Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3514
Jesse Stuart’s works are a part of the rich literary heritage drawn from the people and traditions of the Appalachian Mountains. He is grouped with such writers as George Washington Harris, Mary Noailles Murfree, John Fox, Jr., Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Wilma Dykeman, and Harriette Arnow as creators (and...
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- Critical Essays
Jesse Stuart’s works are a part of the rich literary heritage drawn from the people and traditions of the Appalachian Mountains. He is grouped with such writers as George Washington Harris, Mary Noailles Murfree, John Fox, Jr., Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Wilma Dykeman, and Harriette Arnow as creators (and sometimes debunkers) of one of America’s most lasting stereotypes, the southern “hillbilly.” Of these writers, Stuart surely stands at the head, for he has captured the imagination and sympathy of the reading public as has none of the rest.
There are several reasons for Stuart’s abiding popularity. His writings are, for the most part, easily accessible. His main interest is in telling a story or relating an emotion, and he does so with simplicity of style and directness of approach. Indeed, Stuart’s works are rarely overtly analytical; his characters are not introspective, which has led to charges of an anti-intellectual strain in his writings. Certainly, Stuart does tend to answer complex problems with easy solutions: If a person is determined, brave, and honest, Stuart suggests, the greatest challenge will be overcome. His autobiographical works especially emphasize this idea and, in truth, such solutions seem to have been borne out in Stuart’s own life.
Stuart also has proven popular because of the uniqueness and inherent romance of his material. As Stuart presents them, his characters are a primitive people, in some ways unspoiled by the corruptions of the outside society, but often in need of the civilizing influences that such a society can offer through education. Thus, some of these people, such as Theopolis “Op” Akers in The Good Spirit of Laurel Ridge, glory in their separation from the rest of the world, while others, like so many of the Tussie clan, are desperately in need of some edifying influence. Because these characters are drawn in broad strokes and are easily labeled as “good” or “bad” (perhaps “worthy” or “worthless” would be more appropriate terms), they exist more as character types, clothed in the charm of dialect and locale, than as real people. Still, Stuart is capable of surprising subtlety in his work, a quality often overlooked by some of his critics. He can force his readers to question their initial judgments of such characters as Anse Bushman in Trees of Heaven, Grandpa Tussie in Taps for Private Tussie, and even Theopolis Akers in The Good Spirit of Laurel Ridge.
The land plays an all-important role in Stuart’s works. He attended Vanderbilt at the time of the Agrarian and Fugitive movements (I’ll Take My Stand was published in 1930, the year before Stuart arrived), and he came into contact with a number of its members, but Stuart never became a disciple himself. Although he agreed with many of the ideas of the movement, Stuart felt that “their farming was on paper,” whereas he had farmed in order to eat. His writings, however, always reflect the importance of place in a person’s life, and Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow is essentially a celebration of the land and one’s relationship with it. He clearly admired characters such as Theopolis Akers, Deutsia Huntoon in Daughter of the Legend, and Tarvin Bushman in Trees of Heaven, who live in harmony with nature and draw their strength and their morality from the world-spirit. In Stuart’s work, nature can be dangerous to the unwary, but it offers peace and wisdom to those who approach it with respect.
Perhaps Stuart’s greatest strength as a writer is his fine sense of the comic. He has been linked to such humorists as Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, G. W. Harris, Mark Twain, Erskine Caldwell, and William Faulkner. His most serious books, such as Mr. Gallion’s School, are among his weakest, while Taps for Private Tussie, his comic masterpiece, continues to delight. Stuart’s humor is basically good-natured. He laughs at people’s foibles, enjoys their foolishness, and shakes his head at absurdities. He rarely condemns. Even in a satiric work such as Foretaste of Glory, in which he recounts the many hypocrisies to which people are given, Stuart deals gently with his characters. His comedy derives from the tall-tale tradition and is at its best when it ventures into that region wherein the absurd and the tragic coexist.
Although Stuart achieved honor and success in almost every form of literature, he was most effective in the short story. Despite his early fame as a poet, his verse has never received the attention it warrants. His novels generally are loosely structured; they tend to be episodic and uneven as he moves from one event to the next. His plots also rely heavily on convention or cliché. Still, in his large body of writing, Stuart created a unique fictional world, peopled with characters recognizably his own. It is a world that is likely to last.
