Jesse Stuart Essay - Stuart, Jesse (Vol. 1)

Stuart, Jesse (Vol. 1)

Stuart, Jesse 1907–

American short story writer, novelist, and poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

When the definitive history of the American short story is written, Jesse Stuart's name may well be near the top of the list of the best writers in this genre. For Stuart, in the timeless vignettes of his short stories, has done what every great writer longs to do. He has created a place and wedged it everlastingly in the imagination of America. His stories have given a voice to the far and lost land of the Appalachians, a voice which calls us ever and delightedly into the outdoor world. The reader of any volume of Stuart short stories opens the book and feels immediately the fine mist of nature blowing into his face. This is the world that Stuart has made in the medium of the short story, and it can no longer be ignored by serious critics. It would be difficult, for instance, to ignore the three hundred and forty short stories by Stuart which have been published in magazines ranging from the slicks to the littlest of the little magazines, stories cutting across all the social strata of America in their appeal. Stuart, like [Thomas] Wolfe, contemplates the life he knows and puts it into words—he is more interested in the life than in the writing, if we understand by "writing" self-conscious absorption in technique. The broad appeal of Stuart's short stories derives primarily from the attraction of Stuart's fictional "world." Stuart heeds the hoariest of all writing axioms, "Write about what you know." Practically speaking, all of Stuart's short stories are projections of the eastern Kentucky milieu into a fictional world. (p. 45)

Given Stuart's method of narration, almost anything he writes takes on a gripping interest, and the essence of his tale-telling is its oral character. Stuart uses the famous "talk style" that came into American fiction from the folk tale, the humorous tales of the old Southwest, and the countless raconteurs of nineteenth-century rural America, culminating in the often masterfully controlled narratives of Mark Twain. (p. 78)

Actually Stuart's humor is primarily a good-natured reveling in comic incongruities, which he depicts with great gusto and without any intent to harm or hurt. He laughs at the central figures of his human comedy but in a genial, understanding manner…. There is a deep tenderness in Stuart, a great pity and love for people; and this quality shows through in his short stories as it does in his personal life. (p. 86)

Stuart is primarily a maker, a poet. He has a feeling for the life of things. He depicts things exactly and lets the universal shine through. He is the observer, the enjoyer—not the exhorter, the preacher. In this sense, he is a true artist…. Stuart says "Yes" to life all along the way in his short stories—"Yes" in spite of sickness, injustice, and death; "Yes" to the bone-deep sweetness and diversity of life. But he does not preach; he lets his world speak for itself. (p. 89)

The central fact about Stuart as a novelist is that he has created a spacious, complex, imaginative world by projecting the actual one of W-Hollow onto an imaginative plane, and there he lives and has his imaginative being. This world becomes a kind of vast continuum realized with equal validity in his poems, short stories, autobiographies, biography, and novels. His imagination plays over this world constantly, and he walks about with a head full of scenes, episodes, and characters which eventually precipitate themselves into stories, novels, and essays. The bridge that carries the world of W-Hollow over into Stuart's novels is the Stuart short story. His novels are, in many ways, prolongations of his short stories into a more spacious esthetic scope. (p. 91)

In trying to get at Stuart's quality, we should consider … a certain affinity with Dickens…. Stuart's style like Dickens' is dramatic, kinetic, bustling with dialogue and action. Instead of telling, he shows. He loves the present tense. It is more dramatic, immediate, objective—it's happening right there before you now. But his style is far simpler than that of Dickens; Stuart creates a "talk-style" simple and direct—rarely using a word longer than two or three syllables. (p. 92)

Stuart cannot be categorized as a Realist or as a Romantic; he fits comfortably in neither category. There is Realism enough in his work: the dialect is sharp and authentic; the customs and habitudes of W-Hollow are closely observed and dramatized; and the characters are, for the most part, living credible beings. Yet there is a Romantic streak running through his novels, a kind of Romantic primitivism, for instance, in his treatment of nature…. The Romantic motif of the child as seer occurs frequently in his work, as does his Romantic idealization of the simple people of this world. Stuart does not have to be labeled; but, if some one insists on doing it anyway, we should best call him a regionalist who mingles the modes of Romanticism and Realism in his work. (p. 93)

Ruel E. Foster, in his Jesse Stuart, Twayne, 1968.