Jesse Stuart Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2604

America’s southern highlands have long been viewed as an area removed from the influences of the “civilized” world; indeed, for more than a century they were. Rich in folklore and tradition, these highlands have provided stimulus to a vast number of writers as far back as William Gilmore Simms. The...

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America’s southern highlands have long been viewed as an area removed from the influences of the “civilized” world; indeed, for more than a century they were. Rich in folklore and tradition, these highlands have provided stimulus to a vast number of writers as far back as William Gilmore Simms. The majority produced mostly second-rate novels and stories that relied on melodrama, sentimentality, and effusive description of natural setting to carry their plots. A few writers, however, have risen above that level to present the southern highlanders and their land in a more graphic and realistic light. Jesse Stuart was one such writer.

Once commenting that as a child he “read the landscape, the streams, the air, and the skies,” Stuart had “plenty of time to grow up in a world that I loved more and more as I grew older.” With his abiding love and respect for the people and the land of this picturesque region, Stuart, in a fashion matched by few American regional writers, brought the southern highlands into sharp focus for his readers. His short stories—the fictional form in which he was at his best—are a journey of exploration into the many aspects of life in the region. Using his home place of W-Hollow as a vantage point and springboard, Stuart treated various themes and motifs in his stories: religion, death, politics, folklore, sense of place, nature, and the code of the hills. While these themes are treated from a realistic stance, through all of them runs the romantic idea of the ever-renewing power of the earth, and through many of them an exuberant sense of humor, where the comic juxtaposition is the primary structural pattern.

“Dawn of Remembered Spring”

A story that clearly illustrates a blending of realism and Romanticism is “Dawn of Remembered Spring.” Like so many of Stuart’s stories, this one has an autobiographical ring to it. The main character is Shan, a young boy who appears in a number of Stuart’s stories. In this particular instance, Shan is being cautioned by his mother not to wade the creek because of the danger of water moccasins. Just a few days prior, Roy Deer, another youngster, was bitten by a water moccasin and is now near death. To Shan’s comment that all water moccasins ought to be killed, his mother agrees but adds, “They’re in all these creeks around here. There’s so many of them we can’t kill ‘em all.” As idyllic as one side of life in W-Hollow may be, there is the ever-present factor of death, in this case symbolized by water moccasins.

Shan, however, is not to be deterred by his mother’s warning, and, armed with a wild-plum club, he sets out wading the creek to kill as many water moccasins as he can. It is a suspenseful journey as Shan, frightened but determined, kills snake after snake. “This is what I like to do,” he thinks. “I love to kill snakes.” He wades up the creek all day, and when he steps out on the bank at four o’clock, he has killed fifty-three water moccasins. As he leaves the creek, he is afraid of the snakes he has killed and grips his club until his hands hurt, but he feels good that he has paid the snakes back for biting Roy Deer—“who wasn’t bothering the water moccasins that bit him. He was just crossing the creek at the foot-log and it jumped from the grass and bit him.”

As he goes near home, Shan sees two copperhead snakes in a patch of sunlight. “Snakes,” he cries, “snakes a-fightin’ and they’re not water moccasins! They’re copperheads!” The snakes are wrapped around each other, looking into each other’s eyes and touching each other’s lips. Shan’s Uncle Alf comes upon the scene and tells Shan that the snakes are not fighting but making love. A group of onlookers soon gathers, including Shan’s mother who asks him where he has been. “Killin’ snakes,” is his reply. To her statement that Roy Deer is dead, Shan says that he has paid the snakes back by killing fifty-three of them. At this point his mother, along with the rest who have gathered at the scene, is spellbound by the loving copperheads. She sends Shan to the house to get his father. As the boy goes, he notices that the snakes have done something to the people watching: “The wrinkled faces were as bright as the spring sunlight on the bluff; their eyes were shiny as the creek was in the noonday sunlight.”

In “Dawn of Remembered Spring” Stuart has juxtaposed images of death and life; Shan has killed fifty-three snakes, and Roy Deer has died from his snake bite. The two copperheads making love remind the reader and the people watching that, cruel though nature may be at times, there is always the urge for life. The hate that demands revenge is somehow redeemed in the laughter that Shan hears from the group—a laughter “louder than the wild honeybees I had heard swarming over the shoemake, alderberry, and wild flox blossoms along the creek.”

