Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 88
Stuart, (Hilton) Jesse 1907–
Stuart, an American novelist, short story writer, and poet, writes primarily about the poor people of Appalachia. Much of his fiction has a distinct oral character, replete with the mountain dialect and mannerisms of his narrator. A short story master with a strong sense of narrative...
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- Critical Essays
Stuart, (Hilton) Jesse 1907–
Stuart, an American novelist, short story writer, and poet, writes primarily about the poor people of Appalachia. Much of his fiction has a distinct oral character, replete with the mountain dialect and mannerisms of his narrator. A short story master with a strong sense of narrative and well drawn characters, he is sometimes accused of being unselectively prolific. Many critics, however, believe that his work is underrated by the critical community as a whole. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484
[Stuart has a distinct vision of life which permeates all of his novels.] There is the dark world…. It is the world which Stuart sees around him—Kentucky or Appalachia—but is representative of the universal and the characters who live in the dark world are universal men. The dark world is dead or is dying. And at this point the Stuart cycle begins.
From the dark world, or the dying world, comes a world of light and all the symbolic overtones contained therein. But the world does not, cannot, act alone. There must be a force, the life force, which generates from the death a substantial rebirth. That force is youth and in a symbolic sense is the savior of the culture and of mankind.
Time in the cycle becomes involved in what we have spoken about before—the oneness, the single entity, the past, present and future, just as the symbolic force is a part of all existence, a part of all mankind. There is most often a symbolic woman, one who is the essence of freedom and of youth, and that woman becomes the natural mother of the new youth, the new world of light…. She produces the oneness in the child who is of culture and of time, all culture and all time.
Within the vision we face death but always with the hope of a rebirth and we are left with a conscious understanding of the nature of the hope. We realize that the dark world was a result of our own doing and that the light world is the result of our being.
There is the fight and the importance of the struggle, perhaps similar to the one experienced in the works of Ernest Hemingway, except that with Hemingway the end result of the fight is not important and with Stuart the end result is. The end is important with Stuart because it also indicates a beginning, a new beginning through rebirth, and if not a rebirth of the individual character, at least a rebirth of his being, his soul, his memories, through the symbolic youth. With Stuart, however, it is only those who perform the battle well who are granted the rebirth. The living dead never realize their destinies.
Further, there is Stuart's use of parallel structure, a structure [finely developed and keenly executed]…. (pp. 151-52)
Stuart selected the dark hills and the people of the dark hills because the hills are the home of the people of the darkness, and these sons and daughters of darkness are symbols for a far greater concept concerning the nature of man. The people, like the concept of man in the Twentieth Century, are lost, lonely and forgotten. Yet, from the dark hills and the people of darkness can come a world of light. (p. 152)
Lee Pennington, in his The Hills of Jesse Stuart (copyright © 1967 by Lee Pennington), Harvest Press, 1967.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2444
Although the Agrarian Movement was in its heyday while Stuart was a student at Vanderbilt, he had mixed emotions about the actual achievements of the group. As he says, he liked very much what the Agrarians were advocating, but not what they were doing: "Their farming was on paper. I went to one professor's home and he had a few tomatoes in a little garden and these plants were poorly cultivated. At my home, we farmed: we knew how to do it. We made a living and some to spare farming our Kentucky hills and valleys, We were not 'gentleman farmers'."… The Fugitives were bound together by virtue of their being southerners. They were literary intellectuals who were intensely aware of cultural decadence in the South, a view they shared with William Faulkner, and much of the decadence they blamed on the old antebellum ideal of a Jeffersonian society. On the other hand, the Agrarian Movement actually cultivated Jeffersonian idealism, even though it counted Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Davidson among its members. Stuart is right about what the Agrarians stood for. They fostered an overwhelming sense of place and believed that human success and happiness depend upon establishing and maintaining a right relation with nature, with the land. They opposed industrialization as dehumanizing and in general favored an imaginatively reconstructed pre-Civil War South. The Agrarian Movement arose and flourished during the Great Depression and probably must be viewed in that context. Nonetheless, the Fugitive sense of the decadence of the times and the Agrarian sense of the importance of place have been central to almost everything Jesse Stuart has written in the last forty years. (pp. 20-1)
He is a rhapsodic or bardic poet [in Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow], and he is still feeling his boyhood love for Robert Burns…. [One] finds that he knows he is out of the mainstream of poetry, even in the thirties: "I do not sing the songs you love to hear." Also in the same poem one suspects that he knows his form to be out of vogue: "And these crude strains no critic can call art."… For the most part, Man with A Bull-Tongue Plow is a celebration of agricultural or agrarian existence, although it becomes increasingly philosophical near the end…. Significantly, in the first half of the collection one hears much about Robert Burns, but in the latter half Burns is dropped and in his place one hears much about Donald Davidson. (p. 21)
Stuart finds dozens of ways to symbolize the life process, including the sprouting of seed into plants and the floating of a leaf on a stream of water. Whatever the way, the life of the individual is always absorbed into the life of the whole, and the life of the whole is always is turn observed in the individual.
