Study Guide

Jesse Stuart

Jesse Stuart Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111207118-Stuart.jpgJesse Stuart Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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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Jesse Stuart Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

A native of Kentucky, Jesse Hilton Stuart was educated at Lincoln Memorial University. Following his graduation, he began a career as a writer and teacher, starting what was, for him, a lifetime concern for educational reform and a lifelong struggle with the educational establishment. During his long career, he served as both teacher and administrator, and, after retiring from teaching to turn to full-time farming, writing, and lecturing, he never lost his passionate belief in the power of knowledge.

In 1939, after a courtship of seventeen years, Stuart married Naomi Deane Norris. They had one child, a daughter, Jessica Jane, born in 1942. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Navy, accepting disability in 1945. During subsequent years, though he traveled extensively, Stuart continued to live on the working farm in W-Hollow, the area where he was born and that he made famous through his poems, novels, and stories, many of which were published in Esquire.

He suffered the first of several heart attacks in 1954 but was able to return to normal activity. After a second stroke in 1982, however, he was unable to recover and remained more or less bedridden until his death two years later.

Jesse Stuart Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jesse Hilton Stuart was born on August 8, 1907, in W-Hollow in Greenup County, a mountainous and, at the time, relatively isolated section of Kentucky that Stuart would use as the locale for most of his writings. He was the first child of Mitchell and Martha Hilton Stuart; six other children followed, but two died in infancy from pneumonia. Stuart’s father’s family had lived in Kentucky for generations. They were a clannish people—“Tall Figures of the Earth,” in Stuart’s own words. His grandfather, Mitchell Stuart, had fought in the American Civil War, and Stuart honored this individualistic and often cantankerous old man in one of his first poems, “Elegy for Mitch Stuart,” published by H. L. Mencken in The American Mercury in 1934. Stuart’s father was a quieter man than “Mitch” Stuart; he worked as a coal miner, railroad man, and farmer, and his influence on his son was immense. Stuart used him as the prototype for some of his most impressive characters, and described his relationship with his father in his autobiographical Beyond Dark Hills and in God’s Oddling, a biography of his father. His mother’s family came to Kentucky from North Carolina and was apparently more “cultured”; it was she who encouraged her son to read and first supported him in his continuing quest for education.

The Stuarts moved from farm to farm throughout W-Hollow when Stuart was a boy, a way of life that gave him a sympathy for the plight of the landless. When he was seventeen years old, Stuart’s enthusiasm for learning earned him the position of teacher in a one-room school, two years before he graduated from Greenup High School. Following graduation in 1926, Stuart left the mountains, working for a short time in a carnival; then undergoing military training at Camp Knox, Kentucky; and finally spending an unhappy period in the Ashland, Kentucky, steel mills. Later in 1926, he was accepted at Lincoln Memorial University (Harrogate, Tennessee), where he studied under Harry Harrison Kroll, a published writer and one of Stuart’s greatest influences. While at Lincoln Memorial, with Kroll’s encouragement, Stuart began writing poems, some of which were published in the school newspaper. After graduating in 1929, Stuart returned to the mountains and served a year as principal and teacher of Warnock High School. In 1930, his...

(The entire section is 967 words.)