Trees of Heaven
Stuart wrote Trees of Heaven in 1939 after returning from Europe. He married Naomi Deane Norris while writing the book, and their romance is reflected in the love story of Tarvin Bushman and Subrinea Tussie. Trees of Heaven is a big, rambling book, less a well-constructed novel than a conglomeration of facts, observations, tales, and characterizations built around a very simple plot. Anse Bushman is a prominent landowner and farmer, one who takes great pride in the quality of his work and the number of his possessions. Boliver Tussie is a squatter who lives on the land that Anse owns. The two men are antithetical to each other. Anse works—and drives others to work—to such a degree that labor and ownership have become obsessions to him. Boliver opts for a more relaxed, indolent approach to life, unburdened by responsibility. The conflict arises when Tarvin Bushman, the only child still living with Anse, falls in love with Subrinea Tussie, Boliver’s beautiful daughter.
Through Tarvin’s intervention, Anse agrees to take on the Tussies as sharecroppers, although he first compels Boliver to sign a contract specifying what he can and cannot do while living on Anse’s land. The contract is an attempt to control not only the Tussies’ work habits but their moral and social behavior as well. Although Boliver is offended by some of these demands, he is in no position to argue with Anse; thus, he agrees to stop drinking, to avoid dancing, and to abstain from fathering any more children until the harvest is over. Two such differing lifestyles cannot coexist peacefully, and when Anse becomes suspicious of his son’s relationship with Subrinea and becomes convinced that the Tussies are taking advantage of his generosity, he evicts the family and takes their crops. After an accident, however—Anse is almost killed by a falling tree limb—he becomes wiser and more tolerant. Tarvin and Subrinea (who is already pregnant) marry, and, as the book ends, they are going to bring back the Tussies to work the land once again.
Although Anse Bushman is the central character of this novel and the one for whom the reader has the most sympathy and respect, he is by no means an entirely admirable character. His emphasis on work has driven away his other children, and his wife, Fronnie, has succumbed to premature aging. Indeed, toward the end of the book, she is clearly teetering on the edge of madness, haunted by nightmares of Anse’s spiritual damnation and fearful that Tarvin will be caught up by his father’s obsessions. Anse is a dictatorial old man who cannot balance his love of family with his greed for land. Still, Stuart does not present him as a villain; the reader can understand Anse and generally sides with him in his struggle against the Tussies. At the same time, the Tussies are more likable than one might expect. Their shiftlessness is a relief from Anse’s discipline, but they are quite capable of hard work when the occasion demands and show a true love of the land on which they have lived for generations. In fact, Boliver Tussie is a farmer equal to Anse Bushman, although he is usually careless and negligent. The Tussies are a convincing thorn in Anse’s side, but he is wrong in his attempt to impose his lifestyle on them.
It is difficult to label Trees of Heaven as either a Romantic or realistic novel, for it contains elements of each. The love story between Tarvin and Subrinea is idyllic and is the weakest part of the novel, while Stuart’s detailed and factual discussions of farming and sheep raising interfere with the progress of the plot. The description of the Tussies and their kind—families that have become inbred over the years and that are capable of viciousness and violence—is sometimes at odds with their basically comic role in the book. The threat of bloodshed runs throughout the story, but it is generally averted through the author’s manipulations.
Trees of Heaven is narrated in the present tense and is structured around the change of the seasons. Both devices give it a sense of timelessness, as if the characters, the place, and the actions were occurring in the present in their own world. The use of present tense sometimes leads to repetition and oversimplification, however, and its effectiveness is not sustained throughout the book. Still, Trees of Heaven is an impressive first novel, a work of considerable art and scope.
Taps for Private Tussie
Stuart’s second novel, Taps for Private Tussie, is generally considered to be his best. Certainly it is his most successfulcomic work, although the tale it tells is marked by numerous tragic events. Indeed, Stuart claimed that he wrote the story as a “sad thing” and was surprised that others laughed at the antics it described. The book is more carefully constructed than Trees of Heaven and is effectively held together through the use of a first-person narrator, a young boy who tells the story with an appealing mixture of naïveté and native wisdom.
