Jesse Stuart Stuart, Jesse - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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 Fiction

Although 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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Head o' W-Hollow 1936

Men of the Mountains 1936

Tales from the Plum Groves 1946

Clearing in the Sky 1950

Plowshare in Heaven 1958

My Land Has a Voice 1966

Best-Loved Short Stories of Jesse Stuart 1982

Other Major Works

Harvest of Youth (poetry) 1930

Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow (poetry) 1934

Beyond Dark Hills (autobiography) 1938

Trees of Heaven (novel) 1940

Taps for Private Tussie (novel) 1943

Album of Destiny (poetry) 1944

Mongrel Mettle (novel) 1944

Foretaste of Glory (novel) 1946

The Thread That Runs So True (autobiography) 1949

Kentucky is My Land (poetry) 1952

The Year of My Rebirth (autobiography) 1956

God's Oddling: The Story of Mick Stuart, My Father (biography) 1960

Hold April (poetry) 1962

To Teach, To Love (memoirs) 1970

The Land beyond the River (novel) 1973

My World (memoirs) 1975

Dandelion on the Acropolis: A Journal of Greece (memoirs) 1978

Lost Sandstones and Lonely Skies and Other Essays (essays) 1979

If I Were Seventeen Again and Other Essays (essays) 1980

W. S. Wabnitz (essay date 1937)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jesse Stuart and the Old and New in Short Stories," in The New Mexico Quarterly, Vol. VII, 1937, pp. 183-88.

[In the following essay, Wabnitz explores the role of suspense in Stuart's short stories.]

Jesse Stuart is young, spirited, stockily built, hair rumpled, hands strong, well-shaped, and large; although himself one of the mountain people of Kentucky, in manner and appearance he has nothing of the grotesqueness that he so often makes us see in his mountain characters. Make allowance for attire and he looks like Robert Burns with whose poetry his has been compared; praise which Jesse Stuart disclaims in one of the sonnets in Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow, a sonnet which he likes well enough to use again in his credo at the end of his volume of short stories, Head o' W-Hollow.

I cannot sing tunes that great men have sung,
I cannot follow roads great men have gone.
I am not here to sing the songs they've sung,
I think I'm here to make a road my own.
I shall go forth not knowing where I go.
I shall go forth and I shall not go alone.
The road I'll travel on is mud, I know,
But it's a road that 1 can call my own.
The sun and stars and moon will give me light.
The winds will whisper songs I love to hear;
Oak leaves will make for me a bed at night
And dawn will break to find me lying here.
The winey sunlight of another day
Will find me plodding on my muddy way.

He speaks and reads with a natural purity of accent, giving a heightened value to words and syllables slurred over in the speech of the mountain people; he has rendered his native dialect into poetry and prose that retains its savor, yet by its rhythms escapes the effect of slovenliness.

Enough of raillery and irony tinge Stuart's exuberance to give his "biography" a story flavor. His mother's family felt disgraced when she married because the Stuarts were Republicans. (He has dramatized this theme in the story, entitled "One of the Lost Tribe.") His grandfather Stuart from over on the Big Sandy was shot three times during the Civil War. The Stuarts work a little farm in W-Hollow, which gets its name from its shape. His mother can hoe corn faster than her husband or any of her sons.

He liked school, was glad to walk four miles to get there; every hour in school was free of farm-chores. The teacher gave him a book of Burns' poetry. He wanted to go to high school. His father said: "I'd like to see you go. I'd like to see you get through. No Stuart ever got through high school."

One summer the streets of Greenup, Kentucky, were dug up for paving. Jesse Stuart was water boy. When the sun got too hot for the man who was running the concrete mixer, Jesse Stuart got that job. It was his first "big" money, five dollars a day. Later he worked on a ferris wheel and was fired for giving free rides to the children. He was strong and husky and a fighter. In the steel mills he took a beating from a millworker and wrote—on the back of a Hershey-bar wrapper—the sonnet Batter me down, you who are strong, I plead.

He set out for Vanderbilt college with twenty-nine dollars, registered and was put to work in a hayfield. The other boys wanted him not to rake so fast. One of them, they said, got fainting spells if he had to rake too hard in the heat. Jesse Stuart prodded him in the stomach with a fork handle and the faintness never came back. The boy, later his roommate, helped him to become editor of the college paper, in which Jesse Stuart printed his first poem and thereby satisfied the desire to see his name in print. At Vanderbilt he announced that he would earn his way writing term papers. Dr. Mims said: "Young man, you'll be lucky if you pass yourself." He worked first as a janitor. His papers had as many red marks, he says, as there are blades of grass in a lawn. Toward the end of the year his chance came: an assignment to write an eighteen-page paper on an original subject; his philosophy of life, for instance. He wrote three hundred pages which his professor liked well enough to send to a contest sponsored by The Atlantic Monthly. France Winwar's Poor Splendid Wings won the prize, which was five thousand dollars, and Jesse Stuart's manuscript was second. Now after five years it will be published as his third book Beyond Dark Hills, but then the sting of defeat was bitter. His disappointment led him to complete the set of 700 sonnets which make up Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow. The first section of this book was written at the ends of corn-rows, while plowing; the second during the winter, when he was a County Superintendent of Schools with little money and thirty law suits; the last section in a graveyard during vacation. "There was never a word changed. I slapped them down...

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Winston Bode (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jesse Stuart's Story Harvest," in Southwest Revew, Vol. 44, No. 1, Winter, 1959, pp. 83-6.

[In the following essay, Bode offers a mixed review of Plowshare in Heaven.]

