Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

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American literature turned toward vernacular writing in the 1930’s, with a surge in “local color” short stories and novels. Collections of such works for college courses in American literature came to include selections from Marjorie Rawlings, Joel Chandler Harris, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Jesse Stuart. Each reflected the mores and customs of his or her corner of the United States; thus, regionalism explored the pluralism of Americans. Stuart’s biographer, H. Edward Richardson, best summarizes the meld of primitivism, local color, folklore, and regionalism found in Beyond Dark Hills:My reading of Beyond Dark Hills confirmed my growing impression that Stuart was more than a local colorist. He was a contemporary writer of greater substance to my age than Hamlin Garland or Bret Harte had been to theirs. Here at last, under the charm of his regionalism and the uneven and sometimes impromptu quality of his work, were the deeps of archetypal and mythopoeic patterns: the earth as mother, father, provider; water images unfolding the evolution of primordial man; an abundance of folklore, myths, and tall tales; recurring allegories and symbols from the racial unconscious of mankind; fears and fantasies, mysticism and superstition emerging in nature images; and man in conflict with his own kind.

Unquestionably, Beyond Dark Hills presaged the lifetime writing of the “Poet of the Hills,” who through poetry, short story, biography, autobiography, novels, and public addresses carved a place in world literature for Appalachia and its people. Stuart wanted to be known as a poet; however, most critics found his short stories and novels his best works, while educators and teachers loved his nonfiction works on education and rank them his finest literary monuments.

Stuart’s two most popular books were written and published in the 1940’s: first the novel titled Taps for Private Tussie (1943) and then the tale of his teaching career, titled The Thread That Runs So True. Following a severe heart attack in 1954, he wrote another autobiographical volume about that experience, The Year of My Rebirth (1956).

Before his death in 1984, Stuart’s separately published works totaled sixty-one volumes, including short-story collections, poetry collections, novels, autobiographical books, and several books for children. A descriptive bibliography that lists newspaper and periodical writings as well as longer works has been published in the definitive biography by H. Edward Richardson.

As the first of Stuart’s many autobiographical works, Beyond Dark Hills reflected the ethos and pathos that nearly all of his later works were to celebrate. Critics have observed that Beyond Dark Hills is a work that is greater than the sum of its parts. Threads of style borrowed from Stuart’s Scottish mentor Robert Burns, from Carl Sandburg, and from another Southern author, Thomas Wolfe, have been noted by literary scholars; eventually, Stuart would be censured for stereotyping and perpetuating the hillbilly image of the Appalachian whites. Most serious of the book’s weaknesses is the rather naive Horatio Alger moral implicit in his account of his educational odyssey: that if he could make his way into a better, more modern America, all other hill people could, given decent schooling, do much the same. Ultimately, however, these weaknesses are transcended by the passion and the magnificent vitality of Stuart’s narrative.