Stuart, (Hilton) Jesse (Vol. 11)
Stuart, (Hilton) Jesse 1907–
Stuart, an American novelist, short story writer, and poet, writes primarily about the poor people of Appalachia. Much of his fiction has a distinct oral character, replete with the mountain dialect and mannerisms of his narrator. A short story master with a strong sense of narrative and well drawn characters, he is sometimes accused of being unselectively prolific. Many critics, however, believe that his work is underrated by the critical community as a whole. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
[Stuart has a distinct vision of life which permeates all of his novels.] There is the dark world…. It is the world which Stuart sees around him—Kentucky or Appalachia—but is representative of the universal and the characters who live in the dark world are universal men. The dark world is dead or is dying. And at this point the Stuart cycle begins.
From the dark world, or the dying world, comes a world of light and all the symbolic overtones contained therein. But the world does not, cannot, act alone. There must be a force, the life force, which generates from the death a substantial rebirth. That force is youth and in a symbolic sense is the savior of the culture and of mankind.
Time in the cycle becomes involved in what we have spoken about before—the oneness, the single entity, the past, present and future, just as the symbolic force is a part of all existence, a part of all mankind. There is most often a symbolic woman, one who is the essence of freedom and of youth, and that woman becomes the natural mother of the new youth, the new world of light…. She produces the oneness in the child who is of culture and of time, all culture and all time.
Within the vision we face death but always with the hope of a rebirth and we are left with a conscious understanding of the nature of the hope. We realize that the dark world was a result of our own doing and that the light world is the result of...
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J. R. LeMASTER
Although the Agrarian Movement was in its heyday while Stuart was a student at Vanderbilt, he had mixed emotions about the actual achievements of the group. As he says, he liked very much what the Agrarians were advocating, but not what they were doing: "Their farming was on paper. I went to one professor's home and he had a few tomatoes in a little garden and these plants were poorly cultivated. At my home, we farmed: we knew how to do it. We made a living and some to spare farming our Kentucky hills and valleys, We were not 'gentleman farmers'."… The Fugitives were bound together by virtue of their being southerners. They were literary intellectuals who were intensely aware of cultural decadence in the South, a view they shared with William Faulkner, and much of the decadence they blamed on the old antebellum ideal of a Jeffersonian society. On the other hand, the Agrarian Movement actually cultivated Jeffersonian idealism, even though it counted Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Davidson among its members. Stuart is right about what the Agrarians stood for. They fostered an overwhelming sense of place and believed that human success and happiness depend upon establishing and maintaining a right relation with nature, with the land. They opposed industrialization as dehumanizing and in general favored an imaginatively reconstructed pre-Civil War South. The Agrarian Movement arose and flourished during the Great Depression and probably must be viewed in that context. Nonetheless, the Fugitive sense of the decadence of the times and the Agrarian sense of the importance of place have been central to almost everything Jesse Stuart has written in the last forty years. (pp. 20-1)
He is a rhapsodic or bardic poet [in Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow], and he is still feeling his boyhood love for Robert Burns…. [One] finds that he knows he is out of the mainstream of poetry, even in the thirties: "I do not sing the songs you love to hear." Also in the same poem one suspects that he knows his form to be out of vogue: "And these crude strains no critic can call art."… For the most part, Man with A Bull-Tongue Plow is a celebration of agricultural or agrarian existence, although it becomes increasingly philosophical near the end…. Significantly, in the first half of the collection one hears much about Robert Burns, but in the latter half Burns is dropped and in his place one hears much about Donald Davidson. (p. 21)
Stuart finds dozens of ways to symbolize the life process, including the sprouting of seed into plants and the floating of a leaf on a stream of water. Whatever the way, the life of the individual is always absorbed into the life of the whole, and the life of the whole is always is turn observed in the individual.
The poet's concern is the greater American culture, along with the kind of sensibility shaped by that culture, and that such is the case does not depend entirely for its support upon what he says about the symbols in Album of Destiny. He has his characters speak about the things that most interest him as a poet. (pp. 22-3)
In a long celebration of pioneer ancestors, Stuart draws numerous contrasts between life in a golden past and life in twentieth-century America. In some instances he does this as a direct attack on the values of the present. [He addresses] lines, for example,… to stalwart pioneer mothers who bred a race of hearty and courageous Americans, as opposed to twentieth-century women who have turned whorish…. He pits the old against the new, and in his creating of a golden past one always suspects that he has in the back of his mind more than a prewar South, or even a pioneer America. Somewhere much farther back in time he imagines a unified existence similar to the one Eliot pictures before "dissociation" set in, an existence symbolized in Judeo-Christian tradition by the Garden of Eden before the Fall.
Disapproving of the direction he saw American culture taking in the thirties, Stuart admonishes youth to do something about it…. He also admonishes the poet to enlist his services in a battle against growing decadence…. The greatest fault in "Songs of a Mountain Plowman" is that the poet feels so strongly about his subject matter that he cannot sustain the slightest pretense of objectivity. In far too many instances, he clearly breaks down and records his own deep-seated sense of desperation over America…. However poor the poetry in it, "Songs of a Mountain Plowman" stands as the strongest evidence we have of the poet's beliefs about the state of American culture in the thirties. (pp. 25-7)
[One] is forced to conclude that Stuart has not changed his beliefs, The Fugitive-Agrarian synthesis or fusion which characterizes the poems has in fact not changed, and that in spite of the poet's acute awareness that American culture has changed drastically. Album of Destiny was followed by Kentucky Is My Land …, a collection which at first glance appears to be without a conscious plan. But when one looks a second time he finds that Kentucky Is My Land is made up of poems about the poet's bronze-skinned figures of the earth, and that these are placed between two long prose poems, both unquestionably about America and American culture. The poems in this collection are characteristic of most, if not all, of Stuart's writing in that they are highly autobiographical. In this case, there are poems about the poet, about his wife, and about his daughter.
The first of the long prose poems, and the one from which the collection gets its title, is structured on a metaphor in which Kentucky is the heart of America, which in turn is the body. In terms of the metaphor, the health of the heart determines the health of the body, and the circulatory system stands as a symbol of the poet's attempt to change the direction of cultural development in America. Once he has established the Kentucky-America...
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[When] a man writes honestly, without pretension or distortion, about the way people look, act, and think, he produces fiction that is believable and humor that is natural and organic. This is the essence of Jesse Stuart's humor: it is an element as basic to his works as the winds that blow through the beech trees of W-Hollow…. Stuart's humor emerges from his subject matter and is sustained by it. There are few quick laughs in his works. Rather, his humor evokes the constant amusement of man observing man in the natural act of being himself. From regional raw materials Stuart has, therefore, shaped fiction and nonfiction that transcend locale and speak to man's comic (and tragic) condition everywhere. (p. 90)...
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Jim Wayne Miller
In Jesse Stuart's short story "This Farm for Sale" Dick Stone decides to sell out and move into town. He authorizes his old friend Melvin Spencer, a well-known local real estate agent, to sell his hill farm. Spencer is really a poet…. [In his advertisements he] describes the nuts and berries and other wild fruits growing on the Stone farm—the hazelnuts, elderberries, pawpaws, and persimmons—and the jellies and preserves Mrs. Stone makes from them. He describes the tall cane and corn growing in rich bottom-land beside the Tiber River, which is full of fish; the broad-leafed burley tobacco; the wild game in the woods; the house constructed of native timber. Spencer's advertisement causes Dick Stone to see his farm...
(The entire section is 1664 words.)