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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 its narrator. He is a master of the short story and his best work is distinguished by its well-drawn characters and strong narrative flow. Although he is sometimes accused of being unselectively prolific, many critics believe that his work is underrated by the critical community as a whole. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
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[Good] regional writing is always made at home. Jesse Stuart has written five books without going far beyond the borders of W-Hollow in his native Greenup County. Ten or twelve families live in the hollow, and he has written poems and stories about all of them. These real people behind his stories would make an interesting article in themselves. (p. 524)
Stuart came into literature in 1934 with an amazing collection of 703 sonnets, Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow. Many of these poems were pure description, a re-creation in lyric language and mood of the Kentucky landscape in all weathers and seasons. Others told with innocent frankness of the adventures, loves, and dreams of Jesse Stuart, poet and plowman of the hills. Then in the third section the book came roaringly to life when the writer resurrected more than two hundred dead in Plum Grove churchyard to tell the stories of their humble lives. The method suggested Spoon River Anthology, but these stories—grim, humorous, profane—had nothing in common with Edgar Lee Masters' studies in pessimism and defeat. The poetry was often trite and prosy and crude. It was also as native as a whippoor-will and as full of provincial flavor as a persimmon. Critics, viewing Stuart's book with mixed feelings, tried to account for his earthy vigor by calling him a Kentucky Robert Burns. The true explanation of his talent, I believe, lies closer home. These poems and the prose which followed show us something of the pioneer experience as it has survived on a ruined frontier. In everything he has written we can find evidence of a tradition which goes back beyond the Sut Lovingood papers and Augustus Longstreet's Georgia Scenes to the anonymous story-tellers of the frontier. (pp. 524-25)
Folklore and fantasy appeared at every halt on the west-ward march, and the best hunters and rail-splitters passed into legend…. These stories had a geography, a mythology, and a lingo of their own. Some were streaked with ballad sentiment. Others crackled with bawdy humor. But mostly these tales were comic elaborations of character or drawling reminiscence in which the frontiersman dramatized himself with shrewd appraisal and salty enjoyment. (p. 525)
Behind all this is an awareness of the beauty of river and forest which gives our literature its most authentic theme. It is the brief, westering American dream in the language of the people who lived it.
In his short stories Jesse Stuart has caught the echoes of this frontier world. Head o' W-Hollow and Men of the Mountains are filled with pioneer tags of realism and rough humor. (pp. 525-26)
He has a frontiersman's delight in tall talk and tall deeds. "The Blue Tick Pig" has weird overtones of the Paul Bunyan legends in its account of a runt that learned to milk cows. There is genuine folk fantasy in the story of a quiet tramp, a champion worker in the cornfields, who is finally arrested for stealing all the brass in the neighborhood. Grandpa Grayhouse asked his family to keep his body salted down in the house for six months while they held a party every week in his memory. These doings become the scandal of the countryside. "Huey, the Engineer" and "Uncle Jeff" belong to the John Henry tradition, stories of strong mountain men beaten in the end by the machine. These tales have the tall-story blend of sharp, dry realism and fantastic invention.