“Sylvania Is Dead”

In “Sylvania Is Dead” Stuart uses the death motif to bring out the prevalent stoicism of the highlanders as well as their ability to see humor in a grotesque situation. The story opens as Bert Pratt and Lonnie Pennix are on their way to the funeral of the story’s namesake. It is September, and nature is presented through images of death: “The backbone of the mountain was gray and hard as the bleached bone of a carcass. The buzzards floated in high circles and craned their necks.” When the men reach Sylvania’s cabin at the top of the mountain, they see a large crowd already gathered and buzzards circling low overhead. Lonnie pulls his pistol and shoots into the buzzards, scaring them away. When Skinny, Sylvania’s husband, runs from the cabin scolding them for firing guns at such a sorrowful time, they respond that they were only trying to shoo away buzzards. Skinny says it is all right, for buzzards are a “perfect nuisance in a time like this.”

The black humor in the story derives from Sylvania’s size and her occupation. She weighs six hundred and fifty pounds; her husband, only about one hundred. Her occupation has been selling moonshine, and as one of the men digging her grave says, “I say we’ll never miss Sylvania until she’s gone. She’s been a mother to all of us.” Sylvania is so big that when she was caught “red handed” by the revenuers on one occasion, she simply laughed and said that even “if they could get her out of the house, they couldn’t get her down the mountain.”

Getting Sylvania out of the house is the big problem now. Building a coffin that takes six men to carry, they finally get Sylvania in it, but it will not go through the door. The only answer is to tear down the chimney. Before carrying the coffin out, however, the men stop for a drink from Sylvania’s last barrel. “I patronized Sylvania in life and I’ll patronize her in death,” Bert says. The drinks from Sylvania’s last barrel, combined with the sorrow at her death, make the crowd noisy. As the coffin is carried to the grave, there is laughing, talking, and crying, accompanied by another pistol shot at circling buzzards. Finally Sylvania is lowered to her rest, and, as Skinny is led back to his cabin, there are “words of condolence in the lazy wind’s molesting the dry flaming leaves on the mountain.”

The human drama played out at this mountaintop funeral is marked not predominantly by sorrow but by acceptance and humor. Sylvania was mother to them all in life, and it is only fitting that her “children” should see her to her grave. The humor in the story is not strained or out of place; on the contrary, the comedy underlines the grotesque element of human behavior as juxtaposed with the natural order. Humor is part of the hard life lived close to nature that is common to the people of Stuart’s fictional world—as much a part as are Sylvania’s moonshine and the buzzards circling overhead.

“Sunday Afternoon Hanging”

In “Sunday Afternoon Hanging,” Stuart again blends the comedy with grim realism, as an old man describes to his grandson what old-time hangings in Blakesburg, Kentucky, were like. Viewing the electric chair as a poor substitute for a hanging, he points out that at a hanging “everybody got to see it and laugh and faint, cuss or cry.” Indeed, they would come from as far as forty miles for such an opportunity. As the old man relates one particular incident to his grandson, the reader is made aware of a combination of characteristics in the people Stuart writes about—violence, vengeance, fatalism, and a desire to escape the tedium of their daily lives.

The Sunday afternoon hanging that the old man describes is the result of the brutal murder of an elderly couple by five men—Tim and Jake Sixeymore, Freed Winslow, Dudley Toms, and Work Grubb. They are all sentenced to be hanged on the same day, and hundreds of people congregate to witness the affair. In contrast to the grisly vengeance to be exacted, the day is bright, with a June wind blowing and roses in bloom. Providing music for the event is a seven-piece band dressed in gaudy yellow pants with red sashes and green jackets. “It was the biggest thing we’d had in many a day,” recalls the old man. “Horses broke loose without riders on them and took out through the crowd among the barking dogs, running over them and the children. People didn’t pay any attention to that. It was a hanging and people wanted to see every bit of it.”

