Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125
Beyond Dark Hills was Jesse Stuart’s first prose expression of his philosophy of life. His highly localized vision centers on the Kentucky side of the Appalachian Mountains and is conveyed through his depiction of inhabitants of that region, dating from the Civil War. Thus, his subject is not merely his own life but also his home area, a region of America that had somehow never ceased to be frontier. The great waves of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had had little impact on Kentucky Appalachia.
From his Scottish forebears the young Stuart inherited strong measures of the Calvinistic ethic: Hard work was a virtue, thrift was essential, soberness was a step toward perfection, and an all-seeing God watched over each soul’s struggle between good and evil. While his parents were to become embodiments of these virtues for him, Stuart recognized that vast numbers of his relatives and neighbors were “backsliders.” During the Prohibition era of his youth, moonshiners turned corn into whiskey for local consumption and for export to urban bootleggers.
Like the eighteenth century philosophes of Europe, Stuart believed that nature and nature’s God brought enlightenment to mankind, and he found evidence of God’s handiwork all around his hills. He passionately loved the land, particularly the land that his parents had labored to clear, to cultivate, and finally to possess. Land, water, and sky, ever changing in the seasons of the Ohio Valley, were images constantly reiterated in his poetry, novels, and short stories. Readers and critics later would label this focus on nature “primitivism”; to Stuart it was the essence of the good life.
A second theme of Stuart’s works was introduced in Beyond Dark Hills—his ingrained optimistic belief in education as a right of every American boy and girl. Off and on, for more than twenty years, Stuart taught school near his home. He began after his junior year in Greenup High School, when he passed the teacher’s examination and gained a second-class certificate. “After the crops were laid by I went out and taught for two months in a country school. Sixty-eight dollars a month beat making crossties and opossum hunting. It was easy money.”Education is so much a part of Jesse Stuart that it is an open question whether he is a writer who teaches or a teacher who writes. So much of his life has been spent as a student, teacher, school administrator, educational prophet, and apologist for learning that his experiences in these roles have indelibly stamped his entire literary output, making education one of his most universal themes and leaving him perhaps the most committed defender of learning in the history of American literature.
That statement was written after Stuart had produced three more works depicting his battles on behalf of education: The Thread That Runs So True (1949), Mr. Gallion’s School (1967), and To Teach, To Love (1970). In Beyond Dark Hills, Stuart insists that learning depends upon the excellence of the teacher, who has the power to change the lives of his students.
Stuart demonstrated his strong belief in individualism, that a determined young person could carve his own way to success, that a teacher could mold the minds of students, that a man could hold his place in the universe by will power. Reminiscing about his boyhood days, “I remembered that on a snowy day in April 1918 I had broken a path for myself through the snow. I would not step in my father’s broken path.” Sweating on his job in a steel mill, he decided to go “beyond the iron claws of the machinery, and why not?” Soon afterward, he went to college to fulfill his dream. Of his return from Lincoln Memorial he muses, “It took life beyond these hills to make one love life among the hills. I had gone beyond the dark hills to taste of life. . . . I tasted of it from books and steel and the merry-go-round. It was not sweet like the life in the hills.” This statement is followed by a paragraph that encapsulates his creed for life:In the hills a man goes forth to sow his grain in the seasons and a man reaps his own grain. There are no parasites sucking the blood from his veins to live, like I found beyond the dark hills. Though his lot was hard among his hills, it was his own lot. Life in the hills would make one sturdy and independent. The handles of the plow make one free. The sod puts one close to nature.
The rich and earthy sentiments found in the chapter titled “Back Drinking Lonesome Water,” describing the year Stuart taught and served as principal of Warnock High School, three miles into the mountains above his home, make this one of the finest pieces of writing in the entire volume. An evocation of Kentucky folklore—a reference to the lonesome waters that call every man back to his birthplace—opens this literary tribute to his W-Hollow.
In Uncle Rank’s voice, Stuart tells tales of those who had come back to drink lonesome waters and die. Plum Grove Cemetery, just behind his first school grounds, is revisited, along with all of his childhood haunts. At his mother’s urging, he walks again to the pine grove where he once “wrote about pine trees then, the stars, the sound of the wind and the evening sky,” and about the “shoe-makes” (sumacs) that had “leaves of scarlet red and yellow gold”: “There was just something in the shoe-make that reminded me of the Kentucky mountain soil. Blood-red dripping shoe-make leaves in the fertile back hollows. Yellow shoe-make leaves dripping on the yellow clay banks of Kentucky mountain soil.” No wonder that his native state elected him poet laureate in 1954, the year of his first heart attack and his father’s death.
“Back Drinking Lonesome Water” includes Uncle Rank’s and Mitch Stuart’s vivid accounts of the deaths of poor old Daddy Strickland, who wanted his coffin cut from sugar-tree wood with horseshoes nailed on each end, and old Bill Warfield, who died because he had “drunk a lot of licker.” The revival service led by Brother Hammertight at Pine Grove Chapel becomes a riot. The Labor Day celebration in Greenup, with street dances, races, and contests with prizes for the prettiest girl, the biggest family (seventeen children living), the most loving couple, the man with the biggest foot—all of these Stuart takes in and records forever. The chapter ends with Mitch telling his son that he wants to stay on the farm and be buried there with his wife at his side: “And I want you to carry on.”
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