Jesse Hilton Stuart was one of America’s most popular regional writers in the twentieth century. A child of Kentucky, he made his homeplace and the Appalachian region in which it was located the general setting of his work. More than any other writer—more than John Fox, Jr., or Mary Noilles Murfree or even Al Capp—Stuart fixed the stereotypical image of the Southern mountaineer in the nation’s consciousness. He was a romanticizer and a simplifier. His writings celebrate the importance of place, the power of will, and the inevitable triumph of the good. During his lifetime, he published more than two thousand poems (in eight collections), three hundred short stories (in eighteen collections), nine novels, eight children’s books, eight autobiographical works, and numerous other volumes of essays, speeches, and observations: a total of sixty-one books in all.
Stuart’s incredible popularity was greatest from the mid-1930’s to the early 1950’s, although he continued to publish until very near his death in early 1984. In the 1980’s, he seems very much a product of this time. His work is generally reassuring, and his life proved an example of what a man with determination and strength could accomplish. He was born in W-Hollow, Greenup County, Kentucky, the first child of Mitchell (“Mick”) Stuart and Martha Hilton Stuart. His father’s family had lived for many generations in the mountains—his grandfather Mitch Stuart was well-known as a fighting, danger-loving mountain man—and Jesse drew on the family lore and legends in many of his works. Nevertheless, even as a boy he yearned for the world beyond the “dark hills” of Appalachia. With his mother’s encouragement and sympathy, he turned to literature and education as a way to escape. After finishing high school, he attended Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, and later, after a year as principal and teacher in the local school back home, he went to Vanderbilt University to work on his master’s degree in English. At Lincoln Memorial, he studied under Harry Harrison Kroll, author of The Mountainy Singer (1928) and Cabin in the Cotton (1931), two local-color novels set in the mountains, and Kroll served as an important early influence. Stuart arrived at Vanderbilt at the height of the Agrarian-Fugitive Movement and there met such notables as Edwin Mims, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren. Warren would become, at least in Stuart’s mind, a kind of literary adversary against whom he would match himself and his success as a writer. Davidson proved to be one of Stuart’s most influential supporters. It was for Edwin Mims, however, a scholar of the old school, that Stuart wrote a rough, awkward, three-hundred-plus page autobiographical paper (for an assignment of eighteen pages) which seems to have clarified in his own mind those themes and characters which would form the heart of his subsequent writing. In this paper, he looked back at his life, at his land, at his people, and he never again looked away. In a very essential way, Jesse Stuart found his own best subject in himself.
In Jesse: The Biography of an American Writer, Jesse Hilton Stuart, H. Edward Richardson has attempted to separate the fact from the fiction in the story of Jesse Stuart. His is a long, thoroughly researched, comprehensive biography. Richardson had the cooperation of the Stuarts in writing it. He interviewed Jesse Stuart himself forty-two times and, in fact, became a friend of the family. He was given access to the private scrapbooks that Stuart’s wife, Naomi, had kept since their marriage in 1940. He was able to witness at firsthand the last years of the writer’s life. For these reasons, Jesse is probably as complete a biography from a factual standpoint as one is likely to read. Richardson’s research has enabled him to correct a number of misconceptions about the writer, some fostered by Stuart himself.
Richardson’s approach to his subject, however, is in general too respectful for its own good. He explains in his acknowledgments: “I have aimed to keep myself out of the way as much as possible, allowing the subject to speak for himself, revealing his life the way it was—indeed, to permit Jesse, through his own words whenever possible, to tell his own life story.” While such a method does result in, perhaps, a more immediate sense of the subject, it also results in a loss of objectivity. It is the role of the biographer to stand as both observer and evaluator, to impose an outsider’s judgments to balance the subject’s self-perceived image. While Richardson thoroughly details the events of Stuart’s life, he too often sees these events...
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