Jesse Stuart tells his stories without apology or comment. Whether grimly realistic or wildly humorous, they bear the manner of tales that have been common for a long time. Part of this effect comes, I think, from his use of the present tense and a first-person narrator through whom the experience is presented. These stylistic devices make it plain that he thinks of the short story as a narrative told, for on the printed page they approximate the tones of voice, the pauses, the decisive accents of speech. His colloquial language adds also to the oral manner that we find in frontier yarns. Sometimes this style makes for vivid reporting…. Less expertly handled, it falls into the flat, declarative rhythm of meager prose. (pp. 526-27)
In Beyond Dark Hills he tells of his own life on the arrested frontier. A provincial innocence and cocksureness touches the chapters on his hardy ancestors and his boyhood, and the account of his struggles to get an education reveals a provincial distrust of cities; but his pictures of mountain life are written with great feeling and sincerity…. Stuart's autobiography is pure regional writing, simple in finish and tone, and more effective than his novel in showing us the piety and violence of his people. Trees of Heaven presents another phase of the frontier experience, the old grudge fight between the settler and the squatter…. At times the novel reads like a parody of all the hillbilly fiction ever written. Its faults are obvious. The plot is sentimental and trivial, its dialogue extravagant, its social problem unresolved. Stuart's imagination is free and vivid, but sustained-passage work between the scenes of his novel is impossible for him. Trees of Heaven lives only in single episodes…. (pp. 527-28)
After five books his writing remains a frontier talent for anecdote and character drawing, and the chief impression from his work is one of much power poorly controlled. He is by turn a reporter, an atmosphere man, a poet, and a racy fabulist. He has the mixed strains of pioneer fatalism and broad humor which produced the lonesome ditties and tall stories. He also has the pioneer's morbid concern for death, a subject which he treats either with sentimentality or with the cruelty of casual humor. At his best he seems to know instinctively the meaning of life in terms of a people and a place, and he can describe the look and feel and smell of things with joyous certainty. But as an artist he is with-out discipline—perhaps incapable of it. The truth may be that he is not temperamentally a writer at all but a conversationalist with a quick eye and ear and a lively gift of expression. As such, he stands at the end of a tradition in American story-telling rather than at the beginning of a new one. (p. 528)
Dayton Kohler, "Jesse Stuart and James Still: Moutain Regionalists," in College English (copyright © 1942 by the National Council of Teachers of English), Vol. 3, No. 6, March, 1942. pp. 523-33.∗
Frank H. Leavell
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[In Trees of Heaven, Tarvin Bushman] is the ideal youngster with no faults and few complexities. Created simply, he is free to observe and make his own judgments. He has the adolescent qualities of wanting to find a mate and to establish his own identity independent of his parents. But throughout the story he thinks and reacts more as an adult than as an adolescent.
Although Stuart's younger brother James is the physical model for Tarvin, many parallels might be drawn between Tarvin and the author…. Never is an ironic gap created between Stuart and Tarvin. Tarvin has the author's complete sympathy and is never proven wrong in any judgment or action. The observations of this study, therefore, are based on the assumption that Tarvin's opinions are identical with Stuart's.
The most fundamental theme in all of Stuart's life and writing is man's dependence upon the land. While the theme may reflect some influence from Emerson, its roots are certainly in Stuart's own experience. The theme is this: A man draws his strength and nourishment from the land. Its produce feeds his body as its poetry feeds his soul. He thrives when he is close to the soil; he withers when he forsakes it and sojourns in the city. His prime duty is to respect and care for the land just as the land provides his needs. In death his body is returned to the soil. And through his communion with the land he finds a mystic communion with God. Yet this view of the land stops short of pantheism. Nature remains inanimate; God remains transcendent.
Beneath their differences, the love for the land is the constant that unites [Tarvin's father, Anse Bushman, and Boliver] Tussie. The two share a sense of territorial possession and stand ready to fight for their territories. Both are farmers who see the land as a wilderness to be tamed and cultivated. Both draw their strength from the land and hold themselves superior to the city people who have forsaken it. Both enjoy the beauty of the land and spend time abroad absorbing its poetry.
