W. S. Wabnitz (essay date 1937)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2046
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 like this from the start. But I might not write them like that now," he says.
With about forty stories published since his first, "Battle Keaton Dies," appeared in Story two years ago, Jesse Stuart is outstanding among the newer writers. He is less spectacular than William Saroyan whose "Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" ends in an inspired outburst not quite equalled in any of Stuart's stories. The latter's less subjective output is richer and more varied in theme than Saroyan's which is inclined to sound too thinly a single note; that of the vague dissatisfactions of a restless young man.
Certainly the one quality more than any other that makes a story is the feeling that here is an actor striving for a goal. Opposition, or the threat of it, gives the story its dramatic texture. By infinite and subtle variations the actor's success or failure is made to satisfy the reader or to impress him with a sense of the irony of life. But there is rarely ever an outstanding story unless a struggle is present. Thus for more than a century, during which the short story may be said to have existed as a recognized form (although in reality it has existed as long as mankind), it has been well-grounded in the Rousseauistic ideal of self-realization. Every short story has been in some measure an exhibition of the doctrine of individualism, rugged or not, and suspense has been one of its valued elements; suspense manifesting itself in the reader as a strong partisan interest in the actor's struggle.
Lately we hear about a new type of story in which suspense is not important. Outwardly, of course, stories have been changing. The leisurely, abstract, commentarial style of Nathaniel Hawthorne, already giving way to a terser realism in the days of Maupassant and O'Henry, becomes the clipped objective recording of behaviour in Hemingway, or the packed imagism of Katherine Mansfield. On the other hand, commentary rather than action, as pursued to its extreme in Proust, has not been without its effect, for example in William Faulkner or Conrad Aiken. Gertrude Stein toying with words in patterns of repetition has directly influenced Hemingway and through him newer writers. Jesse Stuart, with a natural tendency for repetition, indulges in it more than he would if it were not in the air. Closely allied to repetition has been a kind of rhapsody, also repetitious, that is strong in Thomas Wolfe, often noticeable in Saroyan, and accompanied in Jesse Stuart by a nervous but sometimes effective use of the present tense.
The greatest recent development in the technique of story telling has been that labeled stream-of-consciousness. The author, instead of analyzing or commenting upon the thoughts and feelings of the actor in the struggle, endeavors to give the reader the illusion of floating in the stream of the actor's consciousness of events, and seeks to have the reader identify himself with the actor in thought and feeling; become the actor, as it were, for the time being. This technique of which Proust and James Joyce seem the fountainheads and Virginia Woolf the exemplar may be seen at its clearest in a story called "The New Dress" from Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. One of the sparing and subtle users of the device was Katharine Mansfield.
With the above developments has come also the plea for sincerity in story telling voiced by the editors of Story magazine, Whit Burnett and his wife, Martha Foley, and by Edward J. O'Brien, editor of the Yearbook of the Short Story. This plea has had good results. It has also had bad results; too often interpreted by writers, who have nothing worth saying, as a command to record and publish their run-of-the-mill personal and especially sexual experiences, the demand for sincerity has helped bring about a peculiar lack of reticence in stories, which was at first novel and exciting, then boresome, proving nothing except that sincerity alone does not make an artist.
With this wealth of new devices an author like Katharine Mansfield, a super-sensitive soul, was able to produce brief masterpieces of fiction illusively formless and fragile as puffs of wind. No central actor, no striving against an obstacle, just a delicate recording of impressions, says the hasty imitator, and aspirants, trying Katharine Mansfield's wings, fall flat. True in her stories the suspense is often hard to define and the struggle deeply concealed or esoteric as in her final story "The Fly," which her husband interprets as her own struggle against death.
Memorable new stories have this in common with the old: they still present a hero in struggle, with drama rising out of the opposition, and suspense as one of the delights for the reader.
What then is to be said for the story without suspense? If it is purely rhapsody, or if it depends for its interest upon sensationalism or lack of reticence, it is beside the point. But if it is a story which represents a new spirit of the times, it must be considered. Obviously three elements determine the course that stories will take; the writers, the readers, and the spirit of the age. The spirit of the last century, though growing more and more realistic through the knowledge of science, has never lost its romantic interest in the aspirations of the individual. Now, however, with one-sixth of the world's population Soviet and presumably communistic, and Nazi and Fascist presenting another aspect of collectivism and regimentation, we may stop to ask: Does the old spectacle of an individual winning a struggle (or losing if he be a villain) cease to be of interest? It would hardly seem so yet. The portion of the public most collectivistic in its state of mind still seems to be the portion that buys its fiction from the drug store rack, where the "pulps" contain nothing but stories of the old pattern. Nevertheless the matter bears watching.
One of Jesse Stuart's acquaintances says: "Jesse can go into a room in his boarding house or anywhere and come out after a little while with a long story written, and he doesn't know how he does it." This spontaneity is one of his engaging traits, bursting as it often does into hyperbole, travesty, burlesque. Sometimes his actors are distasteful, yet they exert a fascination struggling in the maze of their own imperfectness. He usually achieves suspense. The exception which proves the rule is a story in August, 1937, Esquire, called "Huey the Engineer." Read it and you will find that in spite of the wealth of mountain lore that it has to offer, it is dull and will hardly keep you awake because the central actor is engaged in no struggle. It does not stand up beside the same author's "Snake Teeth," or "Red Jacket: The Knocking Spirit," or "Governor of Kentucky."
Jesse Stuart is an honest new writer; people like him. If his work may be taken as a token, short stories, for a while at least, will not be fundamentally different from those in the past.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621
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.
Winston Bode (essay date 1959)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1715
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 across, does hew out, sometimes with woodcut broadness (and with some of the woodcut's effectiveness) a picture of his Appalachian hills and the people inhabiting them.
Stuart continues to stretch his Kentucky tapestry with publication of Plowshare in Heaven, a pleasant collection of his stories, nearly all of which appeared first in magazines. The magazines are of striking range—from Country Gentleman to the Atlantic Monthly, from Fantasy Magazine, which ran the title piece, to Progressive Farmer. Two of the stories appeared in Southwest Review: "Walk in the Moon Shadows" and "Before the Grand Jury."
This makes the twentieth book, including three juveniles, for the poet-novelist-lecturer-storyteller from Greenup County, Kentucky. Unlike Wolfe, Stuart is a "tight" writer, who deals in short, economically-worded blocks. But he just keeps a-writin' and a-writin'.
The latest crop is varied and a little confusing. A story like "Zeke Hammertight," which tells of the running down by a posse of a cracked old head-clansman, seems to be a display of the things that are dubious in Stuart. Like twenty of the twenty-one stories in the book, it is told in the first person singular. The style here is a free-wheeling, simile-slinging, heightened colloquialism which smacks of that muscular, formulized literary rusticity so fervently embraced through the years by various literary forces in America:
Old Zeke Hammertight—you ought to see him. . . . You ought to see his steady blue eyes that the years cannot dim any more than they can the eternal Kentucky rocks—wear a little, tear a little—just a little by the wind, the sun, the rain, the sleet and the snow. Freeze a little, thaw a little, and fade a little as the years go by.
It is this kind of sophomoric incantation, with its rocking rhythms, maddening repetitions, and doubling back, its stagy diction, choppy declarative sentences, and parade of bucolic speech figures, not to mention vagueness of effect, that constitutes something of a blight on the whole body of our indigenous literature.
At its worst, this Sing-of-America style simply obtrudes like a bumpkin in the parlor. It comprises an essentially egoistic performance, a stylized manhandling of material and lack of artistic humility (and the effectiveness that goes with it). The chanter-narrator doesn't listen to nature with all her nuances of rhythm; he is too busy talking. Humanity is not depicted in all its interior convolutions, its intricacy of relationship; the storyteller is too busy trying to startle with giants and heroic deeds. And there is a kind of lack of civility: the narrator comes on like thunder, spouting idiom and dropping g's, without so much as a howdy.
It seems to this reviewer that Stuart, in his tales-from-the-hills version of this American genre, never satisfactorily handles the broad content and the broad effect. It is, to repeat, partially a matter of improper preparation of the reader; and the material seems to shift in the course of a story from a context of relative realism to a framework somewhere beyond, not shocking or amusing, but simply straining credulity.
There is certainly nothing wrong with grotesque or exaggerated material, and Washington Irving, to name an easy example, handled it beautifully. But when Stuart has members of the Old and New Faiths fighting at a gravesite, or the boys of Carver College falling out of a towering tree, he simply seems to deteriorate into Li'l Abner or Barney Google. Giant men knock each other through the air and shoot at each other and plunge great distances with a tree branch in tow, but about all that happens is that they're "knocked cuckoo."
Prepared as we are by the tradition of Bunyanesque mountain men, we can be made to accept, possibly, men who are routinely six feet six, weigh from 240 to 300 pounds, have hands like shovels, chop trees in zero weather without shirts on, eat two dozen eggs, drink a gallon of moonshine while plowing and then dance all night; or sleep in eight inches of snow, melt it four and five feet around them in all directions, and get up the next morning without even a stopped nostril.
But you can't mix these in with mortal surroundings and events without a rather choppy effect.
Stuart has considerably more success with the grotesque when its intent is not so pointedly humorous, or not humorous at all. "Walk in the Moon Shadows" is effective because of the strong sense of the pregnant mother's mystic, ritual communion with the dead couple in the moonlight at their old home. "Sylvania Is Dead," telling of the death of a 650-pound woman moonshiner, seems to grow naturally out of the country. (Sylvania could not be arrested by revenue men because they could neither get her out of the house nor down the mountain to the jail; to bury her, the men must tear down the chimney wall.) The grandma who comes back from death during the "settin' up," and has a good report on her wayward deceased son; and Bird-Neck, who cheats the hospital he has sold his body to by seeing that his bones bleach from the top of a tall hickory tree in his field—these also are examples of gothic material handled without strain.
As one moves forward in Plowshare in Heaven, it becomes harder to make generalizations about the author. The clamorous monologue of Zeke Hammertight gives way to the controlled, eloquently idiomatic narrative of the grandpa telling about the Roman-holiday Sunday afternoon hangings they used to have in Blakesburg.
The doubtful humor of the college boys in "How Sportsmanship Came to Carver College" is relieved by a smiling portrayal of a smitten youth in "Love in the Spring," and by the lighthearted "The Devil and Television," which tells of the deacon who is "churched" for installing a "worldly device"—TV. ("Brothers and Sisters, the devil has pulled a fast one.")
The broad brush is put aside as we swing from an epic paean to the river and river men, "Land Beyond the River," with its stereotyped, quickly sketched characters, to the more intimate pictures of "Alec's Cabin," the story of a squatter with a strong claim to the cabin he takes over; "Old Dick," a telling sketch of men mourning a good mule; and a sharp, inside account of a rustic grand jury.
One becomes aware that, in the over-all, Stuart's first person narrative device is used with vividness and impact; that the pacing is good and the structure tight; the dialogue rips along. There are sharp images: "Soon, after we had staggered and stumbled along," says the boy in "Walk in the Moon Shadows," "I looked ahead and saw a vast opening beyond the trees. It was like leaving the night and walking into the day to leave the woods and walk into a vast space where only waist-high bushes grew."
It gets October, and they can't find Bird-Neck's body. "I started shuckin' Bird-Neck's corn. . . . The great sweeps o' fall-time winds would whip like a buggy-whip through the trees. Then the leaves would fall in swarms, jist like birds gettin' ready for the South. The treetops got bare."
The only thing is that, as you go along, the stories don't get more complex. One enters the genial warmth of "Love in the Spring," and says, "Ah, now we're going to get a little psychological subtlety, a little involvement for a change." And the whole episode is resolved into naught with a knock on the boy's head. One is swept along with the promise of the tale of burying the patriarchal timber-cutter, with its complications of two sets of relatives with opposing faiths ("Death and Decision"). But we leave the story by way of a boring, unconvincing free-for-all in the graveyard, told with what seems much gusto.
It becomes apparent at the end that some of the best stories have been pure anecdote or sketch; that virtually none of the stories goes past the anecdotal level. There are in the volume few, if any, short stories, which work out character revelation in a systematized fashion.
One begins to conjecture as to what effect Stuart's love affair with Kentucky has had on his vision as he reads the final, title piece, in which the boy-narrator sorrows for a departed woman who will have to leave Kentucky ("the pink crab-apple blossoms, and the wild plum blossoms . . . the white listing sails of the dogwood blossoms . . .") for heaven. "How will she feel among strangers from all lands and in a great multitude of people? How will she feel among many tongues when she has only heard one?"
"Surely," he says, "for a hill Kentuckian God would let us have our Heaven here in Kentucky! We have lived in it so long, shut away from the outer rim of the hills, that we do not know it is Heaven until we get away."
Has this infatuation with, attachment to, a single region involved not only a not looking beyond the hills, but an insular adjustment that does not permit looking too far beneath the surface? What psychic drag is reflected in the boy's inability to leave home in "Love in the Spring"? What crippling ancestor worship is reflected in a preoccupation with family giants and their heroic deeds? The consistent device of using a family-oriented narrator, frequently a boy or young man, and the superficiality of treatment—not necessarily theme—suggest a reluctance to go beyond the anecdotal framework, past folklore, beyond the traditional tongue of the people.
The hearthstone is not the proper framework for the artist, who must be brutal and hypercritical, as well as loving.
Stuart is productive, but is he furrowing deep enough?
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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
Max Bogart (essay date 1963)
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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.
At first you may find it difficult to understand these people and to comprehend a pattern of life so different from your own. But as you move further into the world of Jesse Stuart, you will make a curious discovery. As you meet more and more of the people he writes about, you begin to feel less and less isolated from them. Though the scene is Kentucky, his people share the condition of men everywhere. The themes of Jesse Stuart expose the foundations of human emotion. He has brought the humble, independent people of his land into the world of literature, where there are not Kentuckians, Californians, or New Yorkers but human beings yielding to their fate or mastering it. The result is literature with a universal appeal.
The world of Jesse Stuart, then, is people. What are they like? They are proud and loyal and tough "like the muscles of a hickory sprout." They are individuals, and one of their most cherished traditions is the sacredness of that individuality. They live with a fierce and deep-rooted love of the land. Jesse Stuart describes the closeness between the people and the land in many of his poems, essays, and stories.
Our roots are deep, for we are a part of this land—and it is a part of us.
Land to us, to men whose ancestors fought and died for it and whose people have lived on it over a century, is a dear possession. Those who are forced to leave it never feel the same.
This land and its people are his raw material. How does Jesse Stuart use the treasury of material that is his in the Kentucky mountains? Several ways. For example, he selects an ordinary occurrence from the daily life of one of his Kentucky people, and then with a kind of magic he creates a story that fascinates thousands of readers. Take Hester King, the 135-pound weakling in the story called "No Hero." He is quite an ordinary fellow. All he wants is to be a good farmer and to make a living for his wife and children. But when crops fail and Hester is desperate for money, he agrees to go into the ring against a 386-pound wrestler. Hester becomes at that moment quite extraordinary. The Jesse Stuart storytelling magic has been applied to Hester King, and he emerges as the hero of "No Hero."
Jesse Stuart also uses folk material of his land to create a story. Take Pappie in "Rain in Tanyard Hollow." Pappie wants rain because his crops are burning up in the heat. For weeks Pappie has been trying the only cure for drought he knows: he has been killing black snakes and hanging them on the fence. He believes this will do the trick. Many of his neighbors believe it too. But somehow it is not working for Pappie. He resorts to prayer, something he had never tried for rainmaking. The results are fantastic. Jesse Stuart has woven a folk superstition into a kind of folk comedy.
All Jesse Stuart's work is filled with characters like Hester and Pappie. He has created a gallery of memorable portraits: an Indian named Cherokee Bill who modestly admitted he was "great"; Grandpa Powderjay, who had no book learning but was an "educated man"; Buck, the fighting dog in "Fight Number Twenty-five," who managed to avoid the fate of the twenty-four dogs before him; Miss Anna, who taught first grade for fifty years. Stuart's genius as a storyteller is his uncanny ability to reveal a personality in one or two paragraphs as in this one from "No Petty Thief:
and I watched the buggies, hug-me-tights, and the fancy express wagons. . . . It was fun to watch the wheels roll. I'd stand and watch them for hours, and what I wanted most in the world was to own something with wheels. Whether I could find level ground enough around our house or not for wheels to roll, if I just had something with wheels I could have sat and looked at it for hours, admiring the wheels and machinery.
Even absurd and exaggerated characters like Ezra Alcorn, who became moon-maddened in April, appear credible because of the art of Jesse Stuart.
The physical world of Jesse Stuart, its sights, sounds, and smells, comes alive in his descriptions of mountains, valleys, woodlands, and rivers. These passages are inspirational, creating a radiant and ethereal mood, lifting us out of the humdrum and heightening our sensitivity to the beautiful in nature. For example, as Stuart fondles a handful of sassafras leaves, he thinks: "I held beauty within my hand."
As he narrates the early pioneers' efforts to build new communities in the wilderness and the feuds between individuals and families, he treats the reader to the folklore of the Kentucky mountain regions.
When the major portion of an author's literary work pertains to a particular geographic region or territory, critics and historians label the writer a regionalist, or local-colorist. Generally, regional literature is literature which presents the physical landscape, the dominant features and peculiarities of a locale and its inhabitants, including the dialect, beliefs and attitudes, and folkways and customs. This literary form usually focuses upon local history, often stressing the glories and virtues of past generations in backcountry America. Hamlin Garland wrote that regional literature has ". . . such quality of texture and background that it could not have been written in any other place or by anyone else than a native."
All too often, however, this literary label is applied in a negative and restrictive sense. To many readers it suggests that the author's outlook is limited and that he has little knowledge of the world beyond this region.
Because a writer chooses to limit his stories and poems to a region, this does not necessarily mean that his work lacks universal implications. Jesse Stuart is a regional writer in the same way that Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Robert Frost may be cataloged as regionalists. After all, many of Mark Twain's novels are limited to life along the Mississippi River; Faulkner's stories, with rare exceptions, are set in a mythical county in northern Mississippi; and many poems by Frost deal with northern New England and its inhabitants. Each has created a cosmos, using the geographic area as the symbol.
Readers will find the study of the language of Jesse Stuart's world a source of interest and delight. As a regionalist he has a predilection for dialect, colloquialisms, and the rhythms of frontier speech which give the English language a colorful and sprightly flavor. By including picturesque mountain expressions which are gradually becoming obsolete, Jesse preserves the country-folk vocabulary and presents realistic dialogue. Often the language is reminiscent of the sweet music of a folk song. In terms of language alone, Stuart's stories are a fine achievement, for they appeal to the ear as well as the eye.
The world of Jesse Stuart is one of conflicting currents. Generally, the main current is tenderness versus violence, but the variations are abundant. The contrasts are incessant and interwoven in Jesse Stuart's stories: compassion and kindness toward man and animal life contrasted with cruelty and meanness; the goodness of mountain people confronted with the corruption of urban influences; seemingly simple Kentucky people behaving in complex ways; deep-seated, violent conflicts between families versus peaceful coexistence; the hardships of the tenant farmer when crops fail, followed by happy days when yields are successful; a narrow provincialism balanced with a worldly outlook; primitive versus highly civilized behavior; the sneers of mountain people toward the educated person, yet the fostering of education for their children; the beauty of natural phenomena and the ugliness of particular human behavior; birth and death on the same page, occurring at the same instant; and the tragic response to death, but acceptance of it as a segment of the life cycle.
Yet in the midst of the pathos in these serious and tragic tales, he sprinkles a unique brand of frontier humor, causing the reader to laugh at many passages. A rich vein of humor and satire not unlike Mark Twain's runs through Jesse Stuart's work.
Jesse Stuart elicits the enthusiasm of readers because they quickly discover that his stories and poems are connected to their own experiences—and they respond emotionally and intellectually. In particular, his writing provides escape from daily routine, vicarious adventures into the Kentucky hills, and for all enjoyment, first and last.
In all probability Stuart's novels, short stories, and poems could not have been written in any other place or at any other time—and the depicted way of life, which we cannot forget, has all but disappeared from the American scene. It is preserved in Jesse Stuart's art, and we relive it each time we read one of his books, for his people and his world are not exclusively his. His people, and the people like him, made this country, and so they belong to all of us. The world of Jesse Stuart is, in a very real sense, your world.
Everetta Love Blair (essay date 1967)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12633
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 American writers of the past few years; it is hard to think of one who can beat Stuart at his best." [New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1936].
