Beyond Dark Hills Critical Essays

Jesse Stuart


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1125 words.)