Jesse Stuart Essay - Critical Essays

Jesse Stuart Short Fiction Analysis

America’s southern highlands have long been viewed as an area removed from the influences of the “civilized” world; indeed, for more than a century they were. Rich in folklore and tradition, these highlands have provided stimulus to a vast number of writers as far back as William Gilmore Simms. The majority produced mostly second-rate novels and stories that relied on melodrama, sentimentality, and effusive description of natural setting to carry their plots. A few writers, however, have risen above that level to present the southern highlanders and their land in a more graphic and realistic light. Jesse Stuart was one such writer.

Once commenting that as a child he “read the landscape, the streams, the air, and the skies,” Stuart had “plenty of time to grow up in a world that I loved more and more as I grew older.” With his abiding love and respect for the people and the land of this picturesque region, Stuart, in a fashion matched by few American regional writers, brought the southern highlands into sharp focus for his readers. His short stories—the fictional form in which he was at his best—are a journey of exploration into the many aspects of life in the region. Using his home place of W-Hollow as a vantage point and springboard, Stuart treated various themes and motifs in his stories: religion, death, politics, folklore, sense of place, nature, and the code of the hills. While these themes are treated from a realistic stance, through all of them runs the romantic idea of the ever-renewing power of the earth, and through many of them an exuberant sense of humor, where the comic juxtaposition is the primary structural pattern.

“Dawn of Remembered Spring”

A story that clearly illustrates a blending of realism and Romanticism is “Dawn of Remembered Spring.” Like so many of Stuart’s stories, this one has an autobiographical ring to it. The main character is Shan, a young boy who appears in a number of Stuart’s stories. In this particular instance, Shan is being cautioned by his mother not to wade the creek because of the danger of water moccasins. Just a few days prior, Roy Deer, another youngster, was bitten by a water moccasin and is now near death. To Shan’s comment that all water moccasins ought to be killed, his mother agrees but adds, “They’re in all these creeks around here. There’s so many of them we can’t kill ‘em all.” As idyllic as one side of life in W-Hollow may be, there is the ever-present factor of death, in this case symbolized by water moccasins.

Shan, however, is not to be deterred by his mother’s warning, and, armed with a wild-plum club, he sets out wading the creek to kill as many water moccasins as he can. It is a suspenseful journey as Shan, frightened but determined, kills snake after snake. “This is what I like to do,” he thinks. “I love to kill snakes.” He wades up the creek all day, and when he steps out on the bank at four o’clock, he has killed fifty-three water moccasins. As he leaves the creek, he is afraid of the snakes he has killed and grips his club until his hands hurt, but he feels good that he has paid the snakes back for biting Roy Deer—“who wasn’t bothering the water moccasins that bit him. He was just crossing the creek at the foot-log and it jumped from the grass and bit him.”

As he goes near home, Shan sees two copperhead snakes in a patch of sunlight. “Snakes,” he cries, “snakes a-fightin’ and they’re not water moccasins! They’re copperheads!” The snakes are wrapped around each other, looking into each other’s eyes and touching each other’s lips. Shan’s Uncle Alf comes upon the scene and tells Shan that the snakes are not fighting but making love. A group of onlookers soon gathers, including Shan’s mother who asks him where he has been. “Killin’ snakes,” is his reply. To her statement that Roy Deer is dead, Shan says that he has paid the snakes back by killing fifty-three of them. At this point his mother, along with the rest who have gathered at the scene, is spellbound by the loving copperheads. She sends Shan to the house to get his father. As the boy goes, he notices that the snakes have done something to the people watching: “The wrinkled faces were as bright as the spring sunlight on the bluff; their eyes were shiny as the creek was in the noonday sunlight.”

In “Dawn of Remembered Spring” Stuart has juxtaposed images of death and life; Shan has killed fifty-three snakes, and Roy Deer has died from his snake bite. The two copperheads making love remind the reader and the people watching that, cruel though nature may be at times, there is always the urge for life. The hate that demands revenge is somehow redeemed in the laughter that Shan hears from the group—a laughter “louder than the wild honeybees I had heard swarming over the shoemake, alderberry, and wild flox blossoms along the creek.”

“Sylvania Is Dead”

In “Sylvania Is Dead” Stuart uses the death motif to bring out the prevalent stoicism of the highlanders as well as their ability to see humor in a grotesque situation. The story opens as Bert Pratt and Lonnie Pennix are on their way to the funeral of the story’s namesake. It is September, and nature is presented through images of death: “The backbone of the mountain was gray and hard as the bleached bone of a carcass. The buzzards floated in high circles and craned their necks.” When the men reach Sylvania’s cabin at the top of the mountain, they see a large crowd already gathered and buzzards circling low overhead. Lonnie pulls his pistol and shoots into the buzzards, scaring them away. When Skinny, Sylvania’s husband, runs from the cabin scolding them for firing guns at such a sorrowful time, they respond that they were only trying to shoo away buzzards. Skinny says it is all right, for buzzards are a “perfect nuisance in a time like this.”

The black humor in the story derives from Sylvania’s size and her occupation. She weighs six hundred and fifty pounds; her husband, only about one hundred. Her occupation has been selling moonshine, and as one of the men digging her grave says, “I say we’ll never miss Sylvania until she’s gone. She’s been a mother to all of us.” Sylvania is so big that when she was caught “red handed” by the revenuers on one occasion, she...

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