[In the New York Herald-Tribune Books, March 21, 1936] Lewis Gannett was equally enthusiastic in his estimate of the Stuart collection. He said: "There is music of the American tongue in his stories. He is an authentic writer, worth a hundred city slicker products."
"Battle Keaton Dies," a story which is included in the Head o' W-Hollow collection, is one of Stuart's most dramatic and moving short stories. This story was his first. He tells about its sale in Beyond Dark Hills:
A letter comes to me. It is from Story magazine. It says: "We are accepting your 'Battle Keaton Dies.' Enclosed is our check for $25." Strange, the first story I ever wrote! Strange It got the same money that I did for my first poem. Sold a story! It didn't have a plot. Just a man died and wanted to be buried in his shirttail. But it was not the same kind of money the poetry money was. It was fun-money. Poetry was blood money.
"Battle Keaton Dies" is a striking example of Jesse Stuart's distinctive treatment of the short story. Instead of a plot the story has a powerful, impressionistic summary of the life and incidents surrounding a single theme, the death and burial of a rugged old mountain man. No detail is left out which will portray the elementary, almost primitive folkways of the region concerning the treatment of death.
The realism with which Stuart invests his story produces the calculated effect of placing the reader in the presence of death in its simplest, most unadorned state. Stuart spares the reader nothing in presenting his picture of Battle's death, with the result that the brutally frank, the naturalistic descriptions throughout the story may easily turn away the faint hearted.
Battle Keaton's last hours are shown through the use of stream-of-consciousness technique to show the old man's dying thoughts. His unending monologue is interspersed with the "sip-sip-sip," as he quenches a burning thirst from water brought in answer to his constant demands by his grieving daughter, Fronnie. Battle is obsessed by the sight of a spider on the ceiling above him:
Well, I lay here and I think I can reach up there and get that old she-striped-back spider sometimes. I want to cut its guts out with a knife. I want to crush that spider between my thumb and my index finger so bad I can taste it. God knows I ain't got no use for no damn fly, but I can't stand to see them lay up there in them webs and have to die by degrees. I have to lay here on this bed and I can't lift my arm sometimes to reach for that spider. . . . And I think of Old Tid Coons who used to run a sawmill and work his men eleven hours for a dollar and ten cents a day. He was a striped-back spider like that one up there on the wall . . . old Tid took the blood out'n twelve men instead of twelve flies.
The old man admonishes his daughter for weeping, "I want you to quit actin like you are actin. Don't you know this is goin to come to you like it is comin to me and it is goin to come to everybody else that's born in this world." Then, he gives her specific instructions for his burial:
See that I'm put in my coffin just like I go to bed—that I have my shirt on and no necktie—my shirt and my long underwear. I don't want any shoes 'r' socks on my feet neither. I want to lay down in my coffin just like I lay down in my bed—to bed is where this old clay temple is goin, Fronnie. To bed. Yes. I don't want no hat on me neither, for no one ever goes to bed with a hat on. I want a blue work shirt on and my long heavy drawers—I want my clothes clean and no smell of sweat in them or smell of brush smoke. I want to be laid over there on the Runyan Hill by Daid near them old cornfields where we used to work together, from sunrise till sunset together.
When Battle dies, his last breath is:
. . . a sharp sizzle of wind and it goes like wind pressed in a vise, if wind could be pressed in a vise. It is wind come out where the walls fall in . . . wind that if it could speak would say, "Wind has come in here and gone out for the last eighty-four years—but now the wind time is over and past."
There follows the description of the care and preparation of the corpse by the daughter, son-in-law, and neighbors who come to the rude little cabin to help. The mood of the world outside is depicted: "The sun is red behind the mountain. The wind stirs the green July corn . . . and now time would slowly disintegrate his [Battle's] burned-out clay to mix forever with the elements."
Recollections of Battle are recounted by the people at his "settin-up." There is a wail of guitar music in the night, and religious songs are sung by the group surrounding the corpse. "Holy-Joe Madden" speaks words over Battle, with a lot of "Thee's, Thou's and Thy's," but Fronnie is not comforted. She cries, "Poor Pa . . . Dead . . . Dead . . . Dead as a beef. Over there—See!" The coffin is constructed with a half-lid, so people will not see that Battle has on only his work shirt and drawers. His daughter and son-in-law see to it, in spite of the neighbors' protests, that the old man's dying wish is carried out. On the night of his burial, people from far and near come over the hills to pay their respects to an old friend. The welcoming speech of Sweetbird, the son-in-law, is indicative of the hill custom of making a funeral a social event. His words, too, show the spirit of feuding which characterized that area.
Come on in, folks—just set any place you can find a seat. Anybody is welcome in my house but a person that has the last name of Turner. No Turner is welcome in my house. If a Turner is here now I want that Turner to get out before I put him out. I mean business, too. If a Turner goes to Heaven I don't want to go there. If one goes to Hell I don't want to go there. I hate a Turner and Dad didn't allow none here when he was livin and by hell Sweetbird Bradberry ain't goin to allow none here this night when poor old Dad Keaton lays a corpse. No, Dad is too near and too dear to me. Dad got on the Lord's side of the fence, but he could never forget the Turners.
The story ends on a note that is reminiscent of the lyricism which is found in Stuart's poetry:
Out on the wind there are words floating among the leaves—floating on the wind. There are stars in the sky. There is wind in the corn. There is a red-oakchip-colored moon riding in a pretty color-of-pond sky. See it all—See Battle too. He is in his coffin—if Battle could only see this night.
Man's life ends and Nature continues in endless cycle of day and night. But, in the old mountain man's wish to be buried in his usual garment for sleeping there is the feeling that, though his life on earth is to be ended, Battle will merge his life with that of Nature and that he will continue through infinity to arise to meet the day. Jesse Stuart emphasizes the two time levels with his dramatic use of the present tense, directing the reader to observe Battle dead while Nature, ungrieving, and in timeless pattern, provides a canopy for him brilliant with red moon and with starlight. Death is natural. "I want you to stop grievin," the old man had said to his daughter. The symbolism of the story is that of acceptance. In the sympathetic tone which Stuart achieves throughout the story, there is shown the author's identification with Battle, giving insight to his belief of acceptance. "Battle Keaton Dies," with its implicit moral of affirmation, is in direct contrast to such sonnets of protest over the briefness of life as Sonnet 27, "Man's Life Is Like the Season of a Flower," in Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow, and "Why Ever Grieve," in Hold April.
Head o' W-Hollow contains a number of stories which dwell on the theme of death as it is met by hardy hill characters like Battle Keaton. Among such stories is "Uncle Jeff," a simple recounting of a visit to a city hospital of a mountain man and his two sons to see their brother and uncle, an old railroad man, as he lies dying. "Battle Keaton Dies" might be said to be somewhat diffuse with its prodigious amount of detail. "Uncle Jeff is tautly told. Although, it, too, has a wealth of atmospheric description, in action "Uncle Jeff maintains the straight narrative line, achieving notable unity in plot. "Uncle Jeff is included in the aforementioned college textbook, The Literature of the South.
"The Bellin' of the Bride" is a story of a very different mood from the death stories of Head o' W-Hollow. This sketch shows the custom of serenading a couple who have just married. The couple in the story, T. J. Lester and Daisy Bee Redfern, hide behind the big chimney, which is built onto the lower half of their cabin where the fireplace is, and which leans away from the house enough to provide space for hiding. The "bellin party" probes behind the chimney with a clothesline pole, and the hapless couple come out. After the gunshooting and the cowbell-ringing which follow, the beating on washtubs and "plow pints," a sixty gallon barrel of hard cider is opened, and there are cider, food, candy, and square-dancing for everybody.
This collection has such varied stories as "Snake Teeth," which describes the religious primitivism of the people who believe in "the Unknown Tongue"; "The Governor of Kentucky," a hilarious account of a bus trip to Chicago by a man who is known as "the Herb King of Kentucky." The man resembles the Governor of Kentucky, Governor Randall Spoon, so he and his friends decide that he shall pose as the Governor on this pleasure trip into the city. Everywhere the bus stops, the "Herb King" is presented as Governor Spoon, and this practice is continued at a ball game which he and his party attend in Chicago. His attendants have been sampling generously the "herbs" which they have brought along for the trip, and when they say "We have Governor Randall Spoon of Kentucky with us" to the world at large, the results constitute a high point of humor in Jesse Stuart's writing. "The Governor" enjoys his role tremendously. The climax of his adventure comes when he reaches home and hurries out to his barn to keep an early-morning date with a flirtatious widow. His wife has gone to the barn early to attend to the chickens. In the dark, he mistakes her for the widow, and grabs her in his arms. The wife, who hasn't spoken to her husband in two months, is thrilled to think that he still loves her. They make up then and there. The "Governor of Kentucky" is elated. This story, in its exaggeration of character, is in the "tall story" tradition.
Men of the Mountains, Stuart's second collection of short stories, was published in 1941. This book has such stories as that of "old Flem," who looks ahead to dying, digs his own grave, and tries it out for size. The grave's a good place to be when a man's tired, Flem theorizes. There's no worrying there about getting bread, or having land to tend. He savors his mountaintop restingplace, with the wind blowing through the chestnut oaks and the sound of foxhorns in the distance.
"For the Love of Brass" is a fascinating yarn about a little "bird-necked man" who says "just call me Bud," who came to stay overnight at Thorny Kirk's farm. He stays, to become a valued handyman on the farm. Thorny and his wife wonder about "Bud," who tells them nothing of himself, just attends to his work, and seems to love being with them. One day the Sheriff comes to pick up Bud, to take him back to the penitentiary. The Sheriff tells them that Bud is making his fourth trip to the "pen" for stealing brass. Bud has committed no other offense. His weakness is for stealing brass. Years later, Thorny gets a package of clothes. "I don't like my old home nigh as well as I liked my home with you. I'm 42 years old next month. Have spent 21 of my 42 here. Take care and keep the farm going." Thorny keeps Bud's big hoe hanging in the barn. Bud was a good corn hoer. He could outhoe Thorny. Some day, Thorny and his wife hope, they will look down the road and see Bud returning.
The New York Herald-Tribune book reviewer, Milton Rugoff, in writing about Men of the Mountains and Jesse Stuart, has this to say [March 16, 1941]: "There is, in sum, nothing slick or tricky in Stuart's work, nothing even sophisticated. And yet, neither is there the rawness of the Southland etchings of Erskine Caldwell nor the horrifying decadence of Faulkner. Next to Caldwell, Stuart seems lyrical and classic and next to Faulkner, wholesome and conventional."
Once or twice, this reviewer observed, Stuart dropped into the "feuding" and "moonshinin"' themes of the caricature hillbillies of radio and vaudeville, but the percentage of stories below standard in Men of the Mountains was very slight.
The Stuart short story collection entitled Tales From the Plum Grove Hills (1946), contains "Another April," a story thought by many critics to be Jesse Stuart's finest. "Another April" is included in The Literature of the South. It appears in Donald Davidson's college textook, American Composition and Rhetoric. Davidson uses only three stories for illustration of style in the short story—one from Thomas Hardy, one from James Joyce, and Jesse Stuart's "Another April."
The World of Endless Horizons, a textbook for secondary-level schools, has "Another April" in its section headed "The World of Human Kinship, Currents of Understanding in Families." Under the "Twentieth Century" division in this textbook's section listing writers "Across the Ages," W. Somerset Maugham and Jesse Stuart lead the list.
This association of the names of Maugham and Stuart seems a happy one when Maugham's introduction to his book Maugham's Choice of Kipling's Best is read. Maugham says in that introduction:
One of the most absurd charges brought against him [Kipling] was that his stories were anecdotes, which the critics who made it thought was to condemn him (as they sometimes still do); but, if they had troubled to consult the Oxford Dictionary they would have seen that a meaning it gives the word is: "The narration of a detached incident, or of a single event, told as being in itself interesting or striking." That is a perfect definition of a short story.
Jesse Stuart, in his writing of anecdotal or "plotless," short stories, would seem to be championed, along with Kipling, by Somerset Maugham.
"Another April" has the tenderness which is one of the outstanding qualities of Jesse Stuart's writing. There is no action in the story except the development in the mind of a little boy of the meaning of old age. The boy's grandfather, who is ninety-one, is allowed out of the house for the first time after a long winter. Grandpa's daughter, the boy's mother, fusses over the old man to see that he is clothed warmly enough. The boy laughs at his grandfather's ludicrous, bundled-up appearance. Grandpa goes out eagerly to enjoy "another April," and to greet an old friend. The friend is a terrapin who has spent fifteen years under the smokehouse. He has 1847 cut on his shell. He's ninety-five years old, Mom tells the little boy, maybe older. Grandpa calls the turtle "my old friend." He says to him, "Old fellow, it's been a hard winter. How have you fared under the smokehouse floor?" The boy is amazed, but sees that the terrapin seems to understand Grandpa. Grandpa stops to examine very carefully the blossoms from a dogwood and a redwood tree. He tells the terrapin that he is "a-gettin' a little chilly; I'll be gettin' back to the house," and he says good-bye to his old friend. The little boy watches, as Grandpa takes his cane and hobbles slowly toward the house. The reader understands that the boy has come to a realization that the terrapin will outlive humanity, but that Grandpa is spiritually unconquered.
Skillfully, Stuart has interwoven the levels of time. The past is represented in Mom's recitals of Grandpa's exploits and in the boy's memories, and the present fuses dramatically with the relentless future as Grandpa completes his last walk, still "enjoying April." The emphasis upon Grandpa as a physical creature, at one with Nature, is subtly felt in the brief, symbolic, almost nebulous action.
Jesse Stuart's stories are not consciously didactic. Stuart presents his incidents or sketches from life in photographic detail for the building of a mood or of a judgment. The morals drawn from them are created in the mind of the reader; rarely are they stated by the author. "Another April," with is unity and conciseness, might be called Jesse Stuart's most distinguished short story.
Tales from the Plum Grove Hills contains another of Stuart's most poignant stories, "My Father is an Educated Man." The author's father could not read or write his name, but he knew the land, he knew railroading, mining, and buildings, his son writes here. He has "raised food for his family to eat." He has given them a roof over their heads. He has encouraged his children to go to school. "And as I think of my father's autumn-colored face, of this small hickory-tough figure of the earth, I think of the many men in America still like him. And I say they are educated men."
Jesse Stuart's father, dressed in his overalls, clean blue work shirt, and overall jacket, would go to town every Saturday to join the men grouped on the courthouse square. A simple figure of earth, he is one of Stuart's greatest creations from life. He recurs throughout his son's writing, but is never given more sincere tribute than in the story, "My Father is an Educated Man."
"The Storm" tells of domestic troubles that vie with the gloom of the elements. A storm is brewing outside, but Mom has decided to leave her husband and go home to "Pap." She has had enough, she says. She and her husband are different, that's all. Mick, the husband, tries to talk Mom into staying. She is determined to go this time. The storm hits the clapboards of the little cabin, with a fury of wind and rain, and plays the dramatic role of mediator. Mom weakens, decides not to go. She cannot leave her husband, and the homely, everyday things that have meant their life together. As the storm subsides, Mick puts his pipe in his pocket, pulls his wife outside happily for a walk, to look over their sweet potato bed.
A story with more substance than "Storm" is "Nest Egg," which is also found in Tales from the Plum Grove Hills. "Nest Egg," like "Another April," is one of Jesse Stuart's more famous stories. It was written when he was a high school student in 1924, then dug up and mailed to a magazine in 1944. The Atlantic published it. "Later, this story 'Nest Egg' was placed by Homer A. Watt and Oscar Cargill in their college textbook for English and American literature, College Reader, as an illustration of one of the better short stories." This textbook also includes short story illustrations from Jack London, Ring Lardner, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, and Thomas Wolfe.
"Nest Egg" is a saga of a powerful "fightin' rooster," which was hatched from an egg that was supposed to have been destroyed. The nest egg had been guarded zealously by a stubborn "old Sebright hen," who had resisted all attempts to take it from her. When her chicken came, she took it to the woods and lived there with it. The chicken grew up to be a tall rooster, with big legs and little straight spurs that "looked like long locust thorns." When winter came, the Sebright hen brought the young rooster down to the corn crib for food, as there was none left in the woods. The fledging was dubbed "Nest Egg" by the boy who was supposed to have taken the egg from the Sebright hen. The boy knew the rooster to be the product of the egg he had failed to remove. Nest Egg was attacked by the five old roosters who ruled the barnyard, but he fought them off stoutly. When Nest Egg killed the veteran rooster, War Hawk, he became king of the lot. His fame spread, and the neighbors insisted on bringing their roosters around for matches with Nest Egg. Nest Egg was always the victor. The neighbors' chickens flocked to be with him. Hen's nests were found everywhere—under the ferns, under the rock-cliffs, under the smokehouse corncrib, in hollow logs and stumps. The neighbors accused the boy's father of being a chicken thief, but he maintained that "It's a good-lookin' rooster Nest Egg that all the hens all take to; he tolls the hens here." The neighbors brought the father into court, but the judge threw the case out. The chickens continued to be charmed by Nest Egg. The whole community seemed turned against the boy's father. Then, fate stepped in and settled matters. A little screech owl flew into the chicken roost where Nest Egg was sleeping, lit on the mighty warrior's back, and killed him by pecking a hole in his head.
"Nest Egg" is an entertaining little animal fable, with a distinctly Chaucerian flavor. Nest Egg is given personification, as is Chantecleer of the Chaucer tale, but his human quality of overweening pride in his exploits is in contrast with that of the timidity of Chantecleer, who must always be bolstered by his wife, and who, in the end, saves himself through a craftiness born of sheer desperation. "Nest Egg" has an unmistakable moral, the moral being, of course, that the powerful, when taken unaware, can be destroyed by the weak. But the story is remembered chiefly for its humor of situation and for its characterization.
Among the remaining stories which appear in Tales from the Plum Grove Hills, "Weep No More, My Lady" is notable for its description of the custom of "funeralizing," the custom of having a funeral preached every year for the deceased. "Funeralizing" occasions the "norrating" of the news of a community gathering at the home of the departed one. The people who participate in the "funeralizing" enjoy festive meals and the contents of the gallon jugs that are brought out at the deceased's home. There is singing of hymns, accompanied by guitar music, and the giving of "testimonials" in the house. Afterward, the group moves to the graveside and continues the hymn singing and the drinking. The preacher delivers a long sermon, which consists mainly of eulogies for the departed neighbor. The Mountain Baptists are the people who practice "funeralizing." The Free-Will Baptists don't believe in it. The religious primitivism of the region is set forth graphically in "Weep No More, My Lady."
"Another Hanging" describes the custom of the region in making a social occasion of a hanging. This story, with its theme of a crass, almost unbelievable, mob brutality, is painful to read. "Another Hanging" is one of the best examples of naturalism in Stuart's works. "Naturalism" is employed in connection with the study of Stuart in the sense of the use of unsparing detail in the description of a scene from life, or in the delineation of character, with disregard for its effect of shock or of revulsion upon the reader. "Naturalism," in this study, does not refer to scientific determinism. Stuart is the opposite of the scientific determinist. His strong belief, which has been borne out in his own life story, is that one can rise above the restrictions and frustrations of an environment.
"Frog-Trouncin' Contest" shows the love of the people of Stuart's area for physical activities. The story contains exaggeration and the boisterous spirit of triumph in outwitting an opponent by fair means or foul, elements of broad frontier humor such as that found in Augustus B. Longstreet's "The Gander Pulling" in his Georgia Scenes. This sport of frog-trouncing was popular in Shakespeare's day, Stuart points out, and is, thus, another custom handed down directly from English forebears to the folk of his region.
"Dawn of Remembered Spring" is one of the most original Stuart's stories. The subject matter, that of snakes making love, comes as a surprise to the reader, in view of the highly poetic title of the story. Stuart says that he sent "Dawn of Remembered Spring" out to publications thirty-seven times. The thirty-eight time he sent it out, it was accepted by Harper's Bazaar, and subsequently was included in a Martha Foley collection of Best American Short Stories. The history of this story, he says, provides a real lesson in perseverance for young writers who believe that their stories are doomed to receive only rejection slips.
Tales from the Plum Grove Hills may be considered Stuart's most outstanding collection of short stories, since it contains his most diversified and best-known works in that field.
Clearing in the Sky, which was published in 1950, is Jesse Stuart's fourth and most studied book of short stories. This book is dedicated to his father, Mitchell Stuart. It is illustrated with beautiful woodcuts by Stanley Rice. On the whole, Clearing in the Sky seems more restrained in style and has fewer of the elemental themes than have the earlier story collections. There is less violence in the language and, it seems, a somewhat more limited use of localism. This would tend to bear out Stuart's previously mentioned statement that he is striving to "tone down" his use of the vernacular of the hills, and that his earlier stories show more of the "exactness" of his region. In this statement, he reiterated that those early stories "do not exaggerate."