Private Kim Tussie is reported killed in action during World War II, and his family sets about burying the returned body. Like the Tussies in Trees of Heaven, this branch of the family is also made up of squatters. At the beginning of the book, they are living in a schoolhouse abandoned for the summer. The immediate family is composed of Kim’s parents; Grandpa and Grandma Tussie; his wife, Vittie; his unmarried brother, Mott; and the boy narrator, Sid. When Vittie collects Kim’s ten-thousand-dollar insurance policy, the Tussies are able to fulfill their long-held dreams, First, they move from the schoolhouse (from which they are being evicted) to a “mansion,” a fourteen-room house on the outskirts of town. Then they buy furniture for each of the rooms to replace that which has been destroyed on leaving the schoolhouse. Soon, as Grandma has predicted, other Tussies begin to arrive, hoping to benefit from Grandpa’s “good fortune.” The first of these is Uncle George, Grandpa’s brother, who has been married five times. Others follow until finally there are forty-six Tussies living in the house. George and Mott have, by this time, begun vying for the attentions of Aunt Vittie, and as George grows more successful, Mott turns increasingly to drink.
After a period of communal living, the Tussies are again turned out of their home, which they have destroyed through their careless behavior, because Grandpa has lost his relief benefits, on which they had depended. With the last of the insurance money, Grandpa buys a small piece of land, and the family moves into a run-down shack for the winter. Uncle George marries Vittie; Sid is forced to begin school; and Mott sinks into dissipation. Grandpa learns the pride of ownership and plans to farm the following spring, while Sid discovers the joy of education and begins to consider his future, but these plans are upset when Mott kills two of his cousins while drunk and is himself killed by Uncle George. Grandpa then prepares for his own approaching death and confines himself to bed, awaiting the end. At this point, hope returns with the appearance of Kim himself, who was not killed after all, and who stands ready to take Grandpa’s place as the head of the remaining group. Uncle George is tracked down by a posse, Sid learns that Vittie is his mother, and the novel ends with a mixture of death and regeneration.
Taps for Private Tussie is an extremely enjoyable book. Grandpa Tussie is one of Stuart’s most successful and memorable characters, a good and loving man despite his weaknesses. Sid Tussie comes from a long line of boy narrators in American literature, including, most obviously, Huckleberry Finn but also those boys in the works of Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner, and Caldwell. Once again Stuart displays his sympathies for a basically unsympathetic group of people. Stuart distinguishes Sid from the Tussies through the revelation that he does not have Tussie blood and is therefore “superior” (he is smarter and more ambitious than the average Tussie). The book acts as a satire on the welfare system: Grandpa Tussie has so long depended on his relief check that he has forgotten the satisfaction of self-sufficiency; when he rediscovers it in the land, it is too late.
Stuart often shows people at their worst—fawning, lying, killing—but Taps for Private Tussie finally offers hope of renewal. The Kim who left for war was, as Sid remembers, vicious and hateful; the man who returns has been reborn and shows the boy kindness and understanding. Grandpa must die, but Sid will begin to live with a new sense of self.
Foretaste of Glory
Foretaste of Glory was begun while Stuart served in the Navy during World War II and was developed from stories he remembered and told about his home. It was not published until 1946, and it was poorly received by the people in Greenup County, who took the book as an affront. It recounts the events of one night—September 18, 1941—in Blakesburg, Kentucky, when the night sky is set ablaze by the uncommon appearance of the aurora borealis. Most of the townspeople are convinced that the display prefigures the end of the world, the Second Coming. Stuart examines the reactions of selected characters when faced with their apparent Day of Judgment. The book is constructed in an episodic manner, although some characters do appear in more than one episode, and certain ideas are repeated as Stuart mocks social distinctions, political alliances (as in Taps for Private Tussie), and basic hypocrisies.
Stuart was attempting in this work to capture an overall sense of the community, in much the same manner as Sherwood Anderson did in Winesburg, Ohio (1919). The book is a satire, for most of the characters reveal their deceits and admit their sins as they await the arrival of the Lord, but the tone is not malicious. The author is more understanding and amused than cruel or vindictive. Although the book has been highly praised by some readers, its very concept finally limits its effectiveness. Thenarratives become redundant, the episodes are uneven, and the excitement is simply not sustained.
The Good Spirit of Laurel Ridge
Although Stuart considered The Good Spirit of Laurel Ridge his best novel, it is a flawed work. Its plot and many of its characters are unconvincing, although many readers have been charmed by its view of natural people in the natural world. The story is insubstantial.