But a dualism is created in the presentation of two different concepts of owning the land—one by legal deed of owner-ship and the other by natural right of occupancy. The conflict between Anse and Boliver merely reflects a larger social conflict. In the microcosm of the book, society has tried to make laws of ownership in terms of deeds and cash purchase. But these man-made laws are insufficient to overcome the individual's natural right to possess the land on which he lives. (pp. 55-6)
[Anse Bushman's] right to his farm, both by legal ownership and by natural possession, is never questioned. Although he is seventy, he still has a young man's dreams of the future. Unfortunately, however, his dreams are not limited to his own farm. He has always been driven by a mania to own more land. When he buys the Sexton Land Tract, his concept of ownership does not provide for those squatters who live on the land without a deed. His first action upon buying the new land is to have the squatters removed. But the squatters hold a different view in this dualism of territorial possession. These people [the Tussies] have lived on the Sexton Land Tract for generations, cutting timber and farming little plots of ground. They believe that their right to live on the land by natural possession is stronger than any legal deed, and many stand ready to kill any man who tries to dispossess them. (pp. 56-7)
If Bushman's legal ownership of the land is symbolized by a deed, the Tussies' natural possession of the land is symbolized by the Tussie cemetery shaded by the trees of heaven, which give the novel its title. Here lie the ancestors of the squatters in the soil from which the trees grow. The ailanthus trees—or trees of heaven—are a quaint symbol. Despite the romantic treatment they are given in the novel, ailanthus trees are generally considered weed trees, good for nothing, growing rapidly over alley fences, and producing unsightly flowers with a foul odor. They are hard to get rid of and often grow where not much else will. Perhaps they are ironically a better symbol for the squatters than Stuart intended.
This dualism in the conception of land ownership leads naturally to a set of social distinctions. While the Bushman family are the only characters of their class to play an important part in this story, they represent the establishment in the community. (pp. 57-8)
The squatters, on the other hand, comprise a distinctly inferior social class…. They may be compared with Faulkner's Snopeses or indeed any immigrant minority group moving into an established society….
[Their] mutual distrust is not hard to fathom. Indeed the drama is played out almost everywhere that two different social classes become a threat to each other. (p. 58)
[Both Anse Bushman and Boliver Tussie] are good farmers who see the new land as wilderness to be tamed into fields of corn and tobacco. Since Anse is more ambitious for wider dominion and more profit, he is proportionately less concerned for the wild creatures. Burning the hill [to clear it] is a quick way to exploit the land. Although Boliver never opposes the project and is later enthusiastic about getting his seeds into the new fields, he is less greedy for profit and proportionately more sympathetic for the creatures. Left to himself, he would probably have cleared the land with hoe and ax, which Anse estimates would have taken two years.
Whichever approach is right, the burning hill is compared to hell. Although the metaphor rests on the visual image rather than on any theological implications, the scene could suggest the sinfulness of greed and the wanton exploitation of the land at the expense of the wild creatures. (p. 59)
The different relationships Bushman and Tussie have with the land give rise to a dualism in attitudes toward work and play. Bushman's motivation to own more land and to raise a better crop than anybody else reflects his pride. His ambition has driven him into a fanatic dedication to the work ethic to the exclusion of all other values…. But inwardly it has left him self-righteous, blind to the feelings and rights of others, and unsatisfied with his own achievements…. [His] prevailing attitude is that play is sinful because it distracts from work.
But his family have suffered most from his work ethic. Except for Tarvin, his children have been completely alienated by his austerity. (p. 60)
While the Tussies undergo little growth in the novel, Tarvin's growing appreciation of them results in an evolving portrayal of the family. Tarvin's early contempt gradually becomes admiration, while he comes to reject his father's work ethic and accept the Tussie life-style. Tarvin's views leave little doubt where Jesse Stuart's values lie in relation to the dualism of work and play. (p. 61)
The sin of Anse, then, is not only in his extreme dedication to hard work, but in the brutal imposition of his code on his family and the Tussies. The two opposing values are reconciled when he allows the Tussies to return to their home. This reconciliation takes an interesting twist. Throughout the book, Boliver makes little if any change…. The concessions and reforms are all on the part of Anse. This means that in the conflicts of work habits and life-styles the victory belongs entirely to Boliver.
As portrayed in this novel and in many of Stuart's works, the hill people are often fiercely independent and take a dim view of the laws of government on any level. To them the higher law is the moral right of the individual to remain on his own land, to pursue his own harmless interests, and to fight his own battles. This tradition initiates the dualism of the law versus the individual.