One of the stories in Clearing in the Sky which is written in Stuart's earlier style is the lead story, "The Champion." This story is another rustic, frontier-type tale which Stuart insists is not exaggerated but is a true picture of his region. The story is featured in the section entitled "Enjoying Humour" in the secondary school textbook, Adventures in Reading.
"The Champion" is included in Story, an anthology of "the fiction of the forties" which has appeared in that magazine. This anthology was published in 1949, with Whit and Hallie Burnett, the editors of Story, serving as editors of the collection. In this anthology, the editors, claim Jesse Stuart as "an early discovery of Story," since that magazine published his first story, "Battle Keaton Dies."
"The Champion" recounts the adventure of a notorious glutton when, as "eatin' champion" of Raccoon Creek, he is pitted against a game rooster in a private eating contest. The instigator of the contest says that he will give his rooster a grain of corn every time he gives one to the glutton, Sam Whiteapple. Sam accepts the challenge. His "nail-keg stummick" rebels, however, after he has swallowed what "'pears like . . . a bushel of shelled corn." Doc Hornbuckle is sent for; Sam is hauled away on a wagon to recuperate. The rooster walks away with his flock of hens.
"The Slipover Sweater" is among the numerous stories by Jesse Stuart which have been reprinted for their simplicity of style and of theme. The theme emphasizes a common human desire, the desire to own something equal to or better than that owned by another who is in competition with one. This Stuart story has an autobiographical flavor. The protagonist is a young high-school football player who wants a slipover sweater to give to his girl. The name of the boy is "Shan," a name often used by Stuart to represent himself in stories. Shan is very resentful of the fact that his girl is wearing a sweater that belongs to Roy Tomlinson, his rival. Working his way through school, Shan finds it difficult to meet daily expenses, and there is no money for such luxuries as the sweater. He broods about the matter, and finally gets up the courage to go to the town bank and ask for a ten-dollar loan. Since Shan is a football star, the banker lends him the money, after taking out twenty-five cents of the amount for interest. Shan gets the sweater. It is the only one in school with three stripes on the sleeve. Shan is elated when his girl friend Jo-Ann accepts his sweater and gives Roy Tomlinson's back. As time passes, however, he becomes despondent about repaying the ten dollars to the bank. Jo-Ann tires of him and humiliates him by returning his sweater to him publicly. A mountain girl, Grace, who has had a longing for Shan, comes to his aid and helps him to gather roots and herbs for selling, so that he can pay off his loan. The loan is repaid. Shan comes to recognize the difference between the loyal mountain girl and the fickle Jo-Ann. He knows that one day Grace will wear his slipover sweater. He dreams of building a house for himself and Grace on Seaton Ridge on the path that leads from her family's house to his.
The most poignant story in Clearing in the Sky is that from which the collection takes its title. Jesse Suart discusses this story in an article entitled "Backgrounds and Results of Regional Writing," which he wrote for The Peabody Reflector, the alumni magazine for George Peabody College for Teachers.
. . . I wrote an article, "Clearing in the Sky," which was a truthful account of my father and a garden he had hidden on a high hill top. It wouldn't go for an article, but an editor accepted it, didn't ask for a word to be changed, and published it as a short story. Since the publication of "Clearing in the Sky," it has been reprinted eight times. One of the reprints was in South Africa. The background was the center of our farm. The character in the story, one of the people on this earth I know best, is my father.
"Clearing in the Sky" combines two of Jesse Stuart's most beloved themes, the land and his father. His father had been told that he had a bad heart, that he would have to take it easy, that he probably would not live long. Instead of "taking it easy," Jesse's father, Mitch Stuart, had followed a secret desire, and had planted a garden on "new ground" on the highest point of their native mountain. He had been climbing up to his small secret clearing on the top of the mountain, in defiance of the doctors' orders, to find the fresh, fertile soil that he had tilled as a young man. One day, Mitch Stuart shows his "clearing in the sky" to his amazed son. He tries to explain about it:
. . . the doctors told me to sit still and take life easy. I couldn't do it. I had to work. I had to go back. I had to smell this rich loam again. This land is not like the land I had to build to grow alfalfa. This is real land. It's the land that God left. I had to come back and dig in it. I had to smell it, sift it through my fingers again. And I wanted to taste yams, tomatoes and potatoes grown in this land.
Jesse asks his father why he has so many paths coming from the flat up the steep second bluff. The father explains that the spring before, when the doctor had not given him a week to live, he had found that he could not climb the steep path. He had made a longer, easier path, then, so he would not have to do so much climbing. Then, as he got better, he made another, steeper path. He had continued this procedure, as the days went by. That was one way, he said, that he had had of knowing that he was getting better all the time!
The story ends with Jesse's following his father down the path that "wound this way and that, three times the length of the path we had climbed."
Jesse Stuart told the writer in the previously noted interview of March 27, 1953, that he enjoyed writing in the medium of the short story more than he did the writing in any other literary form, more even than the writing of poetry, his first love.
I just love to write a short story. I can get ideas for short stories and put them right down on paper. Then I wonder why I don't go on and work them into novels. But the novel is too much longer. I can't sustain the mood. I can sustain a single mood in a short story, but I can't in a novel. This was pointed out to me by a critic, J. Donald Adams, of The New York Times. When he wrote about Taps for Private Tussie, he said that he could tell when I had written half of the book, and when I wrote the other half. He said that he knew they were written at different periods, and he was right. There were two weeks between the the two periods, and, in that time, little things had happened, not serious things, but little things in my life that had caused me to change moods in my writing. Adams picked that out in my book.
When Jesse Stuart's fifth volume of short stories, Plowshare in Heaven, appeared in 1958, it seemed a happy omen to his public that the author had turned again to his favorite medium. The gusto and dramatic sweep, humor, realism, and tenderness displayed in this new collection was reminiscent of Stuart's younger days. Though some of the stories had been written in earlier days, others were new and seemed to signify an exuberant return to full, normal living for the man who had been so close to death as a result of the heart attack, in 1954, and who had fought his way back for two slow, agonizing years to a semblance of his former life.
Those years of recovery had produced The Year of My Rebirth, a quiet journal of Jesse Stuart's reawakening to the beauties of the world of Nature and of the life about him. Plowshare in Heaven swung Stuart back into the orbit of his youth when his rugged mountain sonnets and stories caught the attention of the American literary world and won for him, from a number of critics, the accolade of being a new and vital force on the native scene.
Though The New York Times reviewer Charles Lee Snyder stated that Stuart would add much more to his reputation by writing another novel as amusing as Taps for Private Tussie, he hailed the new short story collection for its wide range and its general artistry, particularly for the poetic style.
Mr. Stuart is a poet, and one of the secrets of his charm as a story-teller is a certain poetic touch in his description. Of the twenty-one tales in this collection, some deal with humorous or pathetic incidents in the lives of more or less ordinary hill people. Others deal in humorous or satirical fashion with odd and outlandish characters, rugged or ragged individuals from away back.
[NYTBR, September 21, 1958]
To Borden Deal, writing in the Saturday Review [September 20, 1958], Stuart's stories were "mountain magic." He wrote, "He [Stuart] has, from the beginning, worked in an artful simplicity that has the solid, enduring shape of legend."
"Walk in the Moon Shadows" is an example of this simplicity—a story, told in the first person from the viewpoint of a young boy (the young Stuart), centers about the pathetic loneliness of a mountain mother who takes her children for a walk in the moonlight to look for the ghosts of happier days as she is about to become a mother again. Atmospheric description throughout "Walk in the Moon Shadows" deepens the symbolic meaning of loneliness and the wonder and fear of the children for their mother's withdrawal into a world beyond their understanding, as she takes them over the mountain paths to the deserted cabin of her friends of former years.
There were a few dim stars in the sky but over the meadows, down where there were long moon shadows from the tall trees, thousands of lightning bugs lighted their ways, going here, there, and nowhere. Upon Press Moore's high hill where Pa had found a wild bee tree, and cut his initial on the bark, a whippoorwill began singing a lonesome song.
The whippoorwills' lonesome songs on the ridges, and the falling apple blossoms from the trees which encircle the old house form an imagery of death in the young boy's mind. He is frightened, and wishes to return home. There is no moon as the little party trudges back, after Mom has given up her vigil by the haunted house. It is dark, and the boy trembles with relief as his father, who has skeptically refused to go on the moonlight expedition, comes up the path to meet them and accompany them home. There is no plot here, only an incident related from the childhood memory of the narrator, an incident in which the protagonist, the mother, shows a primordial yearning for happiness and for assurance as her time of trial and of danger approaches. It is of interest in the study of Stuart to note that this story has a universality which caused it to be selected for featuring over the Danish Radio Network. It was read to a nationwide audience on Sunday, November 27, 1960, by Karin Nellemose, actress of the Royal Danish Theatre.
"Alec's Cabin" in Plowshare in Heaven has the same theme of loneliness as that of "Walk in the Moon Shadows." It portrays an individual who clings doggedly to a symbol of happier days, then destroys it when he leaves for new scenes.
Among stories to which Borden Deal gave special mention, along with those of serious mood, was "The Devil and Television," a story in a different vein. He noted its "funny and touching" conflict between the old Kentucky and the new.
Indeed, this story may be cited as an example of Stuart's realism in pointing up the changing attitudes of his region toward encroachment of the modern world. The tale concerns a man's mental struggle when he is threatened with being "churched" for owning a television set. Stubbornly, he decides in favor of the devil and TV.
"Whatever the story," Deal concluded in his review, "Stuart's prose and his people remain."
Even in his most ribald and wildly exaggerated tales, as in "The Governor of Kentucky," in Head o' W-Hollow, the story of a busload of drunken hill men on a trip to Chicago, or as in "Death and Decision," in this later collection, in which there is a donnybrook between two factions in a funeral party following the burial of a relative, it seems that Jesse Stuart can convey a poetic undertone. There is a feeling of the compelling force of the hills, of the lonely landlocked lives which find an outlet in actions grotesque, pathetic, or beautiful, according to the personalities of the protagonists.
Often it seems, however, that Jesse Stuart is overly preoccupied with the grotesque, the weird and distasteful in life, and seems to derive a sadistic pleasure in lending an eye to unsparing realistic detail that is like "the wielding of an axe"—in centering his readers' attention on the ugly, instead of on the beautiful. This would seem to represent a dichotomy in the writer who is most often acclaimed for the air of optimism and of poetic beauty in his writing, yet it is really his way of accentuating the juxtaposition of good and evil in life.
In Head o' W-Hollow one of the most painful stories in the reading is "Sunday Afternoon Hanging," recalling "Another Hanging," of an earlier volume. The description of the event is bruising, told in the rugged vernacular of the frontier, yet there is dramatic poetry, an epic-like quality, in the narrative of this early Kentucky pastime of a people who sought amusement in such a way because of the restricted choice of diversions in the isolation of their lives.
A classic in the category of the grotesque is "Sylvania Is Dead," which is included in Plowshare in Heaven. This unbelievably weird tale is a story from life, as most of his stories are, Mr. Stuart insists.
"Yes, 'Sylvania Is Dead' is based on facts," he wrote in a letter from Cairo, Egypt, dated June 5, 1961, in answer to the writer's query. "The story came from Hancock County in East Tennessee. Many people there will know about this story—which is quite a story. I wrote it in college."
Outlandish to the point of hyperbole, both in selection of subject and in descriptive details, the account of the life, death, and attendant difficulties of the burial of a 650-pound female bootlegger has an artistic unity for which Jesse Stuart has been commended by such previously noted critics as Robert Penn Warren and Edward J. O'Brien. With careful craftsmanship, Stuart approached the architectonics of his story with the selection of a name for his protagonist.
"Sylvania" is the incongruous poetic name evoking visions of willowy, ethereal heroine, which he gives to the mountain of flesh who is his central character. Having selected the name, he chooses the most dramatic title for the story, giving it the "spoken," the oral, flavor—not "Sylvania's Death," or "Sylvania's Burial," but "Sylvania Is Dead."
This sets the tone, and, from the first line, when Bert Pratt says, "it's too bad about Sylvania," as he pulls himself up another step of the mountain incline by catching a sassafras sprout, on his way with his fellow mourners to dig the bootlegger's grave, the story moves forward with dramatic pace, in the dialogue of the men, as well as in the concise but vivid account of the action. Sylvania had long enjoyed immunity from the law because officers could not drag the 650 pounds of her through the doorway of her house. She had spent all of her life, from the days of her young girlhood, in the house. To move her out would have meant tearing down the house, so her parents moved out, instead, when Sylvania married, leaving the house to the newlyweds. In the vein of incongruity, Stuart naturally makes Sylvia's husband "Skinny," a hundred-pound man who speaks with a pathetic formality of "my wife" at her burial.
As in all Stuart stories, the human action is given a harmonizing backdrop by the elements. Nature is in sympathy and takes a symbolic part in the events, as in the scene when the men are climbing the mountain towards the house of the deceased:
September was here and the leaves were falling from the oaks and beeches. The backbone of the mountain was gray and hard as the bleached bone of a carcass. The buzzards floated in high circles and craned their necks.
The men reminisce about Sylvania, whose heart was as big as her frame, who would trade moonshine for pistols, butter, turnips, corn meal, or almost any commodity the men had on hand if they did not have money. Now, they are increasingly disturbed by the buzzards which swoop low toward the death shack. Lonnie shoots into the swarm of scavengers. This brings Skinny out of the shack in hysterical protest against "the boys'" bad manners, yelling to them, "Shooting around here, and my wife a corpse!"
Crestfallen, the men explain that they are trying to scatter the buzzards. They proceed to the spot where they are to dig the graves, and again Nature plays an active part:
The lazy wind blew over the mountaintop. Leaves swarmed in the wind. Leaves fell into the grave the men were digging for Sylvania. Buzzards flew above the shack while Flora Fitch and Vie Bostick worked in the shack and prepared Sylvania for burial.
The grave is dug, but there is the problem of getting Sylvania out of the shack. In a quandary, the men consider taking up the floor. But this might cause "disturbances," and they didn't want "no disturbances" attributed to Sylvania, because "Sylvania's been a mother to all of us." Skinny might want "to jump the broom again," and he wouldn't want his first wife buried under the floor, they reason.
The expression "jump the broom," for "get married" is a colorful colloquialism which occurs throughout Stuart's writing. Stuart does not strive to be picturesque or intentionally regional, but he uses words and phrases to which he, as a man of his region, is accustomed in his simple, unaffected American-English. Thus his diction fits theme and tone of his subject matter, that of men living close to the soil whether in devout, superstitious or in crude and boisterous mood.
In these passages, some might question Jesse Stuart's use of the word "disturbance," along with his colloquialisms. Is it not "unnatural" to use the formal with the colloquial in this man's speech? Is such a word current in the ordinary conversation of the region and time? Would not the hill man have said "ruckus" or "trouble"? Certainly there were formal words used naturally in the hills as quaint relics of Chaucerian English or of seventeenth-century English, such as the word "oddling" for one who was different. But use of "disturbance" here and of "replenish" in the following sentence invites questioning. "All they [the revenuers] could do was pour out a barrel of good licker. It wasn't no time until Sylvania had the barrel replenished and we were going back again."
For another example of what might appear to be inattention to diction, there is this passage: "There never was a better woman than Sylvania. When she sold you a gallon of moonshine you got a gallon of unadulterated moonshine and not two quarts of moonshine with a quart of water and a quart of carbide all stirred up well and shook before drinking. I don't know what we'll do without her. We won't have no market fer our corn."
Would not the man of the region who said "stirred up well and shook," and "we won't have no market," have said "pure moonshine," instead of "unadulterated moonshine"? Is this a fault of diction, as some critic unfamiliar with the hill people might infer, or an instance of carelessness toward detail of treatment which, now and then, one finds in Stuart's works? At times, Jesse Stuart is reluctant to reread and revise his work after setting it down on paper when he is in the grip of mood. He is a spontaneous writer and an impatient editor of his own works. In this, he is closely allied in temperament to Thomas Wolfe.
The problem of getting Sylvania out of the shack is solved when it is decided to tear down the chimney which almost covers one end of the house. Placed in her coffin at last with great difficulty, Sylvania has an almost lifelike domination of the scene, as Skinny announces to the men her legacy to them: "It was my wife's dyin' request that she didn't have her funeral preached, nor no songs sung. . . . See that barrel over there! It's the last my wife made. It's all fer you, boys. There's the dipper over there. What you can't finish today you can finish Monday when you come back to hep me make my new chimney."
The "boys" gather around the barrel, and begin to carry out the dying request with alacrity. They look at Sylvania and weep.
"Just a lot of drunk men crying," is Rodney's tart observation in a short while, saying that they should have had the "licker" last. But Skinny says he is "conducting" the funeral, and he is doing what Sylvania requested.
Before the men are past walking, Bert, who has charge of the actual burying, gets them under way. Fourteen men lift the black-oak coffin and inch slowly out of the open end of the house where the chimney had been.
"Just like picking up a house with the family in it," Rodney groans, as they make their way laboriously to the pine tree under which Sylvania is to be buried. Here again is an example of Stuart's very apt and homely similes.
The funeral fervor, characteristic of the hills, is evidenced in Skinny's hysterical scream, "I wish I was planted by 'er side!" Piety ingrained in these rough men, even in their inebriated state, is shown by Bert's words, "May God rest Sylvania's soul" after she has been lowered into her grave.
The conversation of the men during the process of the lowering of the coffin is staccato and graphic, like dramatic dialogue, as it forwards the action. Stuart is particularly adept at this stark, Greek-like technique of using sparse description in favor of de-development of theme by use of powerful dialogue, thus bringing a strong sense of reality through few words. In this, and in numerous other short stories, his treatment of narrative may be likened to Faulkner's taut, dramatic style in As I Lay Dying, as contrasted with Faulkner's usual convoluted, rhetorical and obscurantistic style.
In "Sylvania Is Dead" alternation between present and past is skillfully integrated—the present, constituting the action of getting the corpse of Sylvania from the house and burying it; the past, in the men's recollecting of Sylvania's role in their lives, and in their alcoholic celebration at her funeral, for which Sylvania, in character, her generosity following her to the grave, has provided.
The focus which Stuart maintains in this story is sharp and clear. Sylvania's character and personality dominate throughout, and the exaggerated dignity with which the bootlegger is treated in death, as though she were a leading citizen, is beneath its surface satire, indicative of a deep Stuart belief. Sylvania was one of Nature's freaks, but she had her place in life. She built a niche of immortality for herself in the heart of her husband and in the affections of her moonshine customers. The tone maintains the exaggerated, bizarre effect, yet underlying it is a tenderness of perception which is characteristically Stuart, in his belief that each individual, no matter how grotesque or useless in the eyes of the world, may still develop an innate dignity to give life meaning, no matter how small the periphery of influence.
In the category of the grotesque, "Zeke Hammertight" takes its place beside "Sylvania Is Dead," though its theme of violence differs drastically from the baroque note of sympathy interweaving theme and treatment of Sylvania's story.
Charles Snyder of The New York Times took special note of Zeke Hammertight as an "odd and outlandish character, patriarch of a pestiferous, prolific and pesky clan," who is shanghaied out of the way by his neighbors in a frighteningly brutal manner.
There is no tenderness of tone here. The subject matter, as in that of Taps for Private Tussie, is of a shiftless tribe of people who refuse to work, and who overrun the hills like the sassafras sprouts, leaving their destructive mark on everything they touch. The Hammertights, especially crazy old Zeke Hammertight, should be killed out, just like the sassafras, in the opinion of the other hill people. Objectively, in relentless detail, Stuart recounts the carrying out of the brutal plan for the elimination of old Zeke. He tells the story from the point of view of a young man who is a member of the posse that brings Zeke in. But there is nothing of the subjective Stuart in that youth. He is selected as narrator to point up the unwitting callousness of the hill mob which pursues its murderous objective with a sinister delight.
"The crazy, damned Hammertights and the sassafras sprouts are taking this country. They are taking Kentucky," is the flat statement of Cousin Milt, who has been the object of Zeke's hallucination that someone is "pizenin"' his cattle. Zeke, at least, "crazy as a bedbug," a useless member of the hill society, should be eliminated.