The poet's concern is the greater American culture, along with the kind of sensibility shaped by that culture, and that such is the case does not depend entirely for its support upon what he says about the symbols in Album of Destiny. He has his characters speak about the things that most interest him as a poet. (pp. 22-3)
In a long celebration of pioneer ancestors, Stuart draws numerous contrasts between life in a golden past and life in twentieth-century America. In some instances he does this as a direct attack on the values of the present. [He addresses] lines, for example,… to stalwart pioneer mothers who bred a race of hearty and courageous Americans, as opposed to twentieth-century women who have turned whorish…. He pits the old against the new, and in his creating of a golden past one always suspects that he has in the back of his mind more than a prewar South, or even a pioneer America. Somewhere much farther back in time he imagines a unified existence similar to the one Eliot pictures before "dissociation" set in, an existence symbolized in Judeo-Christian tradition by the Garden of Eden before the Fall.
Disapproving of the direction he saw American culture taking in the thirties, Stuart admonishes youth to do something about it…. He also admonishes the poet to enlist his services in a battle against growing decadence…. The greatest fault in "Songs of a Mountain Plowman" is that the poet feels so strongly about his subject matter that he cannot sustain the slightest pretense of objectivity. In far too many instances, he clearly breaks down and records his own deep-seated sense of desperation over America…. However poor the poetry in it, "Songs of a Mountain Plowman" stands as the strongest evidence we have of the poet's beliefs about the state of American culture in the thirties. (pp. 25-7)
[One] is forced to conclude that Stuart has not changed his beliefs, The Fugitive-Agrarian synthesis or fusion which characterizes the poems has in fact not changed, and that in spite of the poet's acute awareness that American culture has changed drastically. Album of Destiny was followed by Kentucky Is My Land …, a collection which at first glance appears to be without a conscious plan. But when one looks a second time he finds that Kentucky Is My Land is made up of poems about the poet's bronze-skinned figures of the earth, and that these are placed between two long prose poems, both unquestionably about America and American culture. The poems in this collection are characteristic of most, if not all, of Stuart's writing in that they are highly autobiographical. In this case, there are poems about the poet, about his wife, and about his daughter.
The first of the long prose poems, and the one from which the collection gets its title, is structured on a metaphor in which Kentucky is the heart of America, which in turn is the body. In terms of the metaphor, the health of the heart determines the health of the body, and the circulatory system stands as a symbol of the poet's attempt to change the direction of cultural development in America. Once he has established the Kentucky-America relationship, Stuart writes of the birth of a child in a pastoral world, in the poet's world of W-Hollow on the literal level. However, as he creates this world the reader is impressed that it is an unreal one, another Eden, or the world of a golden age long gone by. In the pages that follow, one watches the child grow into the world about him, absorbing the smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and touch of it until he is at one with it…. When the child has grown to manhood, he travels in all directions from the heart of America and rejects what he finds in favor of Kentucky…. Toward the end of the poem one discovers that what the poet's child of nature is rejecting is, in the aggregate, all of modern America. Disillusioned by industrial city streets, he returns to his pastoral world and there becomes the poet's archetypal man for a new America.