Stuart portrays the law as unfair and inhumane. (pp. 61-2)
Stuart portrays the law as corrupt. Failing in other ways to evict Boliver from his land, Anse brings him to court in a lawsuit. While this courtroom scene is a brilliant display of humor and local color, it also carries a bitter indictment of the legal process. In an introductory paragraph written in italics, his only intrusion into the story, Stuart condemns this courtroom as a perversion of American ideals. (pp. 62-3)
Stuart carries his attack on the corruption of the law further in his portrayal of its officials…. These are caricatures, to be sure, but their use emphasizes Stuart's ridicule of the corruption of the law.
Finally, Stuart portrays the law as ineffectual. The hill people are too self-sufficient to let the corrupt process of law settle their quarrels. (p. 63)
This dualism between the law and the individual comes to focus in Anse, whose moral decline can be traced in his manipulation of the law. At first he is pictured as an upright and law-abiding citizen. In the context of the story, his first step toward degradation occurs when he buys the Sexton land, thus alienating himself from the community of hill people who are opposing the sale of the tract. Next he uses the law—the sheriff—to remove the squatters, retaining only Boliver's family, whom he intends to manipulate for his own profit. His later eviction of Boliver, based on personal rather than business charges, is obviously motivated by his greed to claim the Tussie crop for himself…. [He] finds that he is unable to fight his own battle as he had boasted he would do, for the Tussies are too many for him. Thus he resorts to the lawsuit. At this point Tarvin confesses that Subrinea is going to have his baby. Afraid that the union will hurt his chances in the lawsuit, and blind to the love between the young people, Anse proposes: "I can git you out'n it, Tarvin…. I can git four men to swear they monkeyed with her. That will make her a whore. The Law won't do nothin to you."… The once law-abiding and independent Bushman is now ready to manipulate the law by false witness to destroy the character of Subrinea and achieve his own ends.
Like the law, religion in Trees of Heaven is a significant theme, and it can be observed in terms of a dualism between this world and the hereafter. These balancing perspectives can be traced through Anse's two experiences of rebirth, and reconciliations of some of the dualisms already described can be discerned here.
His first rebirth, which is entirely of this world, occurs as Anse walks abroad all night in a spring thunderstorm. Significantly, this scene follows the hill burning, which may symbolize his transgression against the land. Although his rebirth does not solve the problem of man and the land, it does override it with a cleansing and fresh start traditionally associated with the rebirth of spring. (pp. 63-4)
This storm, the resurrection of spring, is his baptism. He is washed clean in body and mind, and he is reborn to his identity with the land. But as magnificent as this resurrection scene may be, it results in no moral or spiritual change in him.
His second rebirth is his spiritual conversion as a result of his nearly fatal accident. He is struck in the head by a falling limb at the time of his lowest moral ebb—after he has evicted the Tussies and is greedily trying to harvest their crop for himself. For three days (significantly) he lies in a coma. When he awakens, he tells Fronnie of his conversion. This spiritual conversion comes in the form of a vision, or token. It is in two parts—a vision of a worship service in Plum Grove Church and a vision of hell. This second rebirth is far more effective than the first in making a new man of Anse, for he renounces his old habits and attitudes as well as reversing his treatment of the Tussies….
In the conversion of Anse are reconciled many of the dualisms of the book. The problems of territorial possession and class distinctions are reconciled as Anse invites Boliver to return to his home and crops….
The final dualism to be considered is the difference between marriage by God's laws and marriage by man's laws. In the union of Tarvin and Subrinea, most of the conflicts of the novel are brought into focus and reconciled.
The love story between the children of opposing families follows the traditional Romeo-Juliet pattern. Their love is consummated on the coldest night of the year in the sheep shanty adjacent to the barn, on the same bed with the newborn lambs (symbolizing innocence) which Subrinea has rescued from freezing. From that time on, both Tarvin and Subrinea consider themselves married by natural law. (p. 66)
Stuart's endorsement of this natural union is emphatic enough. Clearly both Tarvin and Subrinea are virgins, and their union is the consummation of the deepest and purest love. The scene in the lambing shanty must rank high among the most beautiful in all of Stuart's canon. Although explicit descriptions of sexual activity are rare indeed for Stuart, he handles this scene with immaculate taste….
