its feeling of authenticity. When it was published in 1938, some reviews criticized its naive philosophy, but that is also part of the power of this book. I am willing to say flat out that it is Jesse Stuart’s greatest book, and one that deserves a permanent place in the nation’s literature.
Thus I think Al Fick led me to a point never made about Stuart: He did his best work first. Not only early, but well before one would have expected him to have the capability. There have, of course, been many “first novelists” who did nothing of value after an excellent first novel, but I know of no parallel to Stuart who excelled in non-fiction, poetry, novel, and short story on his first attempts.
Another striking thing about his work is that his best efforts are, in my opinion, his non-fiction. God’s Oddling, the biography of his father, is by any standards a very fine book. Mitch Stuart, his father, comes alive in this book in the full complexity of a man. It is much more polished than Beyond Dark Hills but does not have the impact of the earlier book. Fact and fiction are not well separated in Stuart’s works, so a reader cannot always be sure which is which.
His successful book, The Thread That Runs So True, is the barely fictionalized story of his teaching days in Greenup County. This is one work where advocacy does not get in the way of the story but is an important part of the structure. This book must be one of the strongest advocates for the value of education in helping to free people from their bondage to primitive cultures. Jesse Stuart believed it and practiced it, and is, himself, an example of the result that can be had. No one can read this book without feeling something of the passion that man has for learning and for teaching.
I was at school, Morehead (Kentucky) State College, with James Stuart, Jesse’s younger brother. James had likely already been teaching in the Greenup County school system and was back at school to get additional credits that meant more pay. Anyway, Jesse Stuart came to speak to us. This was probably in 1939. Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow had been published, and as I recall from the introduction, his first book of short stories, Head O’ W-Hollow, had just been published. I had never heard of Jesse Stuart.
I recall him as a heavy, strong looking, middle-aged man (he was 32, if it was 1939) who looked completely out of his element, standing at the podium. He should have been squatting on his heels in a tobacco patch talking to other farmers, I thought, instead of talking to sophisticated college students like us.
He began to speak in a stilted, nervous manner for all the world like a high school valedictorian. Clearly, his talk was memorized and he was having enough trouble remembering the words to preclude any possibility of avoiding a monotone delivery. He must have gone on in this way for at least 15 minutes. Throughout the auditorium, people were beginning to squirm with embarrassment.
All at once Jesse Stuart stopped talking and stood there for an interminable minute. Then in an entirely different voice, he started telling a story – a story he said had been the background of a story in Head O’ W-Hollow. Before he had really gotten into the story, people all over the room were chuckling, partly in relief and partly at his story, and by the finish of the story, there was laughter throughout the crowd. Stuart seemed transformed. Stories flowed from him, his voice became confident and resonant, he started using mountain dialect now and then, and his whole manner was that he was sharing with us stories that he was not responsible for but that just existed in his mountain area. He was by far the best story teller I’ve ever heard, and for an hour or more he had his audience laughing and crying and totally entranced. I have never seen any speaker so control an audience. It was purely wonderful.
One of his engaging concepts was that he was putting something over on the magazine and book publishers. I remember him saying that any time he needed money all he had to do was “write down” a story and send it off to Esquire. “They’ll buy anything,” he crowed.
His tales of his efforts in getting through school without money were understood and enjoyed by the audience that included many people who were trying to do the same thing, and who, by and large, also made a comedy of it on the basis, I suppose, that it was better to laugh than to cry.
Until I started reading for this piece, I did not know that Jesse Stuart had been a very active and popular lecturer. According to Everetta Love Blair’s Jesse Stuart, until his heart attack in 1954, he was continually on a lecture tour and often gave three lectures in 24 hours. Blair says his lectures often went overtime by an hour or more because of audience reaction. She claims that college audiences, in particular, are not accustomed to such brash, passionate speeches. She quotes Donaldson, one of Stuart’s teachers at Vanderbilt, as saying: “To those who have never before heard Jesse Stuart speak; the experience is stunning.”