Jesse Stuart is a goodhearted writer. A writer is not to be judged by good intentions; but, nevertheless, Stuart's desire to communicate the look and feel of his country, to tell of his people's needs, griefs, joys, and pretensions—this remains after one has got through worrying about his anecdotal superficiality, mannered lyricism, or Al Capp crudity of stroke. And one must admit that by main strength and enthusiasm, if not always by artistic mobility, Stuart does get a message on humanity...

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Max Bogart (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A foreword to A Jesse Stuart Reader, by Jesse Stuart, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1963, pp. iii-vii.

[In the following essay, Bogart discusses the universal appeal of Stuart's short fiction.]

You enter the world of Jesse Stuart. The scene is eastern Kentucky, the hills, the mountains, the forests, the rivers, a land of primitive beauty, far, far away from any large city. You meet the people of this land. They may seem strange to you. Who are these people? They are determined pioneers, bold frontiersmen, feuding clansmen, brave settlers, and all of them are fierce fighters. And they are tender too. They are Jesse Stuart's people, the key to his world.


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Everetta Love Blair (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Story," in Jesse Stuart: His Life and Works. University of South Carolina Press, 1967, pp. 82-129.

[In the following excerpt, Blair provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Stuart's short stories.]

In 1936, the first of Jesse Stuart's collection of short stories was published. That collection was Head o' W-Hollow.

When Head o' W-Hollow made its appearance, Ralph Thompson, of The New York Times, wrote: "What Brete Harte was to the outcasts of Poker Flat, and Joel Chandler Harris to the plantation negro, Jesse Stuart is to the folk of the Kentucky mountains. There aren't many originals among...

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Mary Washington Clarke (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Hill Man's Religion," in Jesse Stuart's Kentucky, McGraw-Hill, 1968, pp. 55-90.

[In the following excerpt, Clark examines the role of religion in Stuart's short fiction.]

But the hill people still saw God. . . .

Beyond Dark Hills

With less of social protest than of humor, Jesse Stuart has brought alive the old-time religion with its narrow intolerance, its dark superstition, and at the same time its undeniable sustaining power. The strange blend of self-contradictory elements that made up hill church doctrine was as basic in hill thinking as were the religious...

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Mary Washington Clarke (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jesse Stuart's Use of Local Legends," in Jack London Newsletter, Vol. 10, No. 2, May-August, 1977, pp. 63-70.

[In the following essay, Clarke perceives Stuart's use of local legend as "providing a felicitous vehicle for his perception of a changing society within a framework of timeless nature."]

It is a truism of Jesse Stuart scholarship that the author's literary projection of his native W-Hollow setting, with all that such a projection implies, has provided him with his most successful literary capital. Two biographical facts have given strong direction to his use of it—his early formative years of being locked into an extremely conservative and...

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Kenneth Clarke (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jesse Stuart's Use of Folklore," in Jesse Stuart: Essays on His Work, edited by J. R. LeMaster and Mary Washington Clarke, The University Press of Kentucky, 1977, pp. 115-29.

[In the following essay, Clarke explores Stuart's use of folklore in his short stories, contending that, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, Stuart provides an original, authentic voice to American literature.]

Assessment of the extent and function of folklore in Stuart's writing is a task made relatively easy because of his time and place. His writing career has coincided with development of academic folklore studies in major universities, and some aspects of Kentucky folklore...

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Katherine Paterson (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jesse Stuart's Stories of Old Kentucky Homes," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 12, October 24, 1982, pp. 3, 13.

[In the following essay, Paterson provides a positive review of The Best-Loved Short Stories of Jesse Stuart.]

"They really brought men to justice back in them days when they had to have someone to hang every Sunday after church." This is a throwaway sentence buried in the middle of a paragraph about halfway through a story with the straightforward title: "Sunday Afternoon Hanging." Yet there is in this sentence the deviousness of a poet. It jars the mind from bend to bend like Donne's, "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone." But Jesse...

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Ruel E. Foster (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A foreword to Clearing in the Sky and Other Stories by Jesse Stuart, The University Press of Kentucky, 1984, pp. ix-xiv.

[In the following essay, written for the reprint of Stuart's Clearing in the Sky, Foster surveys the major themes of the collection.]

When literary historians a hundred years hence write a history of the American short story, Jesse Stuart's name may well be near the top. Stuart has written well in the genres of the novel, essay, and poetry, but for many of us his greatest talent has been shown in the short story which has always been his special delight. Doubtless he has written too many short stories (some five hundred at the last...

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Mary Rohrberger (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Question of Regionalism: Limitation and Transcendence," in The American Short Story 1900-1945: A Critical History, edited by Philip Stevick, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 147-82.

[In the following excerpt, Rohrberger discusses Stuart as a regionalist writer.]

[A writer] clearly in the regionalist tradition is Jesse Stuart, who does for the culture of the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky what Ruth Suckow did for rural Iowa. One of our country's most prolific writers, Stuart wrote more than 350 short stories, many of which appeared in seven collections dating from 1936 to 1966. In addition to short stories, he has published seven autobiographical...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Blair, Everetta Love. Jesse Stuart: His Life and Works. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1967, 288 p.

Provides critical and biographical information on Stuart.

Clarke, Mary Washington. Jesse Stuart's Kentucky. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968, 240 p.

Explores the major themes of Stuart's work.

Foster, Ruel E. Jesse Stuart. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968, 168 p.

Full-length critical study of Stuart's work.

——. "Jesse Stuart's W-Hollow—Microcosm of the...

(The entire section is 205 words.)