As the protagonist, Tarvin is faced with the crucial decisions in the novel, making his choices and evaluations in the context of the larger conflicts. In choosing Subrinea as his mate, he puts his evaluations to the test, for all of his decisions are associated with her. And through these decisions his growth from adolescence to manhood can be traced. (p. 67)
Although Subrinea is a far more colorful character than Tarvin, she serves the story only as his love partner. She has no major decisions to face. In choosing Tarvin, she has everything to gain and nothing to lose…. A hard worker and faithful lover, she has all the virtues: untainted purity, laughter and joy, resourceful ingenuity, and most of all a warm heart. Devoid of faults, she transcends humanity to become an earth goddess…. It is not hard to see that Tarvin's natural union with her is symbolic of man's marriage to the land.
But is she a convincing character? It is true that as the daughter of Crissie, who is not of the Tussie-Beaver clan, she has escaped the blight of incest. But how has she escaped the Tussie social training? As beautiful and radiantly sexual as she is, how has she retained her purity in the face of her family customs, the advances of the lumberjacks, and even the encouragement of her father? While such a character would be absurd in the hands of deterministic naturalists like Dreiser or Crane, she is certainly consistent with Stuart's belief in freedom of choice and self-reliance. Indeed, The Thread That Runs So True and many other stories are crowded with such noble characters, and even Stuart's own self-image is one of a man rising above environmental obstacles by his own will to attain nobility. Another dualism, environment versus free will, is reconciled in Subrinea.
Thus in the natural marriage of Tarvin and Subrinea, all of the other dualisms are reconciled. The feuding Bushman and Tussie families, with all their opposing values and social differences, are united. Work and play are brought into balance. The laws of men and the laws of God are merged. And man, at last, has wed the land. (pp. 68-9)
Frank H. Leavell, "Dualism in Stuart's 'Trees of Heaven'," in Jesse Stuart: Essays on His Work, edited by J. R. Le Master and Mary Washington Clarke (copyright © 1977 by The University Press of Kentucky), University Press of Kentucky, 1977, pp. 54-69.
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Stuart uses authentic regional dialect, faithfully rendering his time and place, combining his knowledge of life with imagination to create a unique literary expression…. Most of his characters are drawn from direct observation, sometimes lacking even the mask of a fictional name, and their speech is the speech Stuart has heard and used all his life. Although the reader who is unfamiliar with authentic Kentucky hill speech may feel that a rendition is exaggerated, careful examination suggests that Stuart's recollection and rendition are reliable, and that exaggeration, where it does occur, is a device employed for dramatic or comic purposes. In any case, he has usually avoided the gross errors of "eye" dialect characterized by misspelling and overworked archaisms that flawed the work of many earlier regional writers…. [He is] one of his own principal characters, many of the others being his family and neighbors. Their folklife is his, as he recalls it and lives it. Where he does describe the expressions and antics of a "low-down trashy set" is in the light of the values and judgments of a regional culture rather than in the mode of condescending gentility. The wisdom and worth of some of his relatively uneducated hill people is not diminished by their use of folk speech; similarly, the shoddy character of some of his better-educated townsmen is not concealed by their use of "standard" English.
Stuart's use of brief traditional formulas is a significant aid in characterization as well as a means of reinforcing a sense of a time and a place. Some of these are sayings or expressions of traditional wisdom upon which characters act or upon which they judge an event. Stuart uses the expressions as they occur in actual oral tradition instead of correcting them to make them conform to scriptures or other literary sources. (p. 119)
Omens, or tokens, as many folk call them, are similarly functional in that they faithfully portray traditional beliefs about foreknowledge. In addition, they may establish tension, tone, and foreshadowing….