His written stories are often humorous but at a smiling or a chuckling level of humor. At the talk that I heard, everyone had to laugh aloud, actually helplessly, and he often had to wait for the laughter to quiet down before he could be heard. He is a story teller, and his written stories have an air of being told; they are essentially oral.
After this lecture it was some years before I heard of Jesse Stuart again. Although I lived in the same dormitory as his brother James, I did not know James except to speak to. In spite of my reaction to Stuart’s lecture I did not obtain and read his books. But in 1943, Taps for Private Tussie was published, and this book made a Jesse Stuart fan of me. The bare-bones of the plot is that Private Tussie is apparently killed in World War II, his widow receives his $10,000 GI insurance, and the Tussie relatives descend like locusts on the widow to help her squander the money in a few months. It is a funny novel and full of real people and the attitudes and characteristics of the hill-country people. It was a best seller and deserved to be. I’ve always had a niggling feeling about it because I don’t believe a widow could get Gl insurance in a lump sum; I think it was only paid out in monthly payments much too small to support the new-found requirements of the Tussie clan.
I have always been a little uneasy about Stuart’s depictions of the culture and folkways in and around Greenup, the site of most of his stories. In 1946 and 1947, I frequently dated a girl who lived in Greenup. It was a little town with something over one thousand people; it was backward but not noticeably primitive. It had paved streets, curbing, lights, water, and sewers. There were Elks, a Lions Club, American Legion, etc. It was, so far as I could see, indistinguishable from a thousand Kentucky towns. It was hard to see any relationship between the Greenup of that time and the Greenup of Stuart’s books.
Not only that, but his novel, Foretaste of Glory, had just been published, and many people in the town felt they had been depicted unkindly by Stuart in this book. In the novel a rare, at that latitude, display of aurora borealis causes everyone in the town to believe that judgment day is at hand. Stuart’s humorous, but rather sympathetic account of the people trying to straighten out their affairs for the imminent world’s end is one of Stuart’s better novels. But the people of Greenup objected to the general tone of his portrayal of them as ignorant backwoodsmen, and many of them felt they had been directly used as characters in the book.
Jesse Stuart had never been very popular in Greenup; he had been a very controversial superintendent of schools and had been subjected to legal and physical attacks on several occasions. The local attitude toward his writings was very negative, but the national popularity of his books was beginning to exert pressure in Greenup so that people spoke of him with both pride and exasperation. But this was a time when the keyword in all small towns was “progress,” and no one wanted to appear to be “behind the times,” so his depiction of them as hicks did not sit well.
I have satisfied myself that his depictions are accurate. His published stories are a bit displaced in time; that is, the stories published in the 1940’s reflect conditions as they existed in the 1920’s and early 1930’s, and this was a period of enormous change in the hill-country way of life. Modern civilization did not start catching on in the hill country until about 1930, but then the changes were unbelievably rapid. In Beyond Dark Hills, we find that Jesse Stuart, as a teen-aged common laborer, helped pave the streets of Greenup in the early 1920’s.
A couple of times, the mother of the girl I was dating said that she had typed much of Stuart’s first book of poems, Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow; that the poems were written illegibly in pencil on rough tablets and all kinds of loose papers, and that she had helped him organize them and had typed and assembled the manuscript for submission to the publisher. I was dubious of her claim because it implied an early recognition of his talent and an important influence on the book, but Stuart had, to my knowledge, never mentioned her assistance. Yet now I find in Beyond Dark Hills that she was his secretary (Why didn’t she tell me that?) when he was superintendent of Greenup County schools, and he says he often showed her his poetry. Further he describes how he wrote on any scrap of paper at hand when the mood struck. Also this was when the book came out, so she was probably telling the simple truth, and I lost an opportunity to learn a lot about Jesse Stuart.