Milt enlists the unwilling aid of the sheriff, who in his election had bought the Hammertight vote from old Zeke for forty dollars. A posse is organized to clean out the hills of the Hammertights, beginning with bringing in the crazy head of the family. Around the barn in which Zeke has hidden himself, upon receiving the "noration" of the news via the mysterious hill grapevine, there is a whole ring of Hammertights, armed with gooseneck hoes, briar scythes, broadaxes, apple-butter stirs, clubs, and rocks. But they scatter into the brush when the sheriff's reinforcements storm the barn with their double-barreled shotguns, members of the posse screaming with glee as they charge up the hill after them. In the words of the narrator, "Whooppee! Whooppee! . . . We are after the Hammer-tights."
Old Zeke is pulled out, "a-spitting and biting and fighting," and thrown into a big hog crate, and the men bring him triumphantly into town. "You ought to see us going to Greenbriar. Like a big bunch of men been to the hills and caught a bear. Just that away: a long line of men behind the wagon and Sheriff Watkins up front, just riding as big with the bloodhounds with broken noses strapped to the saddle."
Although this story is told objectively, two moralizing passages enter in. There is the sheriff's statement: "He's not safe among civilized people. . . . He'll know where he is when he wakes up in the asylum. He's lucky to get there. All this expense on the county taking him over there. W'y he's not any more good. He ought to be left out there among the sassafras sprouts. Out there for the crows and the buzzards. Making us fight the Battle o' Bunker Hill over again to get him."
And, in a rhythmic concluding paragraph, typical of Stuart prose, which might often be free verse, there is the moralization which reflects the feeling of the author as a man of Nature, who thinks that Zeke should have been left to run free-crazy or not. "Maybe the hills know we got old Zeke Hammertight. Maybe the eternal rocks of Kentucky know it and the lizard knows about it. The sassafras sprouts know that we got him. Like the buzzard, the crow, the lizard, the snake, old Zeke would love to get out of that hog crate and run wild over the hills that have produced him and his generations thick as the hair on a dog's back, thick as the sassafras sprouts on a Kentucky poor-clay bank and under the Kentucky wind, and sun, and moon and stars."
This is one of the rare instances in which the moral is stated in a Stuart story. Zeke Hammertight has been hunted by his neighbors, with intent to murder him, has been caught and caged like a wild animal. Even though contemptuous of the shiftless Hammertights, Stuart states his disapproval of the brutality shown, a disapproval that would encompass all forcing of the wild from their habitats.
Though it would be sheer loss to the reader to eliminate this concluding paragraph, with its poetic strength, it would seem to be in the interest of artistic unity to do so, for it weakens the effectiveness of the story as an unrelieved picture of naturalism. It is not artistically acceptable for the author to intrude at the end of the story, when he has been consciously out of it throughout the narration. He should maintain objectivity to the finish.
The author has shown in the story that the world of Nature is aware of what is taking place. As usual, Jesse Stuart gives the elements and birds and beasts a part in the action: "The wind lap-laps the poplar leaves about our heads. It is a lazy wind. The sun is hot and the lizards are sleepy on the rocks. They lift their heads when a green fly passes over and swallow the flies like a toad frog catching yellow jackets. The ground sparrows twitter in the seeding crab grass. The voices of the men are lazy as the wind."
As the victim is pursued, there is this passage which foreshadows Nature's awareness of the outcome: "We take over the hill, down the path, across the rocks, the stumps, the fallen trees, Cousin Milt in front with the pistol in his hand. . . . Maybe the lizard is watching us, maybe the rocks that have seen men kill before and men go crazy. Rocks that have seen stories they've no tongues to tell."
Here is the cosmic touch, the suggestion of Nature's endurance and indulgence for the wickedness and foibles of mankind. This passage makes sufficient moral comment, and in an expressionistic way, renders superfluous the author's intrusive didacticism at the close of the story, his preachment against the hill men's way of solving their problem concerning Zeke Hammertight—and against any such solving of the geriatrics problem.
In Sunday Afternoon Hanging, the moral is unstated, and the single effect is thus more artistically attained—that of a cruel, unsparing naturalism that often may be shocking in the reading, for Jesse Stuart in this vein of objective savagery is not for the timid reader. The story shows an artistic unity in construction—a unity that is weakened in "Zeke Hammertight" by statement of the moral.
Three of Jesse Stuart's short stories deserve special mention for their treatment of the theme of the strong hill man beaten by the machine—the natural man in conflict with civilization, defeated in the end by the rise of industrialization. These stories are "Uncle Jeff," "Huey, the Engineer," and "Tim." "Uncle Jeff is the best known of these stories.
In "Uncle Jeff," the problem is stated in the beginning of the story: the uneducated versus the educated in life. Shan, who is young Jesse Stuart, asks his father, "What is the matter with Uncle Jeff?" Shan and his brother are walking with their father in the town of Ferton, West Virginia, on their way to the railroad hospital to see Uncle Jeff.
"He is a broke-down man," the father replies. "He is like I am. Look at me—I am a broke-down man. If you follow workin on a section long as your Uncle Jeff, then you would have one foot in the grave and the other ready to slide in, too. He's been on that Chatworth section for thirty-three years. Could have been a boss if he had the education. Can't read. Just like I am. Now you boys see that it pays to take education. I couldn't take it for there was none offered here in these Kentucky hills when I was a boy."
In the ensuing conversation, the father explains Uncle Jeff's condition, and the similes used are sharp and homespun. Jeff and eighteen other men on a motor car had been hit by a Big Sandy train in a fog. Uncle Jeff had leaped "like a frog," or he would have been dead like some of the others, when part of the motor car and several of the men "flew through the air and lit on them like a bird. Brother Jeff was knocked cold as a icicle." When he woke up, he was in this railroad hospital in West Virginia. He hadn't been able to work since. "He is like a horse too old to plow but has to pull the plow just the same. I am a horse too broke-down to pull the plow, but I have to pull it just the same."
The boys are planning to take Pa to his first picture show after they leave the hospital, so they are walking to the hospital, to save money, instead of riding on a street car. Shan describes in detail the peculiar clothing that they are wearing, old clothes that do not fit, except for the new overcoat that Shan himself has on. Pa wears a big gray overcoat that strikes him around the ankles. It is a coat that Shan found in an old house and gave to him, but Shan says, "I believe he [Pa] sorty thinks I stole it." Pa resents the way "these damn big-headed people" of West Virginia hold their heads in disdain above the Kentuckians. He would like to tell those people about the time when he was sixteen years old and worked in the mines in West Virginia, and the place where he boarded had so many bedbugs he had to leave. "I'd like to tell these people about the bedbugs they got in this state—more than any State in the Union."
When they get to the hospital, at the reception desk, a woman "who looks mean out of a pair of glasses" tells them that they can not see Jeff Powderjay. Pa is ready to make a scene, when the boys grab his arm and take him to see the hospital doctor. The doctor says that it is good they have come to see Jeff. "None of his kin have come to see him and he will not get back to Kentucky alive." Pa is fascinated by the doctor's soft hands, contrasts them with his own work-worn ones. This descriptive aside to the story illustrates Jesse Stuart's eye to detail in making his characters and incidents realistic.
Pa goes first into the hospital room, greets Jeff and asks if he knows him.
"Know you? What do you think I am? I'd know you in hell, Mick. You are boy number eleven, and I am number ten. Ain't that right. . . . And you come up to see me kick the bucket."
Uncle Jeff wants the boys to come over "and say goodbye and old-Satan-bless-you Uncle Jeff." He has been praying to die, to get out of that place. The nurse, "that big-tailed thing they got waitin' on me" is trying to kill him too soon, he says. God won't have him. He wants to go some place, so he has been "cussin and praying for the Devil to get me."
Here it is interesting to note that the Devil of the hill people is a real personality, as is the devil "Auld Nickieben," of Robert Burns, and is invested by the hill sinners, anyway, with human qualities of understanding and comradeship. The Devil will take in Uncle Jeff, the old man believes, since God would not have him.
While he is talking, Uncle Jeff has been holding tightly to Shan's hand. Shan does not like holding his uncle's hand.
"His hand is soft and warm and wrinkled like a thawedout black snake. His lips have fallen down at the corners, beard is over his face—a white and red-sandy beard. His eyes are the color of faded slate."
Uncle Jeff asks for a chew of Red-Horse. "Give me a chew of Red-Horse, and I'll give you a cup of water in hell," he pleads, and Pa, with tears in his eyes, says he will give him a chew, even if the doctor throws him out of the hospital. Jeff wants to go back to the Big Sandy and die, "back where Pap and Ma died." He insists that he is going back. The nurse comes in to run the visitors out, saying that it is time for the patient to take his medicine. Uncle Jeff refuses.
"No, by God."
The doctor comes in and Jeff is more tractable. The visitors say good-bye.
"You boys don't work on no goddamn railroad," Uncle Jeff says, as they leave, and Pa, in grief, tells his sons, "Brother Jeff is a goner."
There follows a description of Pa's first trip to a picture show, which the boys have maneuvered him into making with them, while they wait for the bus that will take them back to Kentucky. They arrive home, they do their chores by lantern light and by starlight on their small rented farm. Pa lectures his sons throughout on getting an education so that they can stay away from working on a railroad section, where "you get the least wages in the world and do the hardest work."
The story ends with the arrival of the telegram announcing Uncle Jeff's death, and Pa's catching "Number 8" to ride up to the Big Sandy country to oversee Jeff's burial. Shan understands that Uncle Jeff will be hauled on a wagon over an old woods road, overgrown with weeds and brush, to the spot by a little peach tree "near Ma," which is the place he has specified for his last resting place. "It will be where the green peach tree leaves and the pink peach tree blossoms were crumbled down last year. There will not be the sound of a train whistle back there."
Thus ending his narrative with pungent words and with calculated artistic effect, Jesse Stuart evokes the symbolism of the peace and quiet of the woods where the man of nature has found his reunion with earth, in contrast to the cruel life of the machine age represented by the railroad—a sharp lesson which he desired in the mind of the reader. He does this without pointing a moral. He does not add the final paragraph which weakens some of his stories by a statement of that which has already been achieved by selection of theme and of protagonist, by colorful, incisive imagery and diction and by taut, dramatic treatment. For its embodiment of all of these essentials for attaining artistic unity, "Uncle Jeff is rightfully considered a classic.
Its humor, which understates a larger theme of pathos, is typical of Jesse Stuart's attitude toward life, representing as it does a fatalistic acceptance of the triumph of industrialization, after salty individualism has gone down fighting. There are overtones of bitterness in the story for the poverty of men like "Uncle Jeff and "Pa," who lack an opportunity for acquiring an education, and who spend their lives in comparative slavery as a result. The note of social protest wherever it appears in Stuart's works is mainly concerned with this imbalance of educational opportunities, or, as in Taps for Private Tussie, with the government's paternalistic humoring of people who will not work but prefer to live on "relief."
Sharply opposed in tone to "Uncle Jeff is a more recent story, evidencing Stuart's ability to turn easily from bawdy humor to poetic quietness.
"Angel in the Pasture," published in the June 1959 issue of Esquire, is a perspicuous example of Jesse Stuart's sublimity of mind, as reflected in his writings, following his miraculous recovery from the heart attack which almost claimed his life.
Labeled a short story in the magazine, "Angel in the Pasture" is hardly more than a vignette of a mood. It is a dream sequence, an hallucination experienced under an oxygen tent, which might well have been taken from The Year of My Rebirth, Stuart's journal of his recovery and of his reunion with the natural world.
If "Angel in the Pasture" is a short story, it is a "short short," the briefest of Stuart's stones. Yet the insight which it gives into Jesse Stuart's thinking, his approach to life in his mature years, gives this story a real significance. It is important, also, as an example of the restrained style which is in marked contrast to the rugged "slice of life" style characteristic of Stuart's earlier works. Here experience is interpreted subjectively through the imagination of the writer and becomes a strong poetic expression through evocation of mood.
The theme of nostalgia, which embodies two time levels, the past and the present, and points up the ephemeral quality of life, is set in the opening paragraph: "Shan slowly closed his eyes and entered a beautiful world long past, with sun he could not hold in the sky, flowers he could not keep fresh on their stems and sumac leaves he could not keep from going into an autumn season, coloring and dying and blowing hither and thither in the autumn winds of 1916."
The imagery is of a bright, sunlit world, the world of a nine-year-old boy, sent to find a cow in a pasture, as contrasted with the present world of gloom under an oxygen tent—"death-colored" (to use one of Stuart's favorite descriptive terms)—when the leaves of spring have darkened into autumn colors and are being scattered by autumn winds to their resting place on earth.
The young boy dawdles at his task, while he is alive to the natural world about him, seeing birds, animals, flowers, and trees through the perspective of the embryo poet. He goes first to the hollow where the tall beeches grow, to watch the squirrels return from their early morning breakfast and play on the big, leafy branches of the trees where they have their holes. He watches the sudden flight of a pheasant which he has startled from a cluster of saw briers at his feet. He listens to young hawks and crows as they are fed in their nests, and visits again the nest of an old hummingbird which he had long tried to catch, "but he'd always fly off and whistle through the air like a bullet. Like the whine of a .22 rifle."
This simile of the bird's take-off as sounding like the whine of a bullet is an excellent example of Stuart's objective: always to find the exact descriptive words—as was the objective of the Imagist poets—to bring the sharp image, or correlative, which was in the mind of the writer, to the mind of the reader.
Similar sharp similes are to be found in this story:
There were dewdrops on the pine-tree needles. These dewdrops weighted them like little lumps of polished silver until the sun lifted them skyward in white ribbons of mist. There were dewdrops on the red-tinted sandbrier leaves, on the hard stems of the sand briers, on the milkweed and silkweed leaves that were shaped like stiff hogs' ears, only they were green. And the bright wind above him was filled with streamers of mists.
Although only those familiar with farm life might appreciate the homely simile of the milkweed leaves as being "like stiff hogs' ears," any reader with vision can see the dewdrops on the pine-tree needles as "little lumps of polished silver" and the metaphoric "streamers" with which the mist laces the bright wind.
As stated, the name which Jesse Stuart gives to himself in much of his fictional writing is "Shan." Here we are in sympathy with young Shan as his revery is interrupted by the arrival of his mother in the pasture to speed up his search for Gypsy, the cow, so that she can milk her under the big white oak.
He wouldn't have time now, since his mother had come, to talk to the birds, squirrels, hawks and crows, and pretend he was a brother to them, he didn't have a brother and he talked to everything when he was out in the woods alone. . . . He wanted to be among the good wind, songs of the birds, beauty of flowers, leaf and brier forever.
If only I could command the sun to stop where it is in the sky and hold all the white mists where they are in the air, Shan thought. If I could only keep the birds singing like they are singing now, and keep the soft, warm June winds blowing. If I could keep the pasture daisies as white and the wild roses as pink as they are now. If I could keep the saw briers in clusters with red-tinted leaves and the little pines and sumacs the same size as they are now. If I could make this pasture and this world and time stand still I'd do it!
This wish for the immutability of time is followed by Shan's description of his mother, with more apt similes, as she suddenly appears before him in the pasture, "five feet eleven inches tall," her hair "black as the crows' wings," her eyes, "grey as the bark on the poplar tree" and her teeth "white as daisy petals."
Again, the similes come from Nature, from the world close to the soil which is Jesse Stuart's individual world, as it is the universal world. Again, in the wish for time to talk as to a brother with the birds, animals, flowers and trees, and to hold them forever in that perfect moment of communion, there is the strong feeling of transcendentalism which is evidenced throughout the life and works of Jesse Stuart.
But time will not hold still. Shan has found Gypsy under the sweet-apple tree, and he stretches out dreamily on the ground, to observe sky and earth, in close harmony with his mother, his "angel" in the pasture, as she milks Gypsy. But into his fantasy of an unchanging world steals the realization that he cannot keep it, this perfect world, from its degeneration and death.
He couldn't keep the pine seedlings from growing into saw-log timber. He couldn't stay the hunters' guns from pheasants, crows, hawks and squirrels. He couldn't hold the wild rose and the blooming daisy beyond their seasons. He couldn't keep the young spring wind blowing over him. He suddenly wanted his mother to finish milking. He listened to hear her say, "Shan, let's be goin'." For he was waking from this dream world he couldn't hold into a world of reality.
Instead of a warm, June wind and green leaves above him there was a clear, cool tent. That wasn't his mother standing there. It was a nurse. Reality. His mother no longer milked Gypsy under the white oak. She rested at Plum Grove. This wasn't 1916. This was 1956. Dream world or real world, there was one thing he was certain of: he had been with an angel in that pasture.
Despite the banality of the closing sentence, "Angel in the Pasture" remains a clear example of beauty of language and thought, of atmospheric feeling and of psychological depth. It is scarcely more than an etching, yet it is deserving of a unique place among the hundreds of Stuart short stories.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 205
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 Appalachians." Kansas Quarterly 2, No. 2 (Spring 1970): 66-72.
Offers a stylistic and thematic analysis of Stuart's short fiction.
——. "Jesse Stuart's Way with Short Fiction." Kansas Quarterly 9, No. 2 (Spring 1977): 21-9.
Contends that the body of Stuart's work, "of which the short stories are the finest portion, represents the most significant work of any Appalachian writer."
Patrick, Nancy. "A Delineation of Folklore Elements in Jesse Stuart's Tales from the Plum Grove Hills." Jack London Newsletter XIII, No. 2 (May-August 1980): 66-71.
Outlines the different types of folklore found in the stories comprising Tales from the Plum Grove Hills.
Additional coverage of Stuart's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 112; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 31; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 8, 11, 14, 34; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 9, 48, 102; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1984; and Something about the Author, Vols. 2, 36.
Mary Washington Clarke (essay date 1968)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11389
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 gatherings in the social life and in the personal relationships of the people. Stuart's vivid descriptions of the highly emotional scenes of a hill revival, a spring baptizing, a footwashing, an Association, a funeralizing, and other religious meetings have communicated the hill man's concepts of Heaven, Hell, God, the Devil, sin, and living by the Word, with each detail concretely envisioned. Here, as in other phases of hill life, Stuart's use of folk speech has provided the outsider with a key to help him understand the concepts, attitudes, and conduct of the of hill people.
The Good Book, the Holy Bible, was often the only book a hill family owned, and the reverence that even illiterate people felt for it was closely akin to magic. Stuart recalled of his early childhood: "We had only one book in our shack. That was the Bible." The Word could refer to the Bible, to God, or to a call to preach (got the Word). The Bible was the one book which the hill people considered worth reading; and they were thoroughly convinced—many of them—that its meaning would be divinely revealed to true believers: "Don't have to go to school. . . . Just have the faith and open the Word and read." The preachers in Stuart's stories, like their real life counterparts, have consequently quoted and misquoted the Bible in support of farfetched notions of right and wrong and to explain very peculiar conduct. When a hill man said, "Don't it say in the Word," he was not asking a question but making a confident assertion, no matter how bizarre his thinking may have seemed to an outsider. The Word, based on the Scriptures or distorted from the Bible passages, was the key expression to hill religion.
When the Tussies gained the prosperity of Kim's $10,000 government insurance, Grandma made a remark that illustrated a typically grotesque application of Biblical language to everyday living and the hill tendency to interweave religion and folklore: "Money's like manna from heaven. . . . I've always dreamed of finding a pot of gold where a shootin' star fell. . . . This is the pot of gold I've always looked for!" Grandma could foresee that the Tussies' riches would bring relatives down upon them like locusts in their seasons to eat up the trees. Uncle George Tussie, one of the locusts, was sure that he had Scriptural basis for thinking that Vittie, Kim's widow, would get her reward in Heaven for the way she was using her dead husband's insurance money: "I was given plenty to eat, a good bed to sleep in, and today you clothed me. Ain't there something in the Word about clothin' a man?" When the owner of the big Rayburn house gave the eviction notice, Grandpa Tussie was even more certain that he had Biblical support for his advice to the forty-six Tussies who had come to live with him: "That's what the Word tells us. Dance and be merry for tomorrow you may die." He accepted the supposed death of his son and the loss of his old-age pension with fortitude: Man born of woman is full of trouble; and every man must have his Judas. Grandma distorted the Biblical proverb only a little in reference to Vittie's marriage to Uncle George: Give 'em the wind. That is what they've sown, and the wind's what they'll reap. Not for the primitive Tussies, but in reference to his own energetic family was Stuart's mention of the ancient fable of the ant and the grasshopper: Go, thou sluggard, like the ant and be wise.