Birdlore, dreamlore, and similar ancient devices for folk prognostication survive as an active element in the folk community, and they sometimes surface in the context of the oral tale, another kind of folklore Stuart uses freely. His use of the folktale is a rewarding subject for the investigating folklorist. Here one finds a range from direct use of an identifiable local legend to so skillful a fabrication that it sends the investigator to his library in a futile effort to document it. Some contemporary folklorists find it useful to distinguish between transcriptive folklore and functional folklore in a writer's works. They label transcriptive the tale, song, or other expression which is entertaining or instructive on its own merits and appears, therefore, virtually unchanged as it exists in oral tradition. The writer merely creates a situation in which it can be presented. The flimsy frame of an old man answering the questions of a little boy in the works of Joel Chandler Harris is an example of this device, and the reworked folktales the old man tells illustrate the transcriptive use of folklore.
Functional use of folklore is more subtle. Here the folkloric expression or the allusion to it is subordinated to a specific literary requirement such as the development of character or setting. The tale-telling bent of two fictional characters [Op Akers in The Good Spirit and Grandpa Tussie in Taps for Private Tussie] reveals how functional the folktale is in Stuart's writing. (p. 120)
Although Op tells several kinds of tales, the ghost tale is most useful in this novel because it ties in with a mysterious "ghost" on Laurel Ridge—which finally turns out to be a living person. Old Op reports on so many beliefs, practices, and local happenings that one is inclined to think of him as a kind of Appalachian Uncle Remus, a fictional creation used for presentation of transcriptive folklore. The book is a novel, however, and it does have a plot. Examination of its folklore and folklife content shows that it is largely functional in the sense that it serves to enhance characterization, make vivid the setting, and advance the plot.
Stuart injects a subtle ambiguity into his presentation of Op Akers as a naïve backwoodsman who is completely comfortable with his belief in ghosts. Old Op drives off city intruders who claim they are not superstitious by telling them hair-raising tales about snakes and ghosts. It is never quite clear whether he is being merely ingenuous or crafty, in the time-honored American tradition of the countryman getting the best of "sophisticated" urbanites. In any case, the situation is traditional in both oral and written literature…. (p. 122)
Whether the tales Op Akers and Grandpa Tussie tell in their respective novels are identifiable as traditional oral narratives or are creations of the author does not alter their folkloric role. The fact is that Stuart, intimately familiar with long, windy yarns, first-person hunting and fishing whoppers, legends, and scary ghost stories in oral tradition, has created two believable folk types, each one presented as a raconteur. The distinctive functional aspect of their renditions is that their narrations help to maintain tone and theme as well as to extend characterization. Old Op is a gentle recluse, a healer and believer. His tales, even if gross exaggerations, are presented in a positive way, reflecting the author's approval of his creation. Grandpa Tussie's repertoire gives more emphasis to tall tales rendered in keeping with an entirely different kind of characterization and in a very different kind of novel. The Good Spirit is a gentle romance; Taps is a "Dogpatch" style caricature of the welfare syndrome, a comedy containing a considerable element of satire….