In the metaphor of the heart and body lie two other important considerations. In the first place, the man of nature, like the blood in the circulatory system, comes and goes. Again like the blood, when he leaves the heart of America he carries the life of the body with him…. He is further like the blood in that he returns to the heart for cleansing and renewal; thus Stuart's poem symbolically becomes an agrarian effort as well as an agrarian statement. In the second place, in the circulatory system one finds an appropriate symbol for all of Stuart's poetic efforts. His intentions have always been that he would evoke symbols from his natural world of Eastern Kentucky, and that they in turn would travel outward in much the same way that the blood travels from the heart.
"The Builder and the Dream," coming at the end of Kentucky Is My Land, is a symbolist poem, and in writing it the poet is everywhere cognizant of The Waste Land. Following the example of Eliot, he invokes the Fisher King from ancient Grail legend in the form of one Ben Tuttle—who symbolically succeeds in abolishing the wasteland and thereby fulfills his dreams of a post-wastland existence. At the same time, he symbolically fulfills the poet's dream of a post-wasteland America. In various versions of the Grail legend, productivity of the land depends upon the condition of the Fisher King. In existing Perceval versions of Grail texts, the land is laid waste when the Fisher King is disabled, and it is made fertile and productive again when the health of the Fisher King is restored. Logically, the Fisher King is the most appropriate symbol Stuart could find to represent what he considers to be the problem of man's essential oneness with earth. (pp. 27-9)
A symbolist poem can never be a closed world—by mere virtue of its being symbolist. Because it is a symbolist poem, that Jesse Stuart may or may not be Ben Tuttle makes no difference. It does make a difference that Ben Tuttle, as one of those Americans gone soft …, has a dream about restoring denuded forest lands. And of even greater significance is that when he does something about the dream he is also doing something about himself—the fact is that he is changing the conditions of his existence. (pp. 29-30)
Although the language is not always convincing, "The Builder and the Dream" is a very important poem. In Ben Tuttle the poet succeeds symbolically in destroying the modern American sensibility, and in Ben Tuttle's deed, the wasteland culture of modern America. Beyond these things, and even more important, is that he succeeds symbolically in supplanting the fractured sensibility with a unified one and the fractured culture with one in which man feels at home.
[Hold April] is largely a celebration of the rites of spring…. The basic themes of the collection are man's oneness with the earth, the old and the new, and mutability. On the other hand, in Hold April Stuart is more willing than he is in any other collection to accept life as it is. (pp. 30-1)
In Hold April there is a new sense of humility…. [But] nowhere is there, as in Whitman, a celebration of America's teeming cities. His vision has not changed, although he has momentarily become less vocal about his concerns over modern American culture. (pp. 31-2)
The most recent evidence of where Stuart stands as a poet is to be found in a typescript of satirical poems entitled "Birdland's Golden Age."… The satirical poems began in 1965 because of the way President Johnson was handling the war in Viet Nam, and although Stuart continues to add poems to the group he has been reluctant to submit it for publication as a collection. As far as the poet of "Birdland's Golden Age" is concerned, however, modern American culture has nearly run its course, and we presently stand on the verge of anarchy…. The destiny of America is very much the poet's concern, as it was in the thirties. Only his method of treating his subject has changed. After being a lyric poet on the one hand, and occasionally a symbolist on the other, he adopts the extremes of satire in order to handle what he views as critical conditions…. According to the poet, our present madness has gone too far, and we are consequently in need of being purged or purified…. (pp. 35-6)
Not only has America gone mad, but Appalachia, in the midst of the madness, has become a doomed tree. Even there the poet sees little hope…. He sees Appalachian highways cluttered with discarded beer cans as one of many symbols of a growing decadence…. Whether Stuart has given up on his beloved Appalachia remains to be seen. His recent fiction would generally indicate that he has not, although one might interpret his 1973 novel The Land beyond the River as the strongest possible evidence that he has. One thing is certain: during an unusually long career as a writer he has cherished the region. But beyond that, having arrested the American frontier there in his consciousness, he has long held Appalachia before the remainder of America as a model for national existence.
