Jesse Stuart Essay - Stuart, Jesse (Vol. 8)

Stuart, Jesse (Vol. 8)

Stuart, Jesse 1907–

An American novelist, short story writer, and poet, Stuart, who was born in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, writes about the poor Appalachian hillfolk of his native region. While his name is rarely mentioned in surveys of American literature, there are many admirers of Stuart's novels who feel that his work has not been duly appreciated, but that belated recognition is certain to come to him. Stuart's strengths as a writer are his skilled use of dialect and his compassionate understanding of the people of his native region. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

In Harvest of Youth (1930), [Jesse Stuart] went through a period of exploration, and Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow (1934) marked a period characterized by a spontaneous outpouring of literally thousands of lines. The period of spontaneity was followed by a concentrated effort to become a craftsman. Album of Destiny (1944) is unique because of Stuart's sustained effort, the only one like it in modern American poetry, to impose free-verse prosodic techniques upon a very traditional and conservative verse form. Paralleling the progression or genesis of craftsmanship, there is the working out of an ontological view—an attempt to make mankind and the universe at large mutually meaningful. Also paralleling the development of Stuart's craft is his evolving concept of the image, a concept which in Album of Destiny results in a pictorial method remarkably similar to the one worked out by Walt Whitman.

Stuart's primary problem has always been (and continues to be) that of how to be a natural poet in a world that demands of its poets that they be craftsmen—artificers. (p. 251)

One comes away from such books as The Year of My Rebirth with a realization of Stuart's distaste for contriving, for being an artificer. He also comes away with a realization that for Stuart the poet is "nature's child," a medium and a bridge between a natural world and a populace that has lost contact with the world. He sees about him, symbolized in the sterotype of the effeminate artist, a world that he cannot accept, and this has done much to keep him adding to his chronicle. Using an isolated community as a vehicle for expression, he exalts the "old verities" … love, honor, pity, pride, compassion, sacrifice, endurance, courage, and hope [that] according to Faulkner, are things of the heart. (pp. 251-52)

The "old verities" are the same for Stuart as they are for Faulkner, and like Faulkner, Stuart sees that the times are "out of joint," that the human heart is in conflict with itself. Also like Faulkner, Stuart believes that mankind can and will prevail….

Stuart's attempt to chronicle his Appalachian area has been successful. He has published voluminously. He has written in haste, and all that he has written is one writing. His prose has received much greater acclaim than has his poetry, but that may make little difference since one is necessarily an adjunct to the other. Stuart sees no clear point of cleavage between the poem and the story. (p. 252)

He says that he has memorized, not that he has remembered. The distinction is important to Stuart's pictorial method. To remember a rosebush may be a very general thing. To memorize a rosebush is a matter of specific detail—of line, of space, of proportion, of color, and of balance. Stuart says that he has memorized his valley "down to the smallest details." Paths, trees, and waterholes, he says in "Memory Albums," often change and play "havoc with that memory of mine that once photographed them to perfection." (p. 253)

Bulk in itself is at the present time a deterrent to a wide appreciation of his poetry. The poetry has often been hurriedly written, as in the case of Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow. (p. 255)

One can only hope that his poetry will endure, and that through enduring it will gain the kind of recognition that it deserves. There are several reasons why it should endure. In the first place, it is part of one of the most elaborate chronicles ever written in America about a single place. Second, as part of the chronicle, it likely contains more information about a fairly isolated community than any other single source. Third, it contains a record of Stuart's own life—a fascinating life by anyone's standards. And finally, Stuart's poetry should endure because some of it is good poetry, is well-written, and can therefore be a great source of pleasure to future generations of American readers. The story of W-Hollow has not ended, and Stuart himself will never let it die. (pp. 255-56)

J. R. LeMaster, "The Poetry of Jesse Stuart: An Estimate for the Seventies," in Southwest Review, Summer, 1971, pp. 251-56.

Jesse Stuart finds sermons in snakes as well as stones. Blacksnakes, copperheads and water moccasins, slithering about in the undergrowth of the author's native Kentucky, are arranged into a reptilian nosegay of stories—plus 11 poems that close the volume. Why this fascination with the snake? Its primal nature, perhaps, in the scale of being. Its ubiquity in legend. Its patient rhythms. And its circular propensity, symbolic of the cyclical nature of life, which Jesse Stuart has always celebrated.

The short stories, a delightful assortment, treat of snakes in love, snakes and moonshine, snakes and motorcycles, snakes and minnows, snakes and dogs. Also present are frogs, wrens, ground squirrels, mountain people and a home-grown humanism that enables the author to see some good even in scorpions. A timely whiff of spring. (p. 44)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 26, 1972.

Stuart is a good storyteller whose tales have the quality of oral narrative at its best—quick moving, vibrantly alive—and his humor, sincerity, and affectionate understanding of the Kentucky hill country and its people are a refreshing antidote to the groanings and lamentations of so many of the metropolitan Jeremiahs. (p. 162)

William Peden, in his The American Short Story: Continuity and Change 1940–1975 (copyright © 1964, 1975 by William Peden; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, revised edition, 1975.

Stuart writes most, and best, of nature. The majority of [the] nearly 300 poems [in The World of Jesse Stuart: Selected Poems] are lyrics of sonnet or near sonnet-length and traditional in form. The reader who knows only Stuart's prose will be surprised at the excellence of many of these poems, but he will find very familiar Stuart themes: his basic belief in the land and the work ethic, his love affair with nature, and his total devotion to God. The quality of some of the more recent poems shows a decline; when he writes of Hiroshima and Vietnam his voice is too strident and hysterical and loses poetic strength. (p. 48)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring, 1976).