[Stuart] freely combines a rich heritage of folklore with his literary education in a variety of creative moods, and that he rarely makes a conscious effort to use folklore as a special focus. He does, however, use a good tale or custom as a springboard for a composition. (p. 123)
"Rain on Tanyard Hollow" is Stuart's adaptation of a tale type widely known in oral tradition. Essentially, the tale concerns a man who buys or prays for a change of weather and gets more than he bargained for. Maritime versions of the tale involve the superstitious belief that a becalmed sailor can buy wind by tossing a coin overboard. This act usually brings on a storm rather than a beneficial breeze, whereupon the sailor observes that a smaller purchase would have been in order. A dry-land version has the farmer pray for rain, get a gullywasher, then observe that a more modest prayer would have been better. Stuart uses this theme, having Pappie get down on his knees in the dried-up strawberry patch and utter a mighty prayer for rain. Because his wife has taunted him about his faith, he overreaches, praying for a storm. (pp. 123-24)
Pappie gets exactly what he prays for. Lightning splits big oak trees and chickens go to roost in the midday gloom. The resulting flood washes away the corn crop and sends mud and rocks into the house…. [A] flock of visiting relatives who have been eating Pappie out of house and home pray for relief and promise the Lord they will leave Tanyard Hollow and never return if they survive. (p. 124)
Folklore here includes the folktale itself, regional speech, beliefs, regional life-style, and the hillman's ambiguous involvement with fundamentalist religion and superstition. The folktale itself, sometimes only a paragraph-length anecdote with a punch line such as "A quarter's worth would have been enough," is just one element of the mixture that bears Stuart's hallmark for humorous effect—exaggeration and incongruity. (pp. 124-25)
Folklore in Stuart's fiction cannot be fully evaluated by merely cataloging the songs, tales, beliefs, regional lexicon, or other specific elements. Cataloging can be an instructive exercise for an undergraduate student learning to use the library tools of folklore research, but merely to label a song fragment by a Child number or to tag a narrative passage with a Thompson motif number is a classroom exercise rather than an evaluation. A knowledge of field-collected folklore materials is, of course, essential, just as biographical knowledge of Stuart will reveal his authentic "insider" view of the culture. Equally important, his mode of comic exaggeration must be taken into account, so that the critic can avoid the error of assuming that there really is or was a frog-trouncing day in Greenup County.
Beyond those elements of folklore that can be cataloged, however, there is a matrix that holds them together which is fully as traditional as a folksong or a folktale, yet too diffuse to be neatly abstracted and verified on a checklist. This omnipresent element is the collective folkways that produce stereotyped values, attitudes, and responses. Some of the best folklore in Stuart's writing is his evocation of the matrix rather than specific bits of folklore embedded in it. (pp. 125-26)
The general matrix of folklife forms a kind of backdrop in ["Uncle Casper,"] a mildly satiric story about politics at the grassroots level. Embedded in the rambling recollections are elements of two traveling anecdotes about snakes. The fact that snake tales turn up regularly in conversations of country people seems inevitable in a state having a large population of timber rattlesnakes and copperheads. (p. 128)
The mortally dangerous constricting power of a nonpoisonous snake in Kentucky exists only in folk imagination. The motif occurs in oral narratives in various contexts, one of which has the snake get under the long skirts of a woman and coil about her waist. This titillating version then presents a dilemma for a black servant. Dare he lift his mistress's skirts to save her life? Stuart used the basic folk motif of the potentially lethal constrictor in a highly original piece of creative writing, a capsule example of his multilevel adaptation of folklore for literary purposes.
This sampling of folkloric elements in Stuart's works reveals the variety of both the folklore and the ways in which it serves the author's literary purposes. It reveals also the naturalness of the use of traditional materials by an "insider" in the culture. Certainly Stuart is not condescendingly genteel, and he is not on an intellectual slumming tour. He is, rather, the kind of American author some nineteenth-century critics, especially Emerson and Whitman, were calling for when they stressed the American experience in terms of strongly local, natural language rather than effete borrowing from cultivated European expression. They extolled the American workman close to the soil or the frontier rather than the aristocrat insulated from grassroots experience and expression. Development of authentic American literature, they felt, must come from the vigor of the folk experience, necessarily local, idiomatic, and relatively independent of refined antecedent models. Such writing is enhanced by accurate use of regional folklore. Partly as a result of his familiarity with the folklore and folklife of his region, Stuart has added a strong, original voice to the main thrust of American literature. (p. 129)
Kenneth Clarke, "Jesse Stuart's Use of Folklore," in Jesse Stuart: Essays on His Work, edited by J. R. Le Master and Mary Washington Clarke (copyright © 1977 by The University Press of Kentucky), University Press of Kentucky, 1977, pp. 117-29.