Accompanying the poet's shift of attitude and method in "Birdland's Golden Age," there is also a dramatic shift in form. The sonnet, which for years has stood for the ultimate in orderliness in his work, has diminished in importance. In place of the sonnet one finds poems with shorter lines, and poems in which there is obviously less effort on the poet's part to use measure or meter. But in spite of the radical changes in technique and form, there is still plenty of evidence that Stuart cannot give up on Appalachia. Although he includes Appalachia in his satire on America, recognizing that it too needs to be purged, he does so with love, viewing his method as corrective. He attacks strip-mining, corrupt politics, and the welfare program, but in "Birdland's Golden Age" (in contract to what one reads in the essay "My Land Has a Voice," for example) Appalachia will remain Appalachia only if the wounds are healed…. (pp. 36-7)
Stuart's satire, directed at the ills of modern America, is not limited to general issues. Prominent people are satirized as examples of what is wrong with America. The list includes such names as Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, Billie Sol Estes, Billy Graham, John L. Lewis, and many more. The incidents recounted by the poet concerning these people comprise present American decadence. (p. 38)
In "Birdland's Golden Age," in spite of the change in method, Jesse Stuart is saying essentially what he has always been saying—that man has lost his once-harmonious existence in nature, that he has lost his love for the land, and that ultimately man must survive in nature's balances or not at all. In short, Stuart is an oddity in American poetry. Over a long career he has consistently employed his art in the service of the state, and for that reason he is one of a few modern poets fit for Plato's republic. As a moralist, he has conducted a love affair with his country, and his poetry is chiefly a record of that. At any rate, since the Great American Depression, and since the Fugitive-Agrarian synthesis took place in his thinking, he has constantly sung one song. (p. 39)
J. R. LeMaster, "Jesse Stuart's Poetry as Fugitive-Agrarian Synthesis," in Jesse Stuart: Essays on His Work, edited by J. R. LeMaster and Mary Washington Clarke (copyright © 1977 by The University Press of Kentucky), University Press of Kentucky, 1977, pp. 19-39.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1849
[When] a man writes honestly, without pretension or distortion, about the way people look, act, and think, he produces fiction that is believable and humor that is natural and organic. This is the essence of Jesse Stuart's humor: it is an element as basic to his works as the winds that blow through the beech trees of W-Hollow…. Stuart's humor emerges from his subject matter and is sustained by it. There are few quick laughs in his works. Rather, his humor evokes the constant amusement of man observing man in the natural act of being himself. From regional raw materials Stuart has, therefore, shaped fiction and nonfiction that transcend locale and speak to man's comic (and tragic) condition everywhere. (p. 90)
To an outlander the people of Eastern Kentucky must have appeared culturally retarded, primitive, and definitely odd. However, Stuart has never written with the intention of ridiculing them because of their way of life. When he sketches a man drunk in a cow stall, he is holding up a mirror in which his readers may see their own absurd excesses. It is the way of serious humor that first one laughs at someone else, then gradually realizes that he is laughing at an aspect of himself. The accidents of language, looks, and dress—as all humorists know—derive from a common human nature.