The lusting of the flesh led some hill men to know a woman before marriage, but most of them felt that once they had married they should not put asunder what God hadjined together. When a logger killed his rival logger for committing adultery with his wife, the murderer went free in court; but the relatives of the dead man pointed out the sign on the courthouse: God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap. They were threatening him with the stern mountain code that called for an eye for an eye, a man for a man. Ronnie, who had "two livin' wives right down there together" was a-livin' in adult'ry, for which he was much at fault in the eyes of the Lord. When Brother Fain Groan tried to show his faith in the Word by resurrecting his dead wife, even his Disciples felt doubtful about carrying husbandly affection so far: "It is against the Word to prank with the dead. Don't the Word say, 'Let the dead rest. Bury the dead and let them rest'?" Phoeby's husband Dave took a more usual attitude when he submitted stoically and said over her coffin, with characteristic mountain fatalism, Thy will be done.
Unexpected associations of Biblical terminology with details of hill life have sometimes shown evidence of the hill man's straight-faced humor, but even then have indicated the far-reaching influences of the Bible on hill speech and thought: a reference to Kentucky hill Republicans as the Lost Tribe of Israel, a revenue officer's badge as the Mark o'the Beast, a clever trader as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Less intentional on the part of the illiterate hill preacher than on the part of Jesse Stuart was the humor of a somewhat jumbled funeral tribute to soldier Kim Tussie: "Like David of old, who slew the Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, Kim barked our enemies with his rifle. I know that Kim has entered the pearly gates of Heaven!" The context was hardly that of the original when Arn Sparks consoled her son whose hound dog had been poisoned, Don 't let your heart be troubled. Old Op, annoyed at his city visitor's disbelief in ghosts, asked him indignantly, "Don't the speret leave the body atter we wear out these old clay temples of ourn? . . . Don't ye believe in the Good Book?" More literally perhaps than Enoch of old, the Stuart children, on their way to school and Sunday school, walked with God—"What did we care about the bull in Wheeler's pasture?"
The love of nature has prompted Stuart's repeated use of the Bible verse, the Heavens declare the glory of God. In various contexts he has also repeatedly referred to man's bringing forth fruit in his season, and to Bible terms associated with death: when a person had lived his threescore years and ten (often Stuart refers to his fourscore years and ten) and had neared the end of his travail upon God's footstool, he confessed his sins before men and hoped to find his name written in the Lamb's Book of Life. All except the most wicked hill men looked forward to taking their places before the Throne of God where God would wipe away all tears, and there would be no hunger or thirst or any other troubles that had beset the person on earth. The book of Revelation has had a particular fascination for the hill people, and their interpretations have been fearfully and wonderfully concrete and literal. Yet never has this apocalyptic vision affected their trust in God's personal and benevolent concern for them, as expressed in Uncle John the Baptist's ringing song, His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me. Judge Allie Anderson's illegitimate son, Rufus Litteral, unclaimed until the supposed day of doom, also found great comfort in the Scriptures.
When a hill preacher got the Word, his belief that God had divinely called and inspired him to lead others in the paths of righteousness, most of the members of his congregations shared the attitude of the child Jesse Stuart, "I thought all the preacher said just had to be true." Some of them got the Word very suddenly, as did Brother Melvin P. Hankas. He got under conviction at one of Brother Peter Leadingham's revivals: ". . . the next day I was on a mowin' machine and I felt like I had a sunstroke. Right there me and my Lord got right, and He put his hand on my head and said, 'Preach.' I went to preachin' in three days." The real-life incident that inspired this story was a reiterated story in Brother Tobbie's sermons at Plum Grove. Stuart's mother told him during one of his college vacations: "Yes, he [Brother Tobbie] did go over that old story again about the Lord calling him to preach when he was a-cuttin' hay on that piece of ground back of the barn." An unlooked-for answer to a skeptic's prayer launched another hill man into the ministry. Silas Woodberry, amazed into conversion by the storm that washed out his milldam, prayed that God would help him to catch the drifting souls and give him the heaviest cross to bear. Hank Redfern also got the Word suddenly and began to preach. When the Reverend Adam Flint was preaching the funeral of a man who resembled Stuart's maternal grandfather, he spoke of boyhood visions in the cornfield and how he could suddenly read the Word, preach, and line out hymns from the Old Sweet Songster.
The illiteracy of the preachers and a widespread tendency to argue over doctrine and take pride in considering one's own interpretations direct messages from God himself led to unreasoning intolerance among denominations and to divisiveness within denominations. In "The Anglo-Saxons of Auxierville" Stuart was being more truthful than facetious when he wrote: "Their spirits will leave their temples of clay for one of the eight Baptist Heavens." Revivals with their supercharge of emotionalism did much to encourage the dogmatic attitude that the hill people took toward their chosen churches, each believing that only his church had the right kind of Faith and a promise of the Glory Land. Although Methodist, Holy Roller, Unknown Tongue, and certain other sects have found a place in Stuart's writings, as they have in hill religious life, his stories have reflected the overwhelming predominance of the Baptist doctrine in the region. His comic muse has been much in evidence in stories picturing the difficulties that Mountain Baptists have had in agreeing, or disagreeing, among themselves.
In "Love in the Spring" Elster's fourth-generation Methodist parents threatened to disown him if he yielded to his love in the spring and married that infidel, the Slab Baptis' girl Effie; but it was a knockout blow from her Slab Baptis ' boyfriend following his declaration that he "ain't no damned infidental" that sent Elster back home and into the Methodist fold. In "Weep No More My Lady" it was only because of her misunderstanding that the Mountain Baptist widow married a Free Will Baptist as her second husband. In "Three Hundred Acres of Elbow Room" Big Eif Porter insisted upon his son's norrating among his neighbors—especially the Free Willers—the news of his token that he was to change worlds that night at ten o'clock and urged them to be present so that they would know that the Forty-Gallon Baptists (the name Stuart has given one of the divisions of Mountain Baptists who approved of drinking mountain whisky) had the right kind of faith and the true religion. "Uncle John the Baptist" in the story of that title was just as thoroughly convinced that the Free Willers had the inside track to Heaven. Uncle Mel Shelton, who was considered by many to be an infidel standing in the way of many with his set idears on the Bible, inspired his nephew to have a vision of the afterlife:
If you could see all of us Republicans, Democrats, Methodists, Forty-Gallon Baptists, Hard-shelled Baptists, Free-will Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Regular Baptists, United Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Union Baptists, Independent Baptists—all of us out'n the graves a-shaking hands and asking the other how he is after the long night o'sleep . . . how great it all is. . . .
When Baptist and Methodist preachers stopped preaching holiness and the coming of the millennium and discouraged shouting and other such displays, some of the old-timers became uncomfortable and formed new sects, each stubbornly holding that its members were the only people right. Stuart has coined and often used as a blanket term for these sects that split off from the Baptist and Methodist churches the name the Church of the Old-Fashioned Faith. The rapid growth of such sects as the Church of God, Pilgrim Holiness, Church of the Nazarene, Pentecostal, and others during the depression years of the 1930s when Stuart was publishing his first books and stories unquestionably influenced his writings.
Stuart's portrayal of hill preachers has often leaned toward the extremes of corruptness and fanaticism, and he has been inclined to deal with the uniquely grotesque incidents rather than the typical; but he has also shown insight in his occasional incidents dealing with hill preachers who were sincere men of integrity and sympathetic concern for the hill people. In the former category were such men as the preacher the boy Jesse Stuart saw with a woman in the weeds by the creek bank. "He gave me twenty-five cents and . . . told me not to say anything about seeing him there." Brother Hammertight collected sinful jewelry from repentant sinners and sold it across the river in West Virginia, following the practice of corrupt churchmen since pre-Reformation days. Brother Tobbie, who committed suicide by putting a double-barreled shotgun to his temple, wasn 't nigh right with the Lord; Brother Fain Groan, who said of the ten virgins parable, "You know there was ten of them, don't you? And you know one of them was Virgin Mary, don't you?" was not typical in his ignorance nor in his fanatical faith—nor was he alone! It would not be difficult, however, in the 1960s to find preachers still haranguing against television, swimming, and women's clothing; people believing that a person who does not show emotion and shout and testify during a church service has not been born again.
Brother Osborne represented the better type of hill preacher:
He is the shepherd to the flock of hill people in Greenup Country. He preaches to them. He marries them. He preaches their funerals. He comes to their bed in time of sickness. He rides on horseback or walks. He goes to them in their time of need.
At the funeral of Mrs. Waters, the insane suicide, his words were gentle and compassionate—unlike the preaching of so many old-time preachers—full of God's love for his struggling people.
When the preachers' faults were born of ignorance and naïveté rather than of greed, lust, and deceit, Stuart has portrayed them as pathetic rather than evil. For example, the young girl snake-handler of the Unknown Tongue church was presented with almost idyllic sweetness in "Snake Teeth." Humor took the reins in "Red Jacket: The Knockin' Spirit," when Old Brother Peter Leadingham fell prey to prankster Judd Sluss. Brother Peter boasted: "God is just a common man. . . . God is about the size of Judd Sluss. . . . God smokes a pipe just like I do and the same brand of tobacco. . . . I'm the only skunk livin' that has seen his Saviour face to face."
In the Kentucky hills, unlike some of the highland communities, very few immigrant Catholics were attracted by the development of public works, and the preachers and members of their congregations alike were militantly Protestant. Stuart reflected this antipathy toward Roman Catholics in his account of a hitchhiking incident. The Catholic truck driver with whom he had ridden the night before had been invited along with Stuart to eat breakfast in a Kentucky mountain home, and the farmer's wife had offered him ham and gravy. "'No, madam. I don't eat meat on Friday. It is against my religion. I am a Catholic' Mrs. Tillman acted like she had been hit above the eye." In the course of the conversation Mr. Tillman felt impelled to knock the man down from the table. The next person to give Stuart a ride, upon hearing of the incident, expressed just as strong anti-Catholic feeling, saying meaningfully, "I'm a Klansman."
Most of the hill preachers and members of their congregations had a dual concept of God as a fearful physical presence and as a benevolent protector. The young Jesse Stuart thought of God as ready to "jump from behind a tree and hit me with a stick."
. . . Everybody there had the same picture of God. He was a strong man that rode the clouds. He saw through a tree. He took the good people home and sent the bad people to the Devil. God and the Devil were at war. They had many fights there at Plum Grove.
Granny Flaugherty's dream of Heaven with its harp-playing angels and a fatherly God on his Great Throne is one of many Stuart picture of God's benevolence. The details of this vision were impressed upon the young Stuart by Granny's much-repeated account of her visit there. Relatives, neighbors, and friends who had gone to Glory met her there with as warm a welcome as if she had been paying a neighborly visit in Kentucky. It seemed a most democratic place in which God smiled upon his sanctified followers. When the good old Soul died at ninety-three her neighbors felt sure she had become one of God's angels. Sister Combs of the Unknown Tongue faith preached in a hill revival: "What will you do in Heaven for whisky and terbacker? There will be no saloons there. There will be no spittoons there. You will not want to dirty the streets of gold with old black ambeer spit. You will not want to get drunk in Heaven." Young Sid, listening to the funeral sermon for his uncle Kim in Taps for Private Tussie, wonders about Brother Baggs' picture of Heaven: "I don't think that Heaven with golden streets and good people would suit Uncle Kim," rough, profane, hard-drinking, pistol-shooting mountain man that he had been on earth.
Big Eif Porter deviated a little further from the Scriptures when he hoped that Heaven would provide him with a "farm where I can work, and I hope they have winter, summer, springtime, and fall there just like we have here." He thought of death as "somethin' like a-goin' from my farm over to Wormwood's farm," and he hoped that his neighbors would "live on adjoining farms" in Heaven. He thought it might take "a hour to get up that long ladder a body's got to go up before he gets to Heaven." Old Peter Leadingham also thought of Heaven as quite near—just a mile or two above his head. The title Plowshare in Heaven (1958) suggests this tendency toward concreteness in religious concepts as a basic element in hill religion. As in certain traditional folk ballads, characters were unable—or unwilling—to distinguish between the flesh and the spirit. Phoeby in the title story "Plowshare in Heaven" saved money to buy a new dress, "the dress I want to wear in Heaven. . . . " Shan, the small boy in this story, doubted that Phoeby would be happy in Heaven as the Bible has described it.
It will not be home unless she can walk barefooted over the fields of growing corn and feel the soft earth beneath her feet; unless she can feel the handle of a hoe in her hand and smell the good clean wind of a Kentucky spring. . . .
The funeral songs of the mountain people, as Stuart has recorded them, have shown the deep need of hard-working men and women to think of Heaven as a place of eternal rest: "The Land Beyond the River," "Rock of Ages," "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," and "Where the Living Waters Flow":
There is a land of wondrous beauty
Where the "Living Waters" flow,
The word of God to all has said it
And it surely must be so.
No tears are there, no blighting sorrow
From the cruel hand of Death;
No flowers fade, no summers perish
By the winter's chilling breath.
I've loved ones there who passed before me,
They'll rejoice to see me come,
But best of all, I'll see my Saviour,
Who will bid me welcome home.
Other favorites have been "Amazing Grace," "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," "When Winter's Darkling Waves We'll Ferry O'er," "We'll Meet You in the Morning Over There," "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," and "The Sweet Bye and Bye."
The mountain man's visualizing of Hell and the Devil has been equally vivid. Anse Bushman, during his period of unconsciousness after a tree had fallen on him, saw himself in the lake of fire and brimstone trying to swim amid serpents and scorpions that wore the heads of his sinful earthly neighbors. Old Peter Leadingham's concept, however phony his vision in the beech grove, was of a fierce Devil carrying a pitchfork in his hand: "He has the horns of a two-year-old bull and he looks somethin' like a black cow walkin' on her hind feet." Old Op, too, had a tall-tale experience with the Devil. These stories, partaking of practical joking and folk tale, are extreme; but the picture of a physical devil in the image of man—but with horns, tail, and cloven hoof—was as widely held among the hill people of the past as was the anthropomorphic concept of God.
Literal, too, was the hill man's belief that the body would be resurrected in physical form on the Judgment Day. Uncle Mel Shelton in "This Is the Place" spoke for many:
"We shall be as we have been—have the same color of hair, shapes of noses, the same voice—We shall run with our old company—I expect to have my farm here and do the things as I have always done. How can that which is the real Mel Shelton die? . . . It was not born to die—only the husk that encloses it was born to die."
The belief in Christ's Second Coming in the clouds followed by the millennium, or thousand years of peace, that had been revived by European pietists from the beliefs of the early Christians has been the subject of much discussion among the highland population, particularly in time of war or the threat of war. It has lost ground in recent years, but only two decades ago events that took place one night in Blakesburg (Greenup) demonstrated conclusively that the concept of the Judgment Day was almost universal among the townspeople there as well as among the Red Necks, or country people.
An unusually brilliant showing of the aurora borealis on September 18 was mistaken for the end of the world, the end of time, the Judgment Day, Christ's coming on a cloud. This naïve interpretation of a natural phenomenon uncommon so far south inspired a whole gallery of portraits of frightened men and women in Stuart's Foretaste of Glory. People so visual-minded, whose very lives depended often on elemental nature, found it easy to explain natural phenomena and uneasy states of mind in terms of the supernatural. Some—not all—hill preachers and exhorters exploited this tendency to the full. The Reverend Mr. Whetstone, retired minister, could not get an audience when he tried to quiet the people with the scientific explanation. Sister Spence, assisted by exhorter Bert Edgwater in the courthouse square, pleaded: "This will be your last time to repent! Oh, why not be saved before it is too late! A home in Glory and the promise of eternal life is better than a-goin' to a Devil's hell to spend your eternity in fire and brimstone! . . ." As his fellow townsmen rushed about taking advantage of what they thought was a last chance to get right with God and man, the gravedigger Uncle Uglybird Skinner and Judge Allie Anderson down at his hogpen remarked uncertainly: The end of time comes in a twinkling. . . . Not even the angels in Heaven will know when it comes. The majority of characters in Foretaste of Glory, however, brought to the surface their innermost, and often guilty, secrets as they looked fearfully upon the signs in the skies; until they had fully confessed their sins, they felt unprepared to meet their Maker on the Day of Doom.
Mountain religion is full of contradictions. Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clarke has written in A History of Kentucky of the early pioneers as applying "a practical religious belief of foreordination to their daily lives." The passage continues:
. . . Nearly everyone believed that his fate was a sealed book and very philosophically accepted his hardships as God-sent. This belief is typical of people who live close to nature. Religion on the frontier was as rugged and hard as the virgin oak . . .
Even within his own family Stuart has recognized this fatalistic element in hill belief. But this does not in the least rule out an equally strong belief that each individual participated in his own salvation.
The Calvinistic, Puritan identification of hard work with the good life is a recurrent theme in Stuart's writings and an integral trait of mountain character. Grandpa in the story "Grandpa" states a widely held moral code and religious viewpoint in the following passage of conversation:
. . . I am the last leaf. I'm waitin' fer the Master's call. He will call me, too, when he wants me. I'll hear His call. I'll heed that call, fer I am ready. I've cheated no man. I've given away in my lifetime. I have come to the end without land or money. I've wronged no woman, killed no man, stole no chickens, I've cut as many saw logs and cleaned as much of briers and sprouts and trees as any man in Kentucky.
This feeling of a direct, personal relationship between God and man appears everywhere in Jesse Stuart's stories and autobiographies, and is attributed to many types of mountain men and women.
The Word, then, sometimes means the Bible and the good life based on the hill man's understanding or misunderstanding of the Bible; or it may be an illiterate hill preacher's prohibitions of wearing jewelry, using tobacco, dancing, or watching television. Living by the Word involves plenty of hard work, occasional wrestlings with the Devil, owing no man anything, and accepting whatever comes as the will of God, who put everyone and everything here for a purpose. Incredibly naïve at times, mountain religion is an intensely personal experience, inseparable from folk custom and the practical details of everyday living; and each sect is sure that its followers alone have the right kind of faith.
Almost everyone in the hills, no matter how wicked (weaked), intended someday to get right with God. In Stuart's accounts of mountain religious conversions humor, sympathetic insight, and critical comment are blended. He has focused attention especially on the spring revivals, which were often rightly called protracted meetings, for they sometimes lasted four and five weeks instead of the originally planned two weeks. Some church members backslid repeatedly during the long pent-up winters or during the hard summer work in crop time, and had to get right in their hearts year after year.
Conversion was due from the time one's accountability began at the age of twelve, but in some Stuart stories the lusty old figures of earth had passed their fourscore years and ten before they could bring themselves to give up worldly things. Battle Keaton, for example, was past eighty when he got saved and come across on the Lord's side at a protracted meeting in the schoolhouse on Hog Branch.
Getting saved followed a rather definite pattern, which might extend over hours, days, weeks, or even longer. As soon as the sinner got under conviction and went up to kneel at the mourners' bench, he began to wrestle with the devil in prayer. The praying continued until the burden was rolled away and he could bring himself to confess his sins before men. Usually his confession was followed by a trance-like state of exaltation proving to him and to all present that God had forgiven his sins. He was then ready to follow his Lord in baptism by immersion in the waters of Little Sandy at Put-Off Ford, and live on Jesus' side (on the Lord's side). Unless a person had committed the blackest sins or unless he himself felt impatience, the baptism was usually delayed until the big spring baptizing; but Stuart's parents' experience of being baptized in weather so cold that a hole had to be chopped in the ice was by no means unique. Only the fortunate few among the converts were righteous enough to achieve Second Blessing and Sanctification that made it impossible for them to sin thereafter.
The typical hill revival service was noisy and emotional, often with several preachers participating. Although it was the exception rather than the rule for preachers to wear long, flowing white robes, some of the young girl evangelists and a few of the more fanatical men preachers imitated the robes in the Sunday-school card pictures of Christ performing His earthly ministry. The meetings often took place in schoolhouses or church houses; but the largest and most exciting ones were held in the groves with the congregation sitting on split-log benches and lanterns hanging from the trees.
