Jesse Hilton Stuart was born on August 8, 1907, in W-Hollow in Greenup County, a mountainous and, at the time, relatively isolated section of Kentucky that Stuart would use as the locale for most of his writings. He was the first child of Mitchell and Martha Hilton Stuart; six other children followed, but two died in infancy from pneumonia. Stuart’s father’s family had lived in Kentucky for generations. They were a clannish people—“Tall Figures of the Earth,” in Stuart’s own words. His grandfather, Mitchell Stuart, had fought in the American Civil War, and Stuart honored this individualistic and often cantankerous old man in one of his first poems, “Elegy for Mitch Stuart,” published by H. L. Mencken in The American Mercury in 1934. Stuart’s father was a quieter man than “Mitch” Stuart; he worked as a coal miner, railroad man, and farmer, and his influence on his son was immense. Stuart used him as the prototype for some of his most impressive characters, and described his relationship with his father in his autobiographical Beyond Dark Hills and in God’s Oddling, a biography of his father. His mother’s family came to Kentucky from North Carolina and was apparently more “cultured”; it was she who encouraged her son to read and first supported him in his continuing quest for education.
The Stuarts moved from farm to farm throughout W-Hollow when Stuart was a boy, a way of life that gave him a sympathy for the plight of the landless. When he was seventeen years old, Stuart’s enthusiasm for learning earned him the position of teacher in a one-room school, two years before he graduated from Greenup High School. Following graduation in 1926, Stuart left the mountains, working for a short time in a carnival; then undergoing military training at Camp Knox, Kentucky; and finally spending an unhappy period in the Ashland, Kentucky, steel mills. Later in 1926, he was accepted at Lincoln Memorial University (Harrogate, Tennessee), where he studied under Harry Harrison Kroll, a published writer and one of Stuart’s greatest influences. While at Lincoln Memorial, with Kroll’s encouragement, Stuart began writing poems, some of which were published in the school newspaper. After graduating in 1929, Stuart returned to the mountains and served a year as principal and teacher of Warnock High School. In 1930, his...
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