But it is the apparently unique way of life in Appalachia that has made it an appealing literary subject to outsiders. The folk life with its superstitions and old-fashioned customs has been a Stuart hallmark. From beginning to end, it has informed his prose with color and vitality and a tone of comic realism. (p. 91)
Although the locale of Stuart's works may be outside the chief currents of American life, his humor is related directly to two main movements, local color and the humor of the Old Southwest. Hamlin Garland once defined local color literature as having "such quality of texture and background that it could not have been written in any other place or by anyone else than a native"—a quality unmistakable in Stuart's work. Like the local colorists of the late nineteenth century, Stuart delineates vividly the people and the customs of a particular region. Like them, he often blends humor and pathos in a single story or character. Grandpa Tussie in Taps for Private Tussie, for example, is a mixture of comic and pathetic elements. But Stuart seldom allows his stories to sink to the pathetic level of Bret Harte's sketches of life in the mining camps of the far West, which typically end in a fountain of tears. The Kentucky humorist's sure control of his materials (and his emotions) commands the reader's respect for his characters—even when they go down to defeat. (pp. 91-2)
Dialect was an important flavoring device of the local colorists, but it was frequently used as an end in itself or to cover up basic structural and stylistic weaknesses and a superficial knowledge of subject matter. The humor of Stuart's writings is enhanced by his judicious use of a dialect that suggests the sound and tone of hill country speech while staying clear of the pitfalls of exaggeration and affectation in phonetics and syntax. Stuart characters speak a simple but expressive language filled with natural metaphors and similes. (p. 92)
[His] books often contain a roughness (sometimes bordering on crudeness) demanded by his coarse materials…. A Southwestern humorist would have been hard pressed to compile a bloodier catalog of physical abuses [than occur in Stuart's accounts of fights].
Another feature of Old Southwestern humor found in Stuart is the tall tale. A man for whom reality is meager and sordid can relish at least momentary glory in a dream world of exaggeration…. [And Stuart's rip-roaring braggarts] are transformed by imagination into mythic heroes whose exploits are as fantastic as Mike Fink's.
Stuart also employs the frontier humorist's technique of using a participant in a story as the narrator. The recurring boy narrator, Shan Powderday, often sounds like a Kentucky Huck Finn. And like Mark Twain's yarnspinners, Stuart's Old Op (in The Good Spirit of Laurel Ridge) will launch into a lengthy digression whenever a random remark triggers his memory. Another form of frontier humor is the hoax, a favorite sport of backwoods pranksters, which provides the plot for "Powderday's Red Hen," a story of two boys who fabricate an elaborate lie about a hen that crows and curses.
Another point of similarity between the Kentucky writer's characters and those of the earlier frontier is that both enjoy the same kinds of entertainments. In addition to hunting, their most popular sport, his characters engage in such activities as frog-trouncing, described vividly in "Frog-Trouncin' Contest." Hangings were also popular entertainments. In "Another Hanging" Stuart has a storyteller recall "one of the best hangin's this country has ever seen." Surrounding the grim center of attention there is a carnival atmosphere, with young people courting, children cavorting, and families enjoying picnic lunches.
A humor based on discomfort, like that of George Washington Harris's Sut Lovingood, is present in much of Stuart's works. (pp. 93-5)
Jesse Stuart's participation in the main currents of American humor has been largely accidental and uncontrived. Similarities between his work and the earlier humor exist because, like the local colorists, he has focused on particular people and the ways that set them apart from ordinary Americans. And, like the Old Southwestern humorists, he has tried to write about them honestly and simply. He has tried to tell the truth about people who have been caricatured and misunderstood.
Although Stuart's works feature strong narrative lines, it is perhaps in characterization that his strength as a humorist lies. [He] has created a memorable gallery of comic characters—people who are usually the more amusing because they are not self-consciously humorous. Suspicious of the law and outsiders but also generous and duty-bound, patriotic in time of war but prone to chafe under military discipline, these are independent people who make a separate peace and return home AWOL. They are hardworking—perhaps pipe-smoking—women, indulgent of their men's occasional indiscretions and excesses and hardy enough to keep house and stand by their men, if need be, in the woods and fields. They are men who love a good drink of moonshine liquor and welcome a contest of wits with the revenue agents. They are essentially a proud people who may seem backward and unprogressive. (p. 95)
In addition to his grotesques, Stuart has filled a hall with Gothic portraits…. For strangers to Stuart's world, his fiction rooted in fact (as much of it is) seems like comic invention or exaggeration.