The loud harmonized hymn singing, sweet to mountain ears, sounded across the countryside, sometimes to organ or guitar accompaniment, sometimes lined out by a leader in churches that ruled out musical instruments and even tuning forks—but nevertheless loved to sing. The revival songs were widely diversified, including many of the old hymns familiar to Evangelical Protestants in the highlands and throughout the South, less familiar old-fashioned selections from the Old Sweet Songster and others of its type, and newer songs showing the influence of outland slang and jazz. The style of singing showed the influence of old-style ballad singing in the little grace notes and sharp intake of breath at the end of a phrase, and also the influence of the loud and lusty harmonies of the camp meeting. Stuart has included texts—and has mentioned many additional songs—in all three categories
After the spirited song service, several hours of preaching, exhorting, and praying were accompanied by shouting on the part of anyone in the congregation that the spirit moved to shout (no one, least of all the preacher, considered the Amens and Glory hallelujahs to be interruptions). The typical sermons concentrated on contrasting the horrors of Hell with the beauties of Heaven, with the former receiving by far the greater emphasis. Burning forever in the lake of fire and brimstone was pictured as the awful consequence of such mortal sins as the following: raising or smoking the filthy and evil weed tobacco—less frequently of drinking whisky; playing cards, going to cockfights, and otherwise gambling; stealing, even so much as a chicken; committing adultery; dancing to fiddle music, or playing it; wearing cosmetics and jewelry; attending movies, baseball games, and carnivals; women's wearing bathing suits, shorts, low-necked and sleeveless dresses; and, more recently, watching television.
When a repentant hill tobacco farmer went home from the revival service and cut his green tobacco by moonlight, some of his fellow church members were worldly enough to wonder how he would feed and clothe his family without the money from his crop. Some sons of pipe-smoking mountain women doubted Brother Toady Leadingham's preaching that a person had to change the color of his spit before he could go to Heaven, and accused the preacher of getting off'n the Gospel. One fiery old hill preacher kept a Scandal Board where he mounted the sinful objects—pipes, plugs of tobacco, rings, guns, knives, steel knucks, and even ten-dollar bills. Since mountain preachers and their listeners usually felt that it was wrong for them to take money for their preaching, the temptation was great to take the sinful objects across a state line and sell them. Brother Doubty, who preached just as vociferously against those evils, was greatly admired for his integrity in refusing all money. Whether or not they gave up their pleasures, the hill men usually agreed with the preacher that the foregoing things were sinful
Whatever the subject of his harangue, the preacher accompanied his shouted sermon with a good deal of near-acrobatic action, although Brother Hammertight may have carried it to a greater extreme than was usual:
Brother Hammertight is trying to climb the stovepipe. . . . He tears the whole works down. . . . He shouts on. . . . "There's the work of the Devil. See that terbacker up there. The old Devil has went out of this room by now. . . . We've got him on the run. Shout on, Brother, Amen, Sister. Shout on. Glory be to God."
Women breast-fed their babies to stop them from crying. Drunken, pistol-toting young men carvarted about and mocked at the choir as they parodied their song, "I would not be pop-eyed."
When the sinners began to squirm and feel the presence of the Devil right at their shoulders, it was time to give the invitation, which was the climax of every revival service. Stuart's accounts of the religious hysteria at Plum Grove and in the outdoor tabernacles of the Unknown Tongues are hardly less extreme than historical accounts of the Cane Ridge revivals of 1801. Stuart captured the spirit of a hill revival in Beyond Dark Hills:
There is great rejoicing in Heaven tonight. A sinner here at Plum Grove has repented. . . . Sing the last stanza of "Nearer, My God, to Thee!" O won't you come? The Lord and the Devil are waiting to see how this meeting is a-comin' out. That's right, sister. Come right up. Now don't be afraid. Others want to, but the Devil won't let them. The Lord is knocking at all their hearts. O won't you come? Praise the Lord they are coming. The Devil is going. . . .
The saved people tried by song and entreaty to get the sinners down front to the mourners' bench, reminding them that tomorrow's sun may never rise, this could be their last chance to accept God's promise of a home in Glory and everlasting life. And the choir sang Almost persuaded—but lost! The sinners writhed under their jolt-wagon loads of sin until they prayed through. The confession of a newly saved soul sometimes caused a less repentant sinner to leave the congregation, especially if he had been an accomplice in adultery. In one story Stuart tells of an exhorter of the old logging days who packed the sinners—even big lumberjacks, colliers, and ore diggers—down the aisle on his shoulder if they were too slow in going of their own accord. According to Old Op, their confessions were worth hearing. Sometimes the church bell rang out across the fields and hills in the early-morning hours to let the people know that the sinners had all pulled through.
The day after a revival or an especially successful Sunday-night service, the conversions would be the talk of the neighborhood:
"Well, Mrs. Fort came through last night. . . . She finally told the Lord what was the matter with her. She told him she had killed a lot of young babies. . . . When she said these words she began shouting." "I want to tell you Sy Mullins got religion last night. He's been trying for years. But he could never get right with the Lord. He told all he'd ever done last night. Since Hilder Kameen's wife died he confessed being with her down in the cornfield one time. He would never confess when she was living. . . ."
The big Spring Baptizing was a social event that drew people from a radius of five and six miles around. Converts who could afford to buy new clothes bought white dresses if they were young girls, flashy pants, silk shirts, and loud neckties if they were young men. The preacher and two strong men went out to measure the depth of the water with a light fence rail until they found a place free from snags and rocks where the water was the right depth. Meanwhile, the people made their wagons and buggies secure or hitched their mules and horses where they would not be in danger of sliding into the water.
The same baptizing seems to have inspired the detailed descriptions in Beyond Dark Hills and in "Braska Comes Through." When each person being baptized went down into the water, the choir sang "Shall We Gather at the River," and after he had been immersed the people sang "Where the Healing Waters Flow."
Sister Tister is the first to follow the preacher into the brown swirling water. It gathers up her clothes tight around her legs and body. When the water is close under her arms, they stand. He waves his hand for the choir on the bank to sing:
Yes, we shall gather at the river.
There the saints of our fathers trod,
Yes, we shall gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river
That flows by the throne of God.
There is a splash of water. Words have been said. Sister Tister is up and she is shouting. The two strong men keep her from running into the deep water or from hitting a snag. Women on the river bank are sobbing and shouting. She comes out of the river shouting. She shouts all over the bank. She goes down exhausted. She begins to jerk, lying stretched out in her wet clothes on the sand.
Some of the wet men and women went into the bushes to change their clothing, but others wore their clinging garments home, as the more modest way. Until the following year, there would not be another such baptizing.
Not all mountain churches practiced footwashing, not even all Mountain Baptist churches; but among those who practiced it, the ceremonial was significant and private. Stuart has given a detailed description of a footwashing in the short story "Love in the Spring," which he localized as taking place at Put-Off Ford in Little Sandy, scene of many baptizings. The Slab Baptists looked upon visitors from other denominations as the Devil in sheep's clothing, and did not hesitate to let the Plum Grove Methodist boy know that he was not welcome. Bitten by the love bug right above the heart when he saw Effie, the Slab Baptist girl, he stayed and watched:
. . . A whole row up and a whole row down. The row standing up was a-washing the feet of them on the ground. Just setting there on the ground as unconcerned and washing feet. Then they would sing another verse of "Where the Healing Waters Flow."
. . . Some man had his back to me. He was washing her foot. He had an old chipped washpan and a big towel and a bar of home-made soap made from oak-tree ashes. He'd put it on her foot till it would look pink as a wild crab-apple blossom.
Effie's Slab Baptist sweetheart glared at Elster: "Go on about your business . . . and leave us Baptis alone. This ain't no side show. We are here worshiping the Lord."
Uncle Uglybird in one of his stories of an earlier day at Six Hickories Church on Laurel Ridge referred to the big protracted meetings and the footwashings. In response to a question as to where the people got water to wash one another's feet, he replied:
Took lanterns and pine torches and went down to that sulphur spring under the hill in the beech grove. . . . There was a path worn over the hill to that spring in them days slick as the path to a groundhog hole.
As at so many of the hill gatherings, fights were not unusual at the footwashings. Stuart also has made other references to them, but the details seem to have been less familiar to him than those of the revival meetings and baptizings. In "A Yard of String" the narrator told of breaking his little finger in two places when he hit a fellow at a footwashing.
The Baptist Association held annually throughout the denomination had a particular social significance in the hill communities. Baptists from one or more counties met to report on the year's work and make plans for the coming year; they fellowshiped together, listened to budget reports and long sermons, ate much fried chicken, and gloried in being Baptists. In Trees of Heaven the mountain woman Fronnie told her neighbors at the molasses-making about attending the Big Baptist Association at Mountain Chapel—"about this Baptist preacher and that Baptist preacher and how long each preached and she can tell a few things that each said in his two-, three-, and four-hour sermons."
Probably the same event gave rise to the story "Uncle John, the Baptist," describing a Free Wilier Baptist Association that lasted three days at Mountain Chapel, while much trading went on nearby: "Just can't trade within two hundred yards of the preacher," Uncle John explained. The description of the scene at Mountain Chapel suggested similar meetings throughout the Southern mountains:
. . . We walk across the tradin' grounds to the head of a little stream. . . . People are sittin' under the trees on rocks, on the ground, on half-split logs. Down below them is a big platform built . . . five logs high and covered with a puncheon floor. Across this are logs split in two and held up by huge blocks of round trees. Men with long beards are settin' on these seats sayin' "Amen" to the "Word" Brother High is preachin'.
"Amen," says Uncle John, walkin' up to the platform. "Praise the Lord."
Uncle John . . . greets each brother while Brother High beats his fists together and preaches the "word." Uncle John sits down on a split log, claps his big hairy hands and pats his brogan shoes on the puncheon floor and sanctions all Brother High says.
Women and men passed baskets of good Baptist grub among the people as they listened to the long sermons. Later the preachers ate at a special table set for them under the beech trees.
Uncle John, whose son had accused him of going to the Association mainly to show off his new teeth, found the grub and the new teeth the cause of considerable suffering: he choked on a bit of meat and could swallow nothing until the eleventh day when he coughed up the offending particle and proclaimed loudly that he had whopped the Devil. (His family had feared that they would have to take him home in a wooden overcoat.)
To a greater extent, perhaps, than any other religious gathering in the hills, the Association was a get-together where saved people got happy and praised the Lord long and loudly. It tended more to emphasize the pleasures of being Baptists than to stress the awful threat of hell-fire and damnation to sinners. The Baptist preachers tried to outdo one another in courtesies to their colleagues as well as in the length of their sermons. The women gave an allout demonstration of their cooking and baking ability; and everyone fellowshiped in a spirit of the greatest generosity and mutual helpfulness.
A more frequent and popular church social was the basket dinner, or dinner on the grounds. When an all-day service made it practical, the women of the church prepared abundant food on Saturday for dinner on the church grounds preceding the evening preaching services. Like the pie socials, these were the scene of much laughing, talking, and courting among the young people—and, not infrequently, the scene of fights. The usual pattern when all ran smoothly was for the families to spread their picnic meal on the ground or for families to get together and share what their baskets contained, then for everyone to move about the churchyard and socialize, and finally go into the church house for the meeting.
Stuart has referred to basket dinners in several stories, but his only detailed account of one was much involved with a feud, and at least two families loaded their wounded into their wagons after bloody fighting and went home before the evening service. The story, nevertheless, illustrated the basic customs associated with the traditional hill basket dinner. Each family had brought abundant food, the best their larders afforded; each spread a tablecloth in the churchyard a slight distance from other families. The boys wearing their silk shirts and flashy ties hoped to catch us some girls. "Be a lot of good-lookin' girls there. Alius is at a basket dinner at the Gap Church."
The Dinguses feasted on
. . . dumplings, pickles, cake, pie, ham, fried chicken, apple preserves, plum preserves, apricots, apples, cornbread, biscuits, light-bread, jelly, Irish 'taters, sweet 'taters, squirrel, soup beans, green beans, leatherbritches beans, blackberry cobbler, raspberries, dewberries, strawberries, wild-plum jelly, wild-grape jelly. . . .
The older women usually exchanged news and gossip, and the men indulged in theological disputes as well as exchanging crop news. The women always hoped that no violence would take place, although it was not uncommon for members of certain families to attend the same small church for many years without speaking to one another, except in anger, as had the Dinguses and Bridgewaters of this story. Ma urged the Dinguses: ". . . Fill yourselves on good grub now and this evenin' we'll fill our hearts on the word of the Scriptures. Goin' to be some good preachin' in th' house this evenin'." A basket dinner was always a part of the Baptist Association, but other denominations also had basket dinners.
Equally exciting, but a more serious occasion, was the meeting in which a church member was threatened with excommunication, or in mountain speech churched. The exercising of strong disciplinary measures over the church members from seventeenth-century New England to modern times in certain churches has sometimes seemed harsh to those outside the church. By Stuart's time the regular monthly meeting of Baptists no longer took place (with all members present) to discipline those guilty of fighting, lying, and harmful gossip, stealing, adultery, horse racing, dishonest business dealings, and drunkenness; but in one or another of Stuart's stories every one of these sins has been dealt with. Frolicking and dancing, treating the church with contempt, and other ancient offenses have also received repeated mention in Stuart's writings. Not all offenses were serious enough to justify one's being churched', and, no matter how serious the offense, if the sinner repented with enough humility, the measure would serve as a purification rather than as a complete excommunication.
In Stuart's story "The Devil and Television" a man was churched for having a television set in his home. It might have occurred in this Church of the Old-Fashioned Faith for any of the other offenses mentioned in the following section of a sermon on "The Devil Has Many Faces":
The devil loves company and he is always with the crowd at these places of amusement. If he was there walking among these people they would run and scream. And God's Houses would be full and running over with people. But that's not the way the devil does things. He is a devil with many faces, visiting many places. And now the devil has the slickest way he has ever had of getting into the homes, homes of good people, religious people. He comes in this newfangled thing called television. I believe that's what it's called. I've never seen it. But these places of amusement, these singers and dancers and baseball players and wrestlers and women in shorts and low-necked dresses above the elbows are brought right inside the homes for the family to see. Brothers and Sisters, the devil has pulled a fast one.
Had Pa repented, as other backsliders had done, he would have fallen to his knees and prayed along with the Moderator and the congregation that his sins be forgiven, amid shouts of Glory and Amen. But Pa is a transitional figure and is not convinced of the sinfulness of his new diversion: "'Come, let's go to your church for a change,' Pa said. 'I'm not movin' my television set out of our home. And I'm still goin' on to church.'" The usual procedure was to warn the offender in advance of the trial; preach a sermon against the specific sin of which the offender had been accused; then call on the person to say "what he had to say for himself," giving him the opportunity to fall trembling to his knees; and finally to give the verdict, which in Pa's case would, of course, be excommunication. The story related that more than thirty of the sixty members of this group had been churched, but only Pa and one other had remained unrepentant. In "Weep No More, My Lady," Stuart attributed the practice of churching members for worldly pleasures (or the threat of doing so) to the Mountain Baptists, the purpose, of course, being to purify rather than to get rid of the member.
Whether a hill man had ever brought himself to the point of making a public confession of sin earlier in life and whether or not he had belonged to a religious body that practiced churching to keep its members on the straight-and-narrow path, he nearly always wanted to cut the last rotten speck out of this good apple when he felt the approach of death. The sins most often confessed on deathbeds were adultery, theft, and murder. Through dreams, the hearing of voices on the wind, or the visualizing of an embodiment of death, he seemed to know when the time had come for him to die. Only the rare exception was unconcerned in that extremity as to where he would spend eternity:
Where will you spend eternity?
The question comes to you and me!
Tell me, what shall your answer be?
Where will you spend eternity?
Leaving the straight-and-narrow way,
Going the downward road today,
Sad will their final ending be,
—Lost through a long eternity!
Lost through a long eternity!
Repent, believe this very hour,
Trust in the Saviour's grace and power,
Then will your joyous answer be
SAVED THROUGH A LONG ETERNITY!
Battle Keaton, for whom the song was sung, was counted among the blest; but not so fortunate, the hill people thought, were Annis Bealer and Old Harmon Manley who "died cussing the Lord." Old Man Slackburn, of course, was saved, for he "left the world a-clapping his hands and saying, 'Glory to God. They ain't no doubt now. I'm bound for the Promised Land. All you people meet me there.'"
Stuart's many stories and poems dealing with death and the folk beliefs and customs associated with it have reflected the hill man's continual awareness of its imminence and his acceptance of death with the same fatalism that he has accepted the hardships of life. Inseparable from folklore were the interpretations of birthmarks, tokens, heavenly visions, and the beliefs out of which the settin '-up and the funeralizing grew. The hill folk of the past would have associated all such matters with the one true religion of their Old-Fashioned Faith. Some of the customs relating to death and burial, like those in other phases of hill life, became dissociated from the beliefs out of which they developed and by Stuart's time were known simply as the way of the hills.
The behavior of family and neighbors at the time of a death in the Kentucky hills, as pictured in "Battle Keaton Dies," "300 Acres of Elbow Room," "Plowshare in Heaven," and "She Kept Her Distance," was typical of the culture. The death having been norrated around, neighbors came to wash, dress, and lay out the corpse (women if a woman had died, and men if the deceased were a man). Not often perhaps did these persons comment, as they did of old Battle Keaton, that the water they had washed him in was "damn black" when they emptied the washtub over the bank from the back porch.
As mentioned earlier, every effort was made to comply with deathbed requests as to the details of the funeral and burial. In "She Kept Her Distance," Effie Pratt felt honored by the dying Lommie Wilburn's request that Effie prepare her for her casket: "I want you to wash me clean and put new clothes on me. . . . I don't want an undertaker to touch me." (An ironic detail suggesting, as Stuart often does, the transition at work in his region, was the fact that Lommie's son was an undertaker.) Battle Keaton's daughter, over the protest of some of her friends, honored old Battle's request that he be buried in his long underwear and a blue work shirt. Many agreed that she was doing the right thing, even though the coffin the five men down in the barn were making of wild-cherry and oak planks had to be worked over, so that only part of the lid could be opened and his long white drawers would not show.
The coffins were often shaped to fit the body: "It was shaped like a guitar-box," Billy Auxier said of his mother's homemade coffin. The coffin might be of cedar, poplar, or any other well-seasoned lumber that was available. As they did for the beautiful orphan girl Fern, the women lined the coffin when the men brought it to the house. "The girls went down in the hollow and gathered wreaths of the blue sandflower, goldenrod, and farewell-to-summer," and laid them around the room in which the person laid a corpse. A typical settin '-up appears in "She Kept Her Distance":
People came by twos, tens, twenties. They came to sit up with the corpse. It was a custom here. They laughed and talked in the front room. They sang a hymn. They spoke of life. They spoke of crops to be planted. They did not talk about death. They kept the lamp burning low in the backroom with Lommie all night. . . .
In "Sittin' up with Grandma" and in "A Close Shave" the observance of this custom proved somewhat premature. Grandma returned from the dead; the man in "A Close Shave" who had been kicked by a mule could hear all that was said and see all that was done around him, but was unable to communicate the fact that he still lived until after he had been fully prepared for his coffin:
Neighbors . . . telling her what a fine man and a good neighbor I'd been all my life. They told her that I was better off than their husbands who sat around the dining-room table looking at the white two-gallon jug with the long brown neck plugged with a corn-cob stopper.
The men talked of the dead before they began swigging from the jug. Meanwhile the young people played post office, and the sons and daughters quarreled over the division of their father's estate. During the midnight supper someone became aware of the dead man's movements. "Before sunrise," he said, "I had chopped up my coffin and made my will."
Some settin '-ups became rather disgraceful affairs, such as the one for Uncle Jeff, at which his drinking companions "tried to drown their cares and grief about Uncle Jeff's passing." Some were very quiet, like Phoeby's in "Plowshare in Heaven." Phoeby had a store-bought coffin with shiny handles. The house was filled with people, but they sat quietly around the big log fire, at times some of them breaking the silence or soft-spoken conversation to sing a favorite old hymn.
There are two chairs in the back of the big front room. On these two chairs is the coffin. . . . It is a bluish-gray-colored coffin and it has a glass lid. . . . Phoeby is in the coffin. I know she is in the dress she told Mom about and she has the pennies that she covered with dark cloth over her eyes.
About four o'clock the people who had sat up during the night went home to do their morning chores, but others took their places. Many of the men did not go to the fields even in crop time or to their jobs on public works when a neighbor was laying a corpse.
The corpse was never left alone. It would have been difficult for an old-time hill man to express to an outsider exactly what he meant by showing respect to the dead, but Stuart has communicated the peculiar atmosphere of the settin'-up with its socializing in the foreground and always in the background a superstitious awe in the presence of a great mystery.
It is credible that someone of Stuart's acquaintance, like Flem in "Men of the Mountains," had stored several barrels of salt to preserve himself and his wife in their graves so that they would "keep like a jar of apples till the Judgment Day." But surely his tall-tale brand of humor prompted his account of six months of play parties at weekly settin '-ups for old Doug Grayhouse, salted down in the attic at age ninety-six, while relatives all over the country recovered from illnesses, bought new clothes, and otherwise made ready to attend the funeral on the money Grandpa had bequeathed to them for the purpose.