Op Akers has lived all of his life on Laurel Ridge. His wife is dead; his daughter, Lucretia, was taken away from him when she was a child because of his drinking; and his simpleminded son, Jack, roams the land and appears only in the spring to see the butterflies. As the book begins, Op has undergone a cataract operation, and Lucretia has come to live with him as he regains his sight. Although the operation is successful, she decides to stay in the mountains with her father. A pretty girl, she is soon being courted by a local mountain swain, Hootbird Hammertight, but she is more interested in a mysterious stranger who is hiding out in the hills, a figure Op declares to be the ghost of Ted Newsome, a young man murdered for love many years ago. Op is convinced that spirits—both good and bad—inhabit this area of the mountains, and in his tales and memories he insists on the otherworldliness of Laurel Ridge.
Op’s way of life has been disturbed by Lucretia’s arrival, although her father comes to accept her. When, however, in a completely unrealistic plot contrivance, two other relatives—Alfred and Julia Pruitt, Lucretia’s city cousins—arrive, Op finds himself pushed to the limits. Alf Pruitt is set up as a foil to Op, his city ways and suburban dread placed in stark contrast to Op’s natural acceptance of life. Alf most fears the atom bomb, but modern civilization in general has driven him to distraction. Through Op’s influence and in a series of mildly comic adventures, Alf learns the importance of nature, but he remains nervous and essentially unhappy.
Finally, it is revealed that the ghost “Ted Newsome” is really a soldier that Lucretia had known in the city. He is AWOL because he mistakenly believes that he has killed a man in a fight, and both he and Lucretia have come to Laurel Ridge to escape. When the military police track him down, just as he is about to be hanged by a group of angry mountaineers, the officer explains that the soldier has killed no one and that he can make amends with a brief prison sentence. Thus, he and Lucretia return to the city. Alfred and Julia also return, having benefited from their stay in the hills, although ultimately unable to adapt to such a rough way of life. Op is again left alone, at peace with himself.
The Good Spirit of Laurel Ridge is filled with the folklore of the hills, and Op Akers is a good storyteller and describer of these tales and customs. The plot, however, is so conventional and the ending such a cliché that the book’s potential charm is never fully realized. Stuart’s satire on the modern world, exemplified in Alf Pruitt, is much too heavy-handed and obvious to work for long. Despite its popularity, The Good Spirit of Laurel Ridge is not one of Stuart’s better works.
Daughter of the Legend
Generally considered Stuart’s weakest novel, Daughter of the Legend in fact contains some of his best writing. Again, the plot of the novel is slight. The narrator, Dave Stoneking, a lumberjack, tells of his tragic love for Deutsia Huntoon, a Melungeon living in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. After a courtship in which Deutsia introduces Dave to a finer appreciation of nature than he has so far held, they are married and enjoy an idyllic winter together. In the spring, however, Deutsia dies in childbirth, and Dave leaves the land of the Melungeons a rather bitter man.
The book is notable for two reasons. First, in his discussion of the Melungeon people, Stuart calls for racial compassion and understanding. The Melungeons are people of mixed heritage, and when Dave marries into their race, he suffers the discriminations they have long felt. His attempts to rectify these injustices give the book a contemporary social awareness missing from many other works by Stuart. In addition, Daughter of the Legend includes one of Stuart’s finest comic episodes in the chapter dealing with the death and burial of Sylvania, a six-hundred-pound moonshine seller. Although Stuart had written this tale as a short story years before, it fits smoothly into the novel and presents an ironic counterpoint to the more sentimental death of Deutsia.
Mr. Gallion’s School
Mr. Gallion’s School is a semifictional account of Stuart’s experiences as principal of McKell High School, to which he returned in 1956 following his heart attack. George Gallion is a thinly disguised version of Stuart himself. Against great odds, Mr. Gallion attempts to restore order and a sense of worth to the school. He must fight not only the defeatist attitudes of the students and teachers but also a corrupt and ineffectual political system that uses the schools as pawns in its power game. That Mr. Gallion succeeds so completely in his fight illustrates the weaknesses of the book. On a strictly realistic level, Stuart oversimplifies both the problems and the solutions. Indeed, the book often becomes a treatise on the author’s theories of education.
Although Stuart has been the subject of numerous studies, he has never been accorded the kind of intensive scholarly study one might expect. This is caused, no doubt, by his reputation as a popular writer. His often romantic and sentimental picture of Appalachia has come under attack. His skills as a writer were considerable, however, and among his many publications are works that will continue to be read and admired.