The humor in Stuart's books has come from many directions. Political and religious elements of the hillman's life, for example, have provided him with an extensive reservoir of material. Politics has always been a deadly serious business in Kentucky, sometimes leading to bloody, even fatal, encounters, at the polling places. (p. 96)
Hill people, even when they don't belong to a church, are apt to be as partisan in their religion as in their politics; and Stuart derives much humor from such denominational allegiances. Rivalry is keen, especially between the Baptists and the Methodists, and sometimes exists within the splinter sects of a single denomination.
Stuart's religious people sometimes speak in unknown tongues and handle snakes, and they eagerly anticipate revival meetings. They are usually opposed to movies (perhaps even television), dancing, drinking, and card playing. They frequently practice baptism by total immersion (in a nearby creek) and perform the scriptural ceremony of foot washing. According to the author's count, there are at least eight "Baptist heavens"—presumably each splinter group has its own.
Stuart's human comedy of man's mortality is enacted against the backdrop of the ever-greening, ever-fresh, enduring earth, and the irony of man's proud attempts to reshape and possess it is a constant theme in the Appalachian writer's work. Stuart delights in poking fun at feuding, land-grabbing, deed-coveting people who do not know how to live in right relationship to the land. (p. 97)
An important aspect of man's relationship to the earth is his affinity for animals. The Kentucky writer's sympathetic characters are fond of a menagerie of animals…. (p. 98)
The natural background in his works—the woods, fields, sky, pasturelands, rivers, and the creatures that inhabit them—is not, of course, "humorous," not even the min-now battling the Goliath snake. Only man can be humorous, for only he can exercise a will to become something other than he is, could, or should be—and then be aware of the discrepancy. And only man can fail to live in a right relationship to nature. Animals have no choice. But man, the crowning achievement of creation, is reminded of his fragile transience every time the world is recreated by a new sunrise. (p. 99)
In no single book is Jesse Stuart's classic sense of the comic so much in evidence as in Foretaste of Glory, one of his most successful works but often ignored or underrated by critics. In this novel he bares the frailties of man that make him generally a choice butt of humor and specifically an appropriate object of satire. Here is displayed dramatically the disparity between what man pretends to be and what he actually is—the gap that is the fertile field of humor.
On September 18, 1941, in the river town of Blakesburg, the trumpet of the Lord apparently sounds—and catches just about everyone unready for glory. Although the heavenly display that causes the panic is actually the aurora borealis or nothern lights, the people fear that Christ has returned to judge them; and despite whatever respectable fronts they may possess, they know that He will find out their secret sins. Consequently, they scurry about frantically trying to put their lives and houses in order before they are called to account…. But the world does not end. And when the sun comes up on September 19, the people resume their old ways and familiar coverups. They sink into the hypocritical grooves from which they were insanely jarred into a short-lived morality. They go back to being as human—and as laughable—as ever. In the end, a false foretaste of glory has done nothing to change their natures. (pp. 99-100)
[In "The Reaper and the Flowers"] Stuart takes the foibles and shortcomings and vices that all flesh is heir to, exaggerates them in the person of Uglybird, and invites his readers to join the citizens of Blakesburg in laughter—so that they may acknowledge their problems and failings and remedy them or at least momentarily forget them. And he has made available the catharsis afforded by humor as well as by tragedy. Jesse Stuart, like all good men of humor, is essentially a moralist, who, in Mary Washington Clarke's words, is in the business of "driving out evil with laughter." (pp. 101-02)
Wade Hall, "Humor in Jesse Stuart's Fiction," in Jesse Stuart: Essays on His Work, edited by J. R. LeMaster and Mary Washington Clark (copyright © 1977 by The University Press of Kentucky), University Press of Kentucky, 1977, pp. 89-102.