Waning of the prejudice against embalming and removing the corpse from the home before removal to the burial place has been reflected in the otherwise grotesque situation of competing undertakers rushing to the scene of a homicide in "Competition at Slush Creek." The old-fashioned settin '-up, or wake, with rare exceptions belongs to the past.
Another means of showing respect for the dead was the mountain funeral, such as Mrs. Auxier's: "Took three preachers four hours to preach Ma's funeral," said Billie. Equally long were the funeral sermons in "Fern," "Death and Decision," and Taps for Private Tussie. In the days before embalming, when deaths took place in remote sections of the hills, it was understandable that the buryin ' took place with little ceremony, and the real memorial service was delayed until a minister could attend—or several ministers. In bad weather it was a considerable undertaking to get the body to the place of burial. In "I Remember Mollie" the husband sat on the coffin of his dead wife to keep it from bouncing off the wagon, and the people following in the funeral procession were splashed with mud from the chugholes in the rough country road. In "Death and Decision" the male descendants carried Old Dad to the new-fangled deadwagon, the ambulance that waited at the main road. In Taps six stout Tussie men carried the coffin all the way up the steep mountainside in the heat of summer.
A more unusual custom in the northeastern Kentucky hills has been the funeralizing that memorialized a person long dead or paid respect to the same person repeatedly, as in Stuart's story "Weep No More, My Lady." In this story a man who had been funeralized each year on the anniversary of his first funeral was being honored for the seventh time by his Mountain Baptist wife. Her second husband, at first acting like a sheep that had got into the wrong pasture, mellowed under the influence of the mountain whisky that circulated freely during the service, and by the end of it, was mourning along with his wife for his predecessor.
The funeralizing began at the house with a period of fellowshiping, singing, and taking inventory of past conduct under the threat of being churched. When no one confessed to making love to another man's wife, gambling, or attending street fairs, circuses, or picture shows, the first part of the service ended with everyone's singing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Then all ate a hearty dinner before climbing up the steep mountain to the graveside.
When everyone reached the burial spot, Sister Ebbie lined out the hymn "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" to the accompaniment of Brother Amos' wailing guitar. The preacher, Brother Cyrus, stood with his hands lifted high, one holding a Bible. Next Brother Tobbie Lennix prayed a long prayer.
Then Brother Cyrus started his long sermon.
He preached about Pa from the time he was a small boy riding a mule to the water mill barefooted with a turn of corn to grind for meal. He took Pa all through his young days, what a sinner he was then and how he finally knelt at the altar where Brother Cyrus was still a young preacher. Then he preached about the change that had come over Pa, how he married Ma, a pretty young girl of seventeen summers from Beaver Branch. He preached about how he had replenished the earth with seven fine children, all saved but . . . me. . . . Then he brought Pa's life up to the day of his death. He spoke of what a powerful man Pa was when he worked in the fields or when he worked for the Lord.
Jason, the second husband, got along very well until the preacher got to the part of his sermon about no other man's being able to "fill the dead man's shoes, to run his farm, and all that." But by the end of the four-hour sermon Jason was a strong link in the chain of fellowship as the people held hands to help one another get safely down from the mountaintop.
Stuart has pictured the loud weeping and wailing of the bereaved widows, the occasional put-on of a surviving partner already eager to marry someone else, the socializing of the young people, and the occasional fighting among relatives over differences of religious opinion or over the estate of the deceased. The service ended in "Weep No More" with the singing of the hymn "Amazing Grace":
When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun;
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we first begun.
The gathering broke up amid much "handshaking and slapping each other on the back," while everybody tried to talk at the same time and "everybody was happy in fellowship and love." The suggestion of transition was expressed by Pa's children at the beginning of the story: ". . . I don't see any use having his funeral preached every year. It brings back old memories. And it brings back old griefs." Pa had been a strong Mountain Baptist who got a token of his approaching death, went to the barn, and made his coffin of seasoned boards he had kept there in case of a death in the family, and cleared the place in the thicket where he wanted to be buried. Ma insisted on having the funeralizing: ". . . if we didn't have the funeral preached every year, he'd turn over in his grave."
Stuart has given only brief attention to the old custom of cleaning up the burial grounds. Subrinea Tussie and Tarvin Bushman set aside a day to clean away the weeds from the final resting place of her people under the trees of heaven in the squatters' graveyard:
Tarvin cuts the briars with his hoe. He whacks them down. He rakes them from the graves with his hoe. He picks up armloads of briars and carries them from this ancient graveyard. . . . Subrinea gets down on her knees and places bits of torn sod back in place. She pulls weeds from the graves. She lays bunches of wild roses, dusty miller, wild trillium, blue ageratum, bloodroot, and eggplant on the graves. She pushed the dead leaves away from the head stones.
Subrinea's feeling "like I just haf to decorate my people's graves" is typical among the hill people. In most families or communities it would have been an all-day social occasion with many helping and perhaps with dinner on the grounds.
The importance of looking after the dead was vivid in Stuart's memories of his own family: of his small brothers being hauled in bad weather the long country miles to be buried on land owned by his grandfather; later, of his father's having them moved to the Plum Grove Churchyard so that the whole family could sleep there together (less than a year later his father was buried there beside them).
Throughout the mountains it has been a matter of the utmost concern to a family for their dead to receive decent burial Whatever confusion of flesh and spirit, whatever of superstition and sentimentality may have influenced these customs, Stuart has pictured their integral place in the culture of northeastern Kentucky.
Stuart has clearly demonstrated his awareness of the bad effects of bigotry and superstition in hill religion; but humor has everywhere dominated protest. He has mentioned the midweek prayer service and Sunday services not interrupted by the excitement of a practical joker impersonating God or free-for-all fighting in the churchyard; but the extreme incidents, in his opinion, make better yarns. He has sometimes, but not always, rationalized the hill man's views. He has understood the need of his people for the emotional outlet of the hill revival, but he fully recognizes the suggestibility of the fiery sermons that can mislead as often as lead. His own family respected the deathbed requests that his father made in 1954, but they were reasonable. At times he has seemed regretful at the passing of old neighborly customs, as the hill people have toned down their church activities and accepted the services of professional morticians. The over-all impression, however, has been good-humored tolerance of both old and new.
Mary Washington Clarke (essay date 1977)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4129
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 primitive way of life and his exposure during a year at Vanderbilt University to influences from some of the most sophisticated Southern literati of the 1920s and 1930s. This superficially incongruous yoking together of influences proved fortuitous, producing a unique corpus that can be examined from many points of view. In this essay I shall attempt to examine only one, the author's use of local legendry as a distinctive facet of his narrative art.
Stuart's fiction most typically exploits what Francis Lee Utley called "the juncture between oral and written literature," and nowhere is this more apparent than in his use of local legends. With his awareness of the past living on in the present, his quick grasp of the continuing effects of older modes of thought and older codes of conduct on contemporary patterns of behavior is that of a poet and humorist. When the humorist predominates, the poet is in the background. When the poet is in control, the humorist is in the wings. The result is that when Stuart draws upon local legendry he produces larger than life characters, at times caricatures, involving narrative motifs that have appealed perennially to something basic in American character. The action illustrates Stuart's compassionate and affirmative view of life as zestful individual experience within a tragi-comic continuum.
In no instance does Stuart retain to the letter the authentic detail or oral style of analogous items collected for Kentucky archives of oral history and folklore. The motifs are, however, in Kentucky tradition, and Stuart's storytelling techniques reflect familiarity with the folk narrator's style. He uses legendry as he uses other materials, with much freedom and sometimes repeatedly. In one context the entire story may develop out of a bit of legend; in another the motif may function as a detail of characterization or setting.
The definition of legend and fine distinctions that identify its subtypes are matters beyond the scope of this essay. I am using legend to designate materials that have or purport to have some tie with reality—a place, a person, an event, or all three—and that also have some traditional circulation as oral narrations. The same motifs may attach to different persons widely separated in time and space. The motifs may be superhuman, supernatural, or merely memorable.
The element of belief in far-fetched supernatural motifs is once or twice removed in most tellings. Typically, Stuart's presentation is deadpan, but a careful reader will note the character of the teller, the effects of alcohol, scientific phenomena, a bit of moralizing humor, a tongue-in-cheek suggestion of an ulterior motive on the part of the narrator. An element of social history is implicit in oral material which for any reason lives in a community for generations. Disarming, even offhand, informality in the presentation makes it possible for casual readers to enjoy the colorful local lore for its own sake. More thoughtful readers will often find complicated social values and serious commentary on the human condition running inconspicuously through Stuart's main current of humor.
In a Foreword to David Brandenburg's 1968 reissue of Tim (written in 1927, first published in 1939), Stuart remarks on the cultural matrix of his early fiction: "Many of the people living here then couldn't read and write. But I believe everybody could tell a story better than the one just told. . . . In those days our greatest entertainment was telling stories," truthful stories he thought at the time. Then in his 1957 journal The Year of My Rebirth he comments that "the great tall tales about this place have flown with the winds of yesteryear." Although they have not altogether flown, as evidenced by continuing additions to Kentucky archives of oral history and folklore, they no longer function as they did during Stuart's boyhood before good roads, radios, and television made their impact on rural life. Whether presented as past or present, in his own person or through a narrator, Stuart's use of legend demonstrates among other things the sanctioned attitudes toward character, class structure, nature, and religion in his native region during his lifetime. Among his acknowledged sources of legendry are older members of his family, neighbors, and especially a longtime squatter and occasional farmhand on the author's land.
Op Akers, as Stuart calls the old squatter in his 1953 novel, The Good Spirit of Laurel Ridge, always makes his tales incidental to his actions. He is fishing, cutting brush, or at the very least walking past some reminder of the legendary happening while he talks. The thin plot of the novel is clearly subordinate to characterization, setting, and theme. During World War II Op's daughter Lucretia and two friends from Dayton, Ohio, invade the old man's solitude in his self-sufficient little world of the ridge with its many memories and ghosts of the past. The ghosts are shades of ore-diggers, lumberjacks, Civil War guerilla fighters, his dead wife, old friends, all linking Op with a livelier personal and historical past. Memory and imagination of narrator and author mingle to evoke significant facets of the real and mythic W-Hollow.
One of Op's narratives illustrates Stuart's repeated use of the same motif for different purposes. The story of a butting contest between a man and a ram appeared as a short story, "A Goin' to the Buttin'" in Esquire magazine in 1937. The same motif turns up as just one of Op Akers' many narratives in The Good Spirit of Laurel Ridge. Op tells the story of a butting to Lucretia in the first person as "one of the funniest things" he ever saw. This story, especially in the abbreviated form Op gives it, is strongly suggestive of a legendary incident told of Kentucky's colorful historical figure Cassius Marcellus Clay, in adult life a hardheaded abolitionist and friend of Abraham Lincoln. Charles T. Morgan in Fruit of This Tree. (1946) gives a telling:
On at least one occasion Cassius lost his fight as a lad. His father had just imported a fine merino buck and had him tied to a tree. While Mr. Clay was at dinner, his son amused himself by playing with the animal. The buck became a little warlike. The boy in his childish ignorance was in the act of putting his head down to see whose head was the harder, his or the buck's. It happened that his father returned just in the nick of time and with his own hand slapped his son farther than the sheep would have done if it had butted him. It was said in later years that the father took needless precautions, for the head of Cassius would certainly have proved harder than the head of the buck.
Sally Bly refers briefly to the incident in a Louisville Courier-Journal (April 9, 1967) feature article.
In Stuart's story the character bears little physical resemblance to Clay, and the butting takes place as a well-publicized and well-attended event. Op, whose real-life counterpart may well have been Stuart's source for the story, tells it this way to his newfound daughter as he walks with her on the ridge near his cabin:
. . . Minton was a short bullish man with shoulders broad as a corncrib door and had a head not much bigger than the ram's, on a short thick neck stuck in the middle of his shoulders. When he got down to run on his all fours and butt against Charlie Worthington's ram, a lot of people yelled fer Minton. But there were more people a-yellin' for the ram. Minton had fit too many men with his head. He's butted them nearly to death. But when Minton and the ram clashed head on, he had found his match. Ye could hear their heads pop when they went head on a half mile away. A lot of people felt sorry fer Minton, since the blood ran from his nose, his eyes, and his ears. But Minton did something that turned about everybody fer the ram.
In good story-telling fashion, Op pauses to arouse his listener's suspense before he finishes the story:
Old Minton squirmed around and got in line with a tree, and when the ram charged, he jumped outten the path and let it hit the tree. The ram broke his neck and Minton winned the buttin'. The people didn't like it when Minton outwitted the ram. They didn't think he butted fair.
Whether a real butting contest between a man and a ram ever took place in Kentucky or elsewhere, whether the story began with the boyhood exploits of Clay or whether it was a much older story suitable to attach to him, whether Minton Artner had a real-life counterpart who might have undertaken such a reckless display of strength, the story is rooted in folk literature and the values of Appalachian culture. In Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature (6 vols., 1955-1958) and in Ernest Baughman's Motif and Tale-Type Index to of the Folktales of England and North America (1966) similar and related motifs are indexed from many sources. Nowhere does the specific motif appear in these volumes of a contest between a man and a ram, but the type—contests between man and animal—is widespread.
A man heedless enough to risk his head by butting against a ram is on the periphery of legendry proclaiming the fabulous exploits of American frontier demigods such as Mike Fink and Davy Crockett, themselves recent offshoots in the long folk and literary history of boastful strongmen heroes. The final touch in the story—that some people didn't think Minton had butted fair—is typical deadpan Stuart humor. And it is typical of his perception of violence as an accepted part of the code of his forebears, with an implication that fascination with cruelty and mortal danger is part of being human. Among other narrative motifs of brute strength in the Stuart canon is one of a man who could kill a beef with his fist, a motif repeated almost to the point of cliche.
Remarkable strength and remarkable size figure about equally in folk legendry. Stuart reflects the tendency to elevate remarkable size to hyperbole in his repeated incorporation of the legend of a giant woman moonshiner who had a real-life counterpart in the mountains of eastern Tennessee not far from Harrogate, where Stuart attended Lincoln Memorial University. His short story "Sylvania is Dead" appeared in Commonweal in 1942, and was reprinted in Plowshare in Heaven in 1958. He makes other references to her and tells the story of her funeral with slight variations in Daughter of the Legend in 1965. This novel, written almost a generation before its publication, tells about the Melungeons, a relatively isolated group whose unknown origin accounts for legend in Stuart's title. In Daughter of the Legend the narrator is presented as an outsider who marries a beautiful Melungeon girl and lives with her on "Sanctuary Mountain" in a situation which gives Stuart the opportunity to present many aspects of an isolated, traditional way of life. The real existence and huge dimensions of "Sylvania" are documented in photographs as well as in the oral folk history of East Tennessee. She is pictured as Big Betsy Mullins in the Tennessee Writers' Project volume God Bless the Devil (1940). Although the real life counterpart of Stuart's character is documented in history, the humor of Stuart's story is broad, much of it undoubtedly embellishment.
In the same story, Stuart's reflections of social history include the snake-handling cult, which still exists in the Appalachian region. Sylvania wanted no Bible reading or songs and prayers at her funeral, but shortly before her death "Brother Dusty tested her with the serpent right in her own shanty." This reassured her family and neighbors that "she won't be smellin' any brimstone and black curlin' smoke from a Devil's hell."
In spite of these humorous embellishments, the principal legendary motif is Sylvania's size. Stuart's version is that the men remove the chimney wall of the mountain shack to permit them to bring her enormous home-made black oak coffin into the house, and remove it with her 650-pound corpse inside. It took fourteen men to carry her out, and ten plowlines (heavy ropes) manned by twenty men to lower her into the grave. One of the recurrent jokes about her size is that she could make moonshine with impunity because the officers of the law could not get her out of the house. Stuart adds the touch that both the "High Sheriff of Cantwell County" and his deputy were among the appreciative longtime customers who assisted with her burial. Some otherwise admiring readers of Stuart have chided him for an "Al Capp approach" to such material as this. The mourner who periodically shoots into a cloud of buzzards to keep them away from the shack and the coffin is a case in point. I must disagree with these critics on the basis that what may sometimes appear to outsiders as a Dogpatch-type caricature has grown out of the regional esthetic and reflects the lusty enjoyment of such exaggerations by insiders in the culture. Jesse Stuart as critic and interpreter shows beneath the rough surface of the funeral activities the warmth and strength of clan loyalty and the practical ingenuity of life in an earlier and more primitive era. The story also illustrates the fine line between reality and legend as source material for a writer who has been immersed in the culture with which he deals.
The next story has a Kentucky setting and belongs to Old Op's repertory. In Stuart's early autobiography Beyond Dark Hills, the story is told from family legends of the exploits of Stuart's maternal great-grandfather, Preston Hilton. Hilton's attempt to defeat Morgan near Lexington was a complete fiasco. Op attaches his story to a spot near Stuart's home, a locality that has no historical records to support it. According to Op, General John Hunt Morgan and his "Raiders" attempted a Confederate raid into Ohio, but were forced to fall back from a point on Laurel Ridge near the Artner Rocks. A band of old men and young boys from the neighborhood who were Union sympathizers armed themselves with rifles and hid behind the rocks until Morgan's cavalry covered the full arc of the ridge. These impromptu guerillas short first the horses and then Morgan's men. Morgan and his remaining men made a hurried retreat, carrying away their dead and wounded on the horses that had escaped injury, but their losses forced a postponement of the invasion into Ohio. Local tradition has it that ghostly riders head in the night along the ridge (once the main road through the area) are Morgan's men returning to get their revenge. Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clark portrays Morgan and his mounted infantrymen as daring and colorful and as having gaps in their record which could give credence to Op's (Stuart's) telling of the legend. This is the version he tells to his daughter Lucretia:
Young lady, many a night I've heard the sound of hosses' hooves a-poundin' this Laurel Ridge road . . . I know who it is a-ridin' past in a hurry. It's General Morgan and his Cavalry. Back there at that arc on Laurel Ridge, down behind the big rocks, the old men and boys stopped 'im once and made 'im turn tail when he was a-goin' to raid Ohio in the days of the Rebellion. My father was one of the men behind those rocks. Bones of their horses were left to whiten on the ridge. . . . But Morgan got out of that death-trap in a hurry. Carried away his dead and wounded. . . . But they come back here now and ride this ridge and worry me because I'm the son of George Akers, who had behind a rock with his long rifle and helped stop 'em.
The reckless courage of John Hunt Morgan and his Raiders was admirable even to his enemies, and guerilla warfare was inevitable in a state as divided in its Civil War loyalties as Kentucky. The sound of ghostly horses' hooves is common in Kentucky tradition, much of which is Civil War inheritance.
Stuart's use of legendry includes treacherous murder motivated by greed, the effect sharpened by his comic spirit. Paul Henson devotes a small book to Lost Silver Mines and Buried Treasures of Kentucky (1972), stating his own belief that some exist despite reports to the contrary by Kentucky geologists. Thomas D. Clark in The Kentucky refers to legends growing out of Old Sailor John Swift's silver mining and his death at the hands of Indians. Jesse Stuart's story "Red Jacket: The Knockin' Spirit" seems to have developed out of old stories of buried treasure and the murder of an old Indian medicine man. It appears in Head o' W-Hollow. An old Indian medicine man who wore his black hair in a long braid and had a headdress of feathers spent a week in "Jimpson Burr" selling liver remedies and hair tonic and pulling old snaggle teeth with his bare hands. Stuart's story holds that about 1850, money-mad local men who were convinced that Red Jacket had a treasure hidden somewhere waylaid him in the dark. "Red Jacket keep gold to shoe Indian's horse and buy firewater. Red Jacket don't tell," goes Stuart's story. Old Preacher Leadingham prayed for God to help him find Red Jacket's gold, but to no avail. The grim humor of the story has a serious undercurrent. Red Jacket was hit over the head with a mattock handle and left in Widow Skaggs' hoglot, where the hogs got a little, the crows a little, and Alf Sinnett's foxhounds a little. "The hungry hounds packed away the bones. Jim Kearns found thigh bones and a man's skull near the head of Leadingham Branch." Notwithstanding this tale's grisly contents, Stuart's accounts of Red Jacket as a knocking spirit are comic. In the earlier story the knocking activities become involved with a medium who can do table-tipping and call forth voices of the dead. The spirits expose unfaithful husbands and wives, the magic rationalized to a degree by the presence of a white-clad girl assistant to the medium who appears and disappears from behind a screen. The treasure was never found. In Old Op's repertory the knocking spirit of Red Jacket becomes his alter ego who helps Op drive from the ridge the city intruders who are interfering with his simple way of life.
