Jesse Hilton Stuart was one of the more remarkable and original writers in American literature. Amazingly prolific, with more than sixty books in a variety of genres, Stuart produced work that was largely uneven. It has been as much admired by a broad popular audience as it has been maligned, or ignored, by the mainstream of literary opinion. Born in a log cabin in W-Hollow in the hills of eastern Kentucky, Stuart was the first in his family to finish high school. He worked his way through Lincoln Memorial University, a small mountain college in Tennessee, from which he graduated in 1929.
After two years of teaching and administrative experience in his native region, he attended Vanderbilt University, where he pursued but did not complete an M.A. in English. He was particularly drawn to Vanderbilt because of the presence there of the Fugitive-Agrarians, such poets, writers, and teachers as Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren. Although Stuart sometimes seemed to confuse the moral, aesthetic, and philosophical bases of Nashville Agrarian thought with mere farming, he was certainly influenced profoundly by what he took to be the group’s back-to-the-farm and anti-industrial arguments, as well as by its emphasis on the southern sense of place, family, community, and language. The best record of Stuart’s vision of these years is found in his first and finest autobiographical volume, Beyond Dark Hills, which was originally submitted as a term paper at Vanderbilt.
Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow, Stuart’s first important book, appeared in 1934. This rough collection of 703 sonnets is a work of genuine force and energy. Stuart begins the volume with an announcement: “I am a farmer singing at the plow.” He then carries the reader through the cycles of the seasons, the land, and the lives, loves, and deaths of the mountain country and people. The stance he assumes here—the primitive mountain bard, the poet of Appalachia—would remain his typical persona and most effective voice throughout his career. He had been profoundly influenced by the work of Robert Burns, and, with the appearance of this volume, Stuart was hailed as the American Burns. His later volumes of poetry never lived up to the power...
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