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In Jesse Stuart's short story "This Farm for Sale" Dick Stone decides to sell out and move into town. He authorizes his old friend Melvin Spencer, a well-known local real estate agent, to sell his hill farm. Spencer is really a poet…. [In his advertisements he] describes the nuts and berries and other wild fruits growing on the Stone farm—the hazelnuts, elderberries, pawpaws, and persimmons—and the jellies and preserves Mrs. Stone makes from them. He describes the tall cane and corn growing in rich bottom-land beside the Tiber River, which is full of fish; the broad-leafed burley tobacco; the wild game in the woods; the house constructed of native timber. Spencer's advertisement causes Dick Stone to see his farm with new eyes. He says to his family: "I didn't know I had so much. I'm a rich man and didn't know it. I'm not selling this farm!"
A vivid illustration of the poet's function, Stuart's story suggests the complex relationship between word and thing, the magical power of language, artistically used, to transform and clarify our perceptions and to heighten our experience. "This Farm for Sale" may be taken as a key to the proper understanding of all Stuart's work—the poetry, the fiction, the autobiographical and biographical accounts. In this celebration of a farm and the life a family lives on it we have on a small scale what Stuart has written large in all his works. For as creator of W-Hollow, the fictional place, Stuart is celebrator of a land, a people, their way of life, and their values. Stuart is to W-Hollow and to us what Melvin Spencer is to the Stone farm and family.
As a poet, Stuart differs from most of his neighbors in the Cumberland foothills in his ability not only to see but to say what he sees, not only to feel but to express his feelings. But it is not just his personal feelings that the poet expresses. The poet, according to Emerson (in "The Poet"), tells us "not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth." This is precisely what Melvin Spencer does in Stuart's "This Farm for Sale." Dick Stone owns the farm but he is not yet in possession of the best part of it, which cannot be had except through a certain vision of it. Melvin Spencer gives Stone—and all others who read his advertisement—this vision. And through his rendered vision of a land, a people, and their way of life, Stuart apprises readers not of his wealth but of the commonwealth. (pp. 103-04)
Spencer's language not only presents an integrity of impression, organizing the Stones' perceptions as they have not been organized previously, but his language has the effect of legitimizing or certifying the life of the family on the farm. His language assists them in establishing a relationship to the farm they have not had. As a result of their altered perceptions, the Stones now possess their farm more surely than ever.
Stuart's "This Farm for Sale" suggests the relationship between naming and possessing. The poet is a namer, and naming, even in its simplest form, is a profound act. Naming objects, framing them in words, unleashes the transfiguring effect of word on thing. The act of naming may be relatively simple, no more than an enumeration…. But naming may be a more elaborate act, involving an array of the capabilities of language in the process of catching human experience in a web of words. Naming is one way of taking ultimate possession of objects or experience. In writing the stories, novels, and poems that create the world of W-Hollow, Jesse Stuart has been involved in an elaborate act of naming and thus of taking possession.
It is the act of naming which accounts for the tendency to repeat, catalog, and elaborate detail in Stuart's work. (p. 105)
The physical terrain about which Stuart writes is not all there is to W-Hollow, for mere physical locality is not place, a word implying human involvement and participation in a locality. It has been suggested that "the catalyst that converts a physical locality into a 'place' is the process of experiencing it deeply, and of engaging with it in a symbolic relationship." In a process aided by language Dick Stone experiences the conversion of a locality—his farm—into a place. Stone's place—and any place—is locality humanized, nature and human nature merged or linked….
