Jesse Stuart 1907-1984
American short story writer, novelist, autobiographer, biographer, essayist, editor, and poet.
Stuart is considered a regionalist writer whose short stories explore life in the Appalachian hills of Greenup County, Kentucky. His short fiction is noted for its use of folklore and its themes of family, community, survival, and man's love of the land. Stuart is praised for the insightful nature of his work, as well as his lyrical, simple language.
Stuart was born in a log cabin in Greenup County, Kentucky. His father was an itinerant sharecropper and Stuart's family moved several times in his youth. As a result, he missed school often and eventually dropped out. When he was fifteen, Stuart quit his job as a concrete worker and returned to high school, where he was influenced by the work of Robert Burns, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allan Poe. In 1926 he began attending Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, and during his senior year his poetry was published in several periodicals. After graduation he returned to his native Greenup County and became a teacher and administrator in the area. His first collection of short fiction, Head o' W-Hollow, was published in 1936. In 1939 he left teaching and bought a sheep farm. During his life Stuart traveled extensively as a lecturer and educator, but always returned to Kentucky. A prolific writer of fiction, poetry, and essays, he published nearly 500 short stories. He died in 1984 after a long illness.
Major Works of Short FictionAlthough he is considered a regionalist writer, the themes of Stuart's short fiction are universal in nature. In "Thanksgiving Hunter," a sensitive young boy on his first dove hunt finds himself unable to kill a bird. Ashamed of what he perceives as a weakness, he resolves to kill his first dove. Using a special dove call, he lures a beautiful bird. Upon closer inspection, the boy realizes that the bird is blind; another hunter has shot away both of its eyes. When the dove's mate calls and the blind dove flies away, the boy is left to ponder the harshness of life. In "Another Hanging," the hanging of a murderer provides a social occasion for the citizens of the county. Stuart juxtaposes the suffering of the murderer's wife and family against the excitement of the young narrator as he puts on his new clothes and meets a pretty girl at the hanging. The story "Clearing in the Sky" reflects Stuart's belief that the land and nature hold a healing power for people. In this story, a father shows his son his vegetable garden on the top of a mountain. The father claims that in maintaining the garden, he has been able to stave off a terminal illness despite the dire prognosis that his doctor had given him.
Although some commentators have categorized Stuart as a regionalist writer, many critics have acknowledged that his work transcends strictly regional concerns, embodying such universal themes as community, individuality, poverty, and survival. Many critics have discussed the role of folklore in his short fiction, especially his use of local legends and their place in the modern world. Several commentators have noted the autobiographical aspects of the stories, most of them set in Stuart's home county of Greenup, Kentucky. Several of his short stories deal with animals, and critics have discussed his engaging portrayal of animals fighting for survival among humans or in the wild. Stuart has been noted for his often compelling presentation of plot and character, in particular his use of humor, insight, and dialect. Moreover, he has been praised for his simple, evocative stories, especially his unaffected language, warm and amusing characters, deft descriptions, and the incorporation of the natural world in his work.