Younger readers can enjoy the romance and comedy of this ghostlore. More mature readers can grasp Stuart's commentary on the ugliness of greed and poverty, the violence they breed,and more subtly the cyclic vision of life, death, and resurrection that is seldom absent from either his poetry or prose.
An even more variable cluster of legendary details has been associated with an old hand-dug well near the site of Stuart's home. These have provided what is probably the best example of Stuart's use of local legend as a blend of creative imagination and social history. About midway of the nineteenth century an old peddler who was believed by the local people to be rich was horribly murdered and robbed, and his beheaded corpse along with the remains of his blood-soaked, broken buggy were thrown into the well. Here is a perfect situation to give rise to road ghosts, headless apparitions, ghostly lights, and other motifs that keep past events alive. Baughman's index reflects the variety and persistence of such motifs in England and North America.
One telling of the Peddler's Well story appears in a sequence of four sonnets in Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow, with no significant changes in the narrative from the 1934 to the 1959 revision. He begins, "I've heard the old men say . . . ," and the story unfolds of a headless ghost rising from an uncovered well in the moonlight, sometimes carrying a pack on his back and sometimes leading a sorrel horse or riding headless in his buggy. A number of conflicting testimonies are attributed to people of the W-Hollow community whose real names appear in Stuart's journal The Year of My Rebirth. Peddler Nick was reported to have been killed by three young men. In this telling, human bones and some curly hair wrapped in leaves were found in the well later as evidence. In this context Stuart attached to the tale of horror one of his most serious and compelling poetic themes, the cycle of life. He refers to the trees growing around the well:
A carpet of dead leaves around the tomb,
But in the Spring are thick-bark black gum blooms.
And he closes the sequence with the lines:
And if we could be by that well, they say,
We would see Nick arise on Resurrection Day.
Among those real persons Stuart reports as having professed to seeing the ghosts or the ghostly lights or both at an old well on a farm owned by the Myers family were old Mr. Daugherty, "who wasn't a cowardly or superstitious man," but who saw so many strange sights in this area that he would not drink water from the well or pass that way at night; his son W. W. Daugherty, who drank enough whiskey "to float the biggest saw log in W-Hollow from the source to the mouth of W-Branch"; Lydia Collins, a God-fearing pillar of the community known for her courage and truthfulness; Stuart's cousin Ben Stuart; Martin Hilton, the Uncle Mel of Stuart's fiction, who weighed 220 pounds and had no fear of man nor beast until one morning about four o'clock when he "heard a whirring sound overhead and looked up in time to see a pair of white wings pass over, felt his bank cap lifted off; and Stuart's parents. In The Year of My Rebirth Stuart conjectures that natural gas, which is abundant in the region and which bubbled in the creek near the well, could be a partial explanation; but as a child he himself believed in the ghosts to such a degree that he never ventured into the area at night.
In the youth novel Hie to the Hunters Stuart associates the ghost of a jilted woman suicide with the old well. She appears only to false lovers and men too slow to marry, often snatching their caps or hats. A ghostly milk-woman and a ghostly dog that tears at the roof shingles are associated with the site of Stuart's home, where a mother of small children hanged herself by tying a bedsheet around her neck and to the bedpost and then jumping out the upstairs window. In various contexts these stories seem to intermingle with those of the Peddler's Well.
In an August entry in The Year of My Rebirth (1956) Stuart tells of walking down the valley from his home toward Dead Man's Curve and the Old Peddler's Well, and he is reminded of the legend of the murdered peddler:
He was fished from the water, the buggy and all the debris cleaned out, and the well's rock wall scalded and washed down so the water could be used again. But even a century later most people in W-Hollow wouldn't touch this water. . . .
The complex of ghost stories involving the old well and its environs become overlapping and vary in both content and mood, but the stories clearly had a fascination for Stuart. His literary rendition of them communicates tragic loneliness and poetic acceptance of death as well as the more obvious and usually humorous moralizing.
As in the context of the author's entire corpus of mainly autobiographical writing, motifs of strength, size, ingenuity, courage, as well as the supernatural motifs, often take on symbolic force as instruments of moral and spiritual victory, as they have time immemorial in folk literature.
Much attention has already been given to Stuart's use of natural metaphors to express his affirmative view of life. His use of his regional folklore represents an equally natural drawing upon resources at hand, local legend providing a felicitous vehicle for his perception of a changing society within a framework of timeless nature. He establishes locale, communicates insider-outsider relationships in his community, and shows transitional values. He entertains as an appreciative purveyor of the legends, and informs as a poet whose perspective forever separates him from modern writers who feel disinherited.
Kenneth Clarke (essay date 1977)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4944
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 have been collected and analyzed more carefully than those of some other regions, making it possible to compare field-collected data with an author's rendition. In addition, Stuart has been remarkably cooperative with investigators of his life and works, freely responding to inquiries and sometimes volunteering information to aid them in their studies. The fact that a considerable portion of his writing has been in some way autobiographical has been useful to the folklorist in that it cues the investigator to specific inquiries. Stuart's forthright responses facilitate separation of fact from fiction in a way that has not often been possible in such investigations.
For the purpose of this discussion Archer Taylor's succinct definition of folklore is most useful: "Folklore is the material that is handed on by tradition, either by word of mouth or by custom and practice" [Pacific Spectator, Vol. 2, 1948]. This covers a wide range of material. What is handed on by word of mouth may be a traditional folktale, a family legend, a home-town joke, a riddle, a proverb, a superstition, or a remedy. It would include country dance calls, songs, weather prediction formulas, game rhymes, taunts, and nicknames. Running through all these and other kinds of word-of-mouth traditions is the language itself, a regional dialect of American English characterized by traditional vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax. Folklore handed on by custom and practice rather than by word of mouth includes ways of doing or of making things such as patchwork quilts, log houses, oak-split baskets, and sorghum molasses. It includes the ordinary life of people who learn by tradition most of their domestic activities—animal care, fanning methods, food preservation, hunting, fishing, and recreation. Most of these nonlinguistic kinds of folklore, especially those dealing with material culture, are called folklife.
Even the most casual reader of Stuart's works will recognize immediately that all the examples listed above occur in his writing, and once reminded of the scope of folklore and folklife, the perceptive reader should be able to add to the list. An extensive catalog of specific songs, tales, beliefs, and practices abstracted from Stuart's works would not be as useful as a comment on how they serve the writer's purpose and how their use fits into some general ideas about American literature, and thus by inference how their use defines one aspect of Stuart's role as an American writer.
A convenient category for initial examination is the smallest expressive unit, the word. Stuart's use of folk speech has been mentioned by many writers, and it received careful attention in Mary Washington (Clarke), "Folklore of the Cumberlands as Reflected in the Writings of Jesse Stuart" (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1960), and most particularly in articles by the same author in Southern Folklore Quarterly: "Jesse Stuart's Writings Preserve Passing Folk Idiom" (September 1964), and "Proverbs, Proverbial Phrases, and Proverbial Comparisons in the Writings of Jesse Stuart" (September 1965). In these articles Mary Clarke checked a large catalog of folk idiom abstracted from Stuart's work against regional word lists, Standard references works, her personal field collecting in Stuart's general culture area, and finally with Stuart himself. The end result is a reliable assessment whereby one can answer such questions as these: Is this an authentic example of regional speech, or just a "folksy" coinage? Is this a traditionally used proverbial comparison, or did Stuart invent it? Is this ancient proverb a part of folk usage in Greenup County, or has it been transplanted there by the author? Is this colorful exaggeration presented as it is commonly uttered by the folk, or has the author improved upon what he has heard?
Stuart uses authentic regional dialect, faithfully rendering his time and place, combining his knowledge of life with imagination to create a unique literary expression. This would seem inevitable in the light of his lifelong ties with the rural areas of his nativity and his choice of that setting for most of his fiction. 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, especially those self-conscious local colorists described by Calvin Brown [in his foreword to Yesterday in the Hills by Floyd C. Watkins and Hubert Watkins, 1973] as almost always "sentimentalists on an intellectual slumming tour," whose characters "are mere puppets being put through antics that will illustrate the regional idiosyncrasies." Brown went on to say that such writing is "always condescendingly genteel, and usually smugly and offensively so." Stuart is most emphatically not of this stripe, for he is also 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. Consider these examples drawn at random from his writing: "Everything has a season." "Every man must have his Judas." "You can't larn an old dog new tricks." "Killin two birds with one stone." "When you dance you got to pay the fiddler." His proverbial comparisons are similarly apt for character, situation, and setting: "like a fox when he goes to get chickens," "rough as a gritter," "tough as a hickory," "slick as a meatskin," and "clean as a hound-dog's tooth."
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:
I got uneasy when a whippoorwill
Came on the porch last night. That is a sign
Death takes one of the house.
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 reveals how functional the folktale is in Stuart's writing.
Old Op Akers is the herb-gathering yarnspinner in The Good Spirit of Laurel Ridge (1953). He is familiar with the old legends of the area, has a firm conviction that there are ghosts (or sperets) about, and participates in the whole range of folklife on the ridge. When he and his daughter Lucretia hear foxhounds in the distance, he identifies them and predicts the development of the chase: "'That's Penny Shelton's horn,' Op told her, a note of excitement in his voice. 'The fox hunters are on Laurel Ridge tonight.'" Op explains that the horn sounded at Six Hickories, the location of a fox den. He identifies the barking of Penny's Blue Boy, a cold trailer. "He's a-takin' that fox toward Wince Leffard Gap. . . . Lissen fer more hounds to open up! Every fox hunter on Laurel Ridge'll let his hounds loose."
As other hounds join the chase he identifies them. He tells where the fox is, where it will go. "He'll come up Shinglemill Hollow, up the fox path from the old pasture field, and cross the ridge right out yander. I know the way foxes run here. Lissen to the music of them barkin' hounds."
This interlude of foxhunting on an April night is but one of many kinds of folklife worked into a novel whose central character is a walking encyclopedia of folklore. Op chews on a piece of calamus root he carries in his pocket as faithfully as some city dwellers carry a tin of aspirin. He gathers medicinal plants and digs their roots. He relates the legend of a Civil War skirmish with Morgan's Raiders. Above all, he tells tales—ghost tales and tall tales about fishing and hunting. The first one in the novel is the ubiquitous tale of the vanishing hitchhiker, highly localized by old Op, and set in an earlier period. "One Sunday, back when Teddy Roosevelt was President, old Doc Burton drove his two-hoss surrey out Laurel Ridge to see Mort Doore who got blood pizen from runnin' a rusty nail in his foot." Op goes on to recount how a young couple, closely described, hitched a ride with Doc Burton on his return trip, how Doc, busy with his team on the downgrade, hardly noticed that the young couple had stopped talking to him, and how he discovered with shock that only the armload of flowers the girl had been carrying remained in the back seat. The ghostly couple were later identified as local people who had drowned while swimming at Sandy Falls.
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, as much an expression of American folklore as the exploits of Mike Fink.
Another narrator, Grandpa Tussie, exhibits a different repertoire. The fact that Taps for Private Tussie (1943) was winner of the 1943 Thomas Jefferson Southern Award and a selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club is more than casually related to the fact that its pages are replete with folk speech, folk beliefs, folklife, and snatches of folksong and folk narration. Grandpa Tussie, addicted to the "gravy train" of relief grub and afflicted with an incurable aversion to work, tells whoppers. He can stop patting his foot to the tune of Uncle George's magic fiddle and tell a tall tale about lumbering in Michigan on cue: "'Tell Sid about your train ride in Michigan, Press,' Grandma said, wheezin on her long pipestem. 'I got on a train in Michigan,' Grandpa said. 'Traveled two days and nights through the timber. Never saw a town. Never saw anybody but the people on the train. We only stopped for water and coal. We passed through timber tracts where the trees were big around the butts as sixty-gallon mash barrels.'"
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.
As The Road to Xanadu so profoundly illustrates, a prolific, spontaneous writer soaks up many impressions and recombines them in manifold and sometimes marvelous ways. Examination of Stuart's works suggests that he 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. Two short stories, "Rain on Tanyard Hollow" and "Frog-Trouncin' Contest" (both in Tales from the Plum Grove Hills), are illustrative.
"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. "Send rain, Lord, that will wash gully-ditches in this strawberry patch big enough to bury a mule in."
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. So fearful is the thunder "rollin' like tater wagons across the sky" that 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.
Surveying the damage, Pappie can see the bright side: "'It wasn't the brazen images of snakes,' Pappie said, 'that done all of this. Tanyard Hollow is washed clean of most of its topsoil and lost a lot of its trees. But it got rid of a lot of its rubbish and it's a more fitten place to live.'"
The "brazen image of snakes" refers to the black snakes Pappie had hung on the rail fence before his prayer. This was in response to the folk belief that hanging up a dead snake will bring rain. The black snakes failed to produce, but prayer did, hence the "brazen images," an example of the hillman's familiar use of biblical allusion.
"Rain on Tanyard Hollow" is clearly an expanded and highly localized rendition of a folktale. Stuart weaves in the weather superstition involving snakes, and he skillfully keeps it before his readers by using numerous snake-associated images throughout the story. He adds the locustlike flock of relatives who have squatted in Tanyard Hollow. He also introduces the conflict between husband and wife (the pesky relatives are her kin), with special focus on her objection to his hanging up dead snakes and her taunting him for his lack of faith. The point of view is effective in that the observer-narrator is Tracey, a young son, who nervously responds to Pappie's prayer by saying, "I don't want to wish you any bad luck, but I hope you don't get all you ast for."
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.
These are the same elements that elevate an almost forgotten cruel pastime to a mock epic struggle in "Frog-Trouncing Contest." In this instance the curious survival of cruelty to frogs or toads provides the seed of the story. Mary Clarke, field collecting in Stuart's Big Sandy region, found informants who recalled frog trouncing. The activity involves fastening a frog to one end of a plank balanced over a fulcrum, then hitting the other end of the plank to bounce the frog high into the air—with fatal results for the frog, of course. Survival of this custom is a curiosity in that the practice has been verified as far back as Elizabethan England.
As he does in "Rain on Tanyard Hollow," Stuart uses the folk activity as a seed from which the short story can grow. Instead of a dimly remembered activity, frog trouncin' in the story becomes a tournament-style annual contest with training, defending champions, elimination, and judges. In the well-worn folk tradition of youngest-best, the least favored nephew manages to win the contest by training for it secretly and using a special mallet (also in the folk tradition of a remarkable weapon) to deliver the winning blow. The preparation of the mallet appears to involve some borrowing from Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," another story that depends in part on folklore. In Stuart's story the mallet instead of a frog is secretly filled with lead shot.
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.
"Testimony of Trees" (Clearing in the Sky) provides a good example. The story is about a land dispute in which a man in the hills tries to cheat a neighbor out of his land by misrepresenting an old deed. An aggressive land hog can take advantage of the fact that old "meets and bounds" deeds were often inaccurate, that the calls were to such impermanent or movable markers as trees and rocks. Stuart's resolution of this simple conflict is to have the put-upon landowner call in Uncle Mel, an ancient and woodswise timber cutter. Uncle Mel studies the deed, having the boy narrator in the story read the difficult words for him, then goes to the seventy-year-old property line and verifies the blaze on each tree left standing. He chops into each old blaze scar with his keen double-bitted ax, then counts the annual growth rings to discover the age of the scar. In each instance the scar is seventy years old; the original survey line is verified, and the land hog is foiled.
"Testimony of Trees" is a very short story with a simple linear development to the resolution of an unambiguous conflict. Except for regional dialect the story contains none of the "genres" of folklore. But it is as fully charged with the lore of the hill people as anything Stuart has written.
Rural Kentuckians love politics and courthouse jockeying. They are also perennially concerned about property lines, easements, and access. It may seem odd that old boundary disputes can carry on from one generation to another, sometimes leading to bloodshed or chronic enmity between neighbors, especially if the matter can be settled by the simple expedient of an official survey. But a licensed, impartial surveyor's services are expensive, a luxury beyond the means of many impoverished hill folk, who have trouble enough paying their taxes. The old disputes go on to such a degree that long, quasi-legal narrations recounting the complicated histories of land transactions become a part of the oral literature of a neighborhood.
"Testimony of Trees" capitalizes on this more general aspect of the folklife of rural Kentucky. Despite the improbable accuracy of Uncle Mel's dendrochronology, the hillman's wary attitude toward his property lines is faithfully revealed. "Hell's Acre" is similarly based on a property dispute, though much overdrawn in its "battle" scenes. As the title suggests, the dispute involves only one acre of land, but the attitude of the belligerents is no less fierce than if the disputed land were a thousand acres. "I jest decided powder and lead was cheaper than lawyers' fees and court costs. That's the reason we've been fighting another ten years fer that acre of land."
The short story "Uncle Casper" takes its title from the name of a half-educated, windy old ex-preacher, exteacher, candidate for political office. He is a folk type, a man of words, the talkative center of attention beside the pot-bellied stove in the country store, the oral historian in the courthouse square, the ambulatory archive of folk medicine, kinship, natural history, and scriptural interpretation. Finding a young man old enough to vote, Uncle Casper launches into a series of narrations. One of these is his recollection of watching a black snake in mortal combat with a rattlesnake. The black snake killed the big rattler ("Twenty-seven rattlers and nine buttons"), apparently with the restorative aid of a medicinal weed. "The black snake took out of there and run out and bit him off a little chew of a weed. Munched it in his flat jaws like a rabbit munches clover."
As he rambles on, Uncle Casper recalls encountering a huge rattlesnake "big as a cow's leg" while digging ginseng with Chuck, a companion. The two men tried to hold the snake to draw its fangs, but it "shot a stream of pizen from the gall bladder through the fang" into Chuck's eye. Uncle Casper took a big chew of "taste-bud tobacco," worked up a mouthful of tobacco juice, and squirted it into Chuck's eye. "He squalled a little, but I knowed it was a case of life or death."
This reminds Uncle Casper of the time he was cutting dry poles for firewood. In an encounter with a racer which struck at his throat, he drove the snake into a knothole in a sourwood pole. "It stuck its head out and licked its tongue out at me. I thought 'Old Boy, I'll fix you.' So I climbs up the pole with a wooden glut in my hand and drove it down in the hole with a stick." A year later, cutting wood on the same hillside, he recalled the trapped snake, chopped down the sourwood, and "out popped that snake poor as Job's turkey. I could a-counted its ribs if I'd had time." The snake remembered him, wrapped itself around his leg "like a rope around a well windlass." Uncle Casper had to get his wife's aid to save himself. "Liz just reached down with that butcher knife and she cut that snake into ten pieces. It was wropped around my ankle five times if I am right." Liz saved Uncle Casper, but when her baby was born it was marked with the prints of a black racer over its heart.
Uncle Casper's narratives continue in the story, but these portions are particularly suitable for further illustration of Stuart's use of folklore. The general matrix of folklife forms a kind of backdrop in 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. There is a traditional way of describing snakes—usually by girth, and usually by anatomical comparison. Hence "big as my wrist," "big as my arm," or "big as my leg" are customary. Uncle Casper's black snake in combat with a rattlesnake was "bigger than a baby's leg," and the rattlesnake in the ginseng patch was "big as a cow's leg." Also, it is customary to count the rattles and always add the "button" in reporting the size of a rattlesnake. Stuart allows Uncle Casper a little exaggeration: "Twenty-seven rattlers and nine buttons."
The tale about a weed-chewing snake is traditional. Ordinarily the victorious snake is nonpoisonous, and its victory over the copperhead or rattlesnake is attributed to the curative power of a nearby plant. A more elaborate version of the tale has a human observer become the victim of snakebite, whereupon he uses the same weed to effect a miraculous cure.
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.
Katherine Paterson (essay date 1982)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1179
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 Stuart's prose has so much poetry in it that he often seems to throw away great lines. It is a trait of mountain people not to suspect that their ordinary speech rolls with the rhythm of the Psalms and lights up with bursts of Shakespearean imagery. But Jesse Stuart, although he has lived nearly all his life in the Kentucky hills, is not an unlettered Appalachian. He knows what he's doing.
In "Sunday Afternoon Hanging," a mountaineer is telling his grandson about the good old days before baseball games and the "hot seat," when, on a Sunday "people came for forty miles to see a hanging." There follows a marvelous, terrible Brueghelian scene gone round the bend with the uniformed band playing "My Old Kentucky Home," screaming babies being forced to nurse by mothers intent on hearing the last words of the condemned, boys