In Stuart's descriptions and characterizations of people he typically merges nature and human nature. Quite often his people are rendered by metaphors and similes that image their physical features in terms of details from their surroundings. (p. 107)
The success of Stuart's merging of nature and human nature varies from poem to poem, from story to story. Sometimes the technique of deriving physical descriptions and personal qualities of individuals from their immediate natural surroundings seems mannered and predictable. One simile or metaphor may strike the reader as more apt than another. But the cumulative effect, nevertheless, is the creation of a living world in which the connection between people and the land is close and organic; in which people are aware of their dependence on the land. (pp. 108-09)
While the examination of philosophical and intellectual problems is foreign to Stuart's concrete and spontaneous approach, a philosophy is implicit in his work. And Stuart suggests, in his depictions of people and their relationship to the land, that human beings derive more than just their livelihood from the land. The values they hold and live by are also rooted in the soil and in the way it is worked. Not surprisingly, Stuart is disturbed by the interruption of this connection brought on by the decline of the subsistence farm and by the institution of the Soil Bank. (p. 109)
Stuart is clearly critical of what he considers an unnatural relationship to the land, a relationship that lacks the proper give-and-take of the traditional farmer, for whom farming is not just a way of making a living but also a way of life. Stuart has understood, in his life and in his work, that place can be possessed spiritually only by giving oneself to it. The spiritual possession of America, accomplished, paradoxically, by the giving of self, is the theme of Frost's "The Gift Outright," whose familiar, aphoristic first line is: "The land was ours before we were the land's." (p. 110)
Land, physical terrain, is so fundamental to Stuart's experience that he visualizes the structure of a novel as a range of mountains. His central character is the highest ridge, while the minor characters are mere foothills. This way of conceiving of his characters suggests the degree to which he identifies people with place. In this connection it is instructive to consider that in what is taken to be his least successful novel, Daughter of the Legend, Stuart writes about a place and a people other than those he knows best.
But where he has worked with his own materials, his people in their place, Stuart has created a world whole and complete. W-Hollow is there, a world alive, existing not as a dead transcript of reality but as a vision, possessing a dimension lacking in a transcript. W-Hollow is itself a reality created through language. "Words," Emerson says, "are signs of natural facts." The natural facts of W-Hollow are present in Stuart's work in abundance. But just as "particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts" (Emerson's "Nature"), Stuart's created world is a symbol, the embodiment of a tradition, a set of values, the spirit of a place. (p. 112)
The W-Hollow world does not deny age and death. But even the very old remain children of the earth. Like the earth itself, Stuart's people can be very old and yet seem young. (pp. 113-14)
Stuart turns the slightest incidents into symbols. It is this sort of symbol making that causes the world of W-Hollow to be a multileveled, resonant reality. Stuart's people shape the land and are, in turn, shaped by it. His people derive their strength from the very land that demands of them strength of character and spirit. They are so subtly attuned to the land that they seem at times to be an embodiment of the land's qualities, its moods and spirit—just as the grandfather in "Another April," very old and yet youthful in spirit, resembles the earth—old and yet young and fresh on the first of April. The land bears everywhere the mark of the people who live on it, while the people seem to be an outgrowth of the land, as natural there as an outcropping of rock, weathered and shaped by the seasons. It is this symbiosis of land and people, nature and human nature, which makes W-Hollow, Stuart's fictional place, not so much a locality in northeastern Kentucky as it is a symbol of human spirit. W-Hollow is a part of the American experience, and an important part, revealed and rendered through the transforming power of language, just as Dick Stone's farm is revealed to him by Melvin Spencer's words. (p. 114)
The world of W-Hollow is a community conceived on a human scale, not so large that people have lost their sense of relationship to one another or to the land itself. Drawn into this world we undergo the experience of Dick Stone who, hearing his farm described by a poet, realizes for the first time how much he has, how rich he is. Just as Melvin Spencer gives Dick Stone the most precious part of his farm through the transfiguring power of language, Stuart gives us through his work a vision of the earth and our relationship to it. This is Jesse Stuart's gift outright, and it is priceless. (p. 115)
Jim Wayne Miller, "The Gift Outright: W-Hollow," in Jesse Stuart: Essays on His Work, edited by J. R. LeMaster and Mary Washington Clarke (copyright © 1977 by The University Press of Kentucky), University Press of Kentucky, 1977, pp. 103-16.