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In the depths of the Great Depression, young Jesse Stuart, a 1929 graduate of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, enrolled in Vanderbilt University with the aim of studying under such writers as Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Donald Davidson. Having arrived with little money, Stuart frequently went hungry as he attempted to work his way through graduate school. It was a heartbreaking year. Near its end, in April, 1932, a fire that burned Wesley Hall to the ground destroyed all of his possessions, including his nearly finished thesis on John Fox, Jr. Stuart persevered to the end of the year but then returned to his home, having failed to earn a degree. Yet it was during this year of turmoil that Beyond Dark Hills: A Personal Story, his first autobiographical work, had its genesis.

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Professor Edwin Mims had assigned his students of Victorian literature to write an autobiographical paper. Instead of the expected twenty-page paper, Stuart produced more than three hundred typewritten pages in eleven days. Each morning he would show his new copy to Robert Penn Warren, who urged him to “throw everything else aside” until he finished it. Later Stuart recalled, “Blindly I’ve beaten these words out. They fell like drops of blood on the eardrum. I beat them with a hammer and forged them with heat cleavers to make them undouble the small pictures I have gathered in the album of my brain.” A week after he handed it in, Stuart was complimented by Mims, who nevertheless gave him only a C grade in the course. Six years later, the manuscript was published by E. P. Dutton, with two chapters added to chronicle his life at Vanderbilt and thereafter.

To one of his biographers Stuart later explained the book’s alluring title:I got the title when I was coming up from Portsmouth, Ohio, back to Greenup. At the bend of the river just before you get to Greenup you can see all of Seaton Ridge here spread out before you. I looked up and saw the hills against the sky and they looked dark. I thought, “Beyond those dark hills is my home.”

The book opens with a genealogical chapter, “Tall Figures of the Earth,” with colorful sketches of the Civil War grandfathers of the Stuart and Hilton clans: “On the Stuart side are workers, fighters, heavy drinkers and men of physical endurance. Among the Hiltons are lovers of flashy colors, book readers and people religiously solid as their hills.” Three chapters detail Stuart’s childhood in tenant-farmer cabins, his years in primary school and high school, and his religious insights: “The Destiny of Hills,” “Opossum and Poetry,” and “God: And the Evening Sky.” Venturing beyond the hill farms, he worked first in a carnival and then in the Ashland steel mill. A long chapter chronicles his college years at Lincoln Memorial, where he completed his baccalaureate degree in three years and two summers and was graduated in August, 1929. “Back Drinking Lonesome Water” describes his first year as a teacher in a one-room country school; here Stuart also describes days in court and rural funerals. His year of graduate study at Vanderbilt (1931-1932) is detailed under the heading “A Stranger Was Afraid.” Chapter 10, also added years later to the Mims manuscript, carries the title of his published volume of verse: “Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow.” Stuart’s Vanderbilt professors had counseled him to return home, and that is what he did. Back in eastern Kentucky, he worked as a high school principal and as county superintendent—and he wrote, communicating his love of nature and weaving tales of the struggles of rugged mountain folk. Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow, a volume of verse, was published in 1934. The money it earned enabled Stuart’s father to pay off the farm mortgage and allowed Stuart to buy a bottomland farm so that a road could be built out of W-Hollow. Stuart’s poems celebrating the land had bought him land.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 73

Blair, Everetta Love. Jesse Stuart: His Life and Works, 1967.

Clarke, Mary Washington. Jesse Stuart’s Kentucky, 1967.

Foster, Ruel E. Jesse Stuart, 1968.

Le Master, J. R. Jesse Stuart: Kentucky’s Chronicler-Poet, 1980.

Le Master, J. R., and Mary Washington Clarke, eds. Jesse Stuart: Essays on His Work, 1977.

Pennington, Lee. The Dark Hills of Jesse Stuart, 1967.

Richardson, H. Edward. Jesse: The Biography of an American Writer, Jesse Hilton Stuart, 1984.

Spurlock, John Howard. He Sings for Us, 1980.

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