Jesse Stuart Stuart, (Hilton) Jesse (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Dayton Kohler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1067 words.)

Frank H. Leavell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 2610 words.)

Kenneth Clarke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1867 words.)