The procedure for the hanging is to have each man brought to the hanging standing on his coffin in a horse-drawn wagon. After a rousing number by the band and a confession from the condemned, the wagon is pulled away, leaving him “struggling for breath and glomming at the wind with his hands.” When he is pronounced dead, the procedure begins for the next man. As each man is hanged, the gruesome scene becomes even more grotesque. The last to be hanged is Tim Sixeymore, and he is so large that he breaks six ropes before the execution is finally carried out. His confession, reminiscent of the ballad “Sam Hall,” begins, “Gentlemen bastards and sonofabitches. Women wenches and hussies and goddam you all.” As the hanging is completed and the parents of the Sixeymores carry off their dead sons, the band plays softer music. The crowd breaks up, “getting acquainted and talking about the hanging, talking about their crops and the cattle and the doings of the Lord to the wicked people for their sins”; and so life goes on. The blending of the comic and the tragic in “Sunday Afternoon Hanging” is so subtle that one is not sure whether to be horrified at the terrible vengeance exacted amid frivolity and hatred or to laugh at the black humor apparent in the contradiction.

“The Moonshine War”

Whatever his feelings of admiration for the people about whom he wrote, Stuart was not blind to the aspect of their character that encourages a kind of macho violence. A number of his stories, for example, deal with feuding and selling moonshine, which, although they are usually thought of now in a more or less humorous vein, were in reality serious and often deadly activities. Fiercely proud, Stuart’s characters consider such activities their own business and go about them in their own way, as shown in the story “The Moonshine War.”

Combining moonshine and feuding, this story is narrated by Chris Candell, whose father in earlier days was one of four moonshine sellers in Greenwood County, Kentucky. With the help of his three sons, Charlie, Zeke, and Chris, he sold moonshine for twenty years before his wife prevailed upon him to lay his sins on the mourner’s bench in the Methodist Church and give up “the business.” Shortly after, the federal agents close in on the other three families that are still moonshining—the Whaleys, the Fortners, and the Luttrells—sending members from each to prison for varying terms.

When Willie Fortner is released because of his youth, he returns to Greenwood County, vowing revenge on the other families because he thinks that they helped the federal agents to discover his father’s still. Two weeks later Jarwin Whaley is found stabbed to death. In quick succession, two more deaths by stabbing occur, of Lucretia Luttrell and Charlie Candell, Chris’s brother. There is no real evidence to connect these crimes to Willie Fortner, and, although he is arrested, he is acquitted, moving Zeke Candell to say, “Damn this circumstantial evidence stuff! We’ve got to take the law into our own hands.” Before the Candells can do anything, however, Willie Fortner is killed in an auto wreck, the only one of five in the car who dies in the crash. Chris’s father, obviously attributing Willie’s death to the Lord, says that “we’ll have peace. The knife killings are over.”

Stuart does not condemn any of the actions in “The Moonshine War,” but, as in all his stories, he accepts the characteristics of his highland ancestors. Indeed, in another story, “My Father Is an Educated Man,” he says of the fiercely independent men of his family now sleeping in the Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky mountains, “Though I belong to them, they would not claim me since I have had my chance and unlike them I have not killed one of my enemies.” The code of conduct that arises from such a life view may be a combination of savagery, civility, and moral contradiction, but it attests to the belief of the highlander that he is master of his own destiny.

Save Every Lamb

For those wishing to see another side of Stuart’s writing, there is the volume of stories entitled Save Every Lamb. Virtually all the stories in this volume are autobiographical in background and have nature themes. In them Stuart harks back to another era—a time “when everybody in the country lived by digging his livelihood from the ground.” It was a time when humans were in tune with the natural world about them and were better for it. “My once wonderful world has changed into a world that gives me great unhappiness,” Stuart says in the introduction to Save Every Lamb. For the moment, at least, Stuart in these stories takes the reader back with him to that wonderful world of his youth.

In all his stories Stuart writes with an easy, almost folksy, style. Avoiding experimentation and deep symbolism, he holds his readers by paying close attention to detail and by painting starkly graphic scenes as he brings to life the characters and settings of W-Hollow. As a regionalist, Stuart draws constantly on his background in his stories, with the result that his style is underlined by an autobiographical bias, which contributes strongly to the sense of immediacy that marks all his work. Just as William Faulkner has his microcosm of the universe in Yoknapatawpha County, so too does Stuart in W-Hollow, and the American literary chronicle is the richer for it.

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