Greenup finally honored Jesse Stuart by erecting a statue of him in the courthouse yard in 1955. I suspect this was due to the change in attitude toward more primitive times, actually a simplistic nostalgia, as well as the pressure of his international fame. Still, I would guess there are plenty of people in Greenup County who have no love for Jesse Stuart. Also I would bet there are plenty of people in Greenup County who never heard of him and couldn’t care less. In spite of the great changes that have taken place, this area is not exactly a center of literary culture.
A few writers, Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner for example, have been able to create a complete “locale” in which their stories and novels are set, and which are as real to us as actual places. Plum Grove, W-Hollow, and Greenup are real places, but they are also the fictional places of Stuart’s books. No one has done a better job of deriving and maintaining a complex, self-consistent locale. So far as I am aware, he is the only writer to write about hill-country farming with deep knowledge of the process. Perhaps he is at his best when writing about farm work. When he tells about cutting a field of corn, you could use his description as a textbook for learning to cut and shock corn. Clearly, he knows what he’s talking about.
Also it should not be overlooked that Stuart understands the dark side of the hill-country life. Today there is a tendency among people who have never experienced such a life to romanticize it. But Stuart’s stories contain the true picture. The work is long, hard, and unprofitable. Education is poor; opportunities are scant. Ignorance and narrowness are a way of life. Note that Stuart says, in The Thread That Runs So True, that the few years that the students spend in elementary school at Plum Grove will always be remembered as the happy days of their lives. It is not a pretty picture, and especially in Stuart’s periods of rebellion against the hill culture, he has quite accurately assessed its shortcomings.
One of the most obvious characteristics of the hill-country culture is the wasting of talent. A child may show an astonishing capability in learning, or as a budding artist, or as a natural writer and, because of lack of encouragement or stimulation from the community and family, fade into the prevailing loutishness. That’s a familiar story to school teachers in eastern Kentucky and, I’m sure, throughout Appalachia. Jesse Stuart is the only one I know of who stayed in the hills and amounted to anything in the view of the outside world. It may be that Stuart’s failure to come up to his apparent early potential is simply an indication of how far a hillbilly has to go; he starts from so far back it takes a lifetime to catch up to civilization.
Jesse Stuart has attracted very little thoughtful, objective criticism. People who write about him are usually fans of his works and fond of him as a person. Nor is my purpose here literary criticism. My purpose is merely to explore and try to express my personal appreciation of his work.
Jesse Stuart is one of a small number of authors who have entertained and instructed me for a lifetime. Many of his short stories and incidents in his novels and other books have given me such pleasure that I feel a great regard and affection for him, and I forgive him for The Land Across the River. Some of his stories rattle around in my head for years, giving me pleasure over and over. His tale of the brief courtship of a Slab-Baptist boy and a Foot-Washing-Baptist girl is unforgettable. And I often think, when I see some marvelous machine, of his story, “No Petty Theft,” in which a man became enamored of a steam shovel and stole it piece by piece from the road building site and carried it on his back across the mountain to hide it in his barn simply because he had to have it.
And of course, above all is what Edmund Wilson called “the shock of recognition.” In terms of Jesse Stuart’s locale, I would have been a “city” boy, a Greenup inhabitant rather than a Plum Grove or a W-Hollow inhabitant, and I was also some 14 years later coming along, and, as I’ve said, this was a period of rapid change, but these distinctions would be minuscule to an outsider who would accurately view the whole population as ignorant hillbillies. To me, Jesse Stuart’s works reflect, with some exaggeration, the life I lived and the culture I was surrounded by when I was growing up. No small part of my pleasure in his depictions of this culture is that I managed to escape, in some degree, by leaving. Jesse Stuart performed a much more difficult feat – he escaped while staying.
Hand set in Deepdene. Display types are Goudy Hand Tooled, roman and italic. Two covers, blue and brown, and six colors of text paper used in this issue. Edited and published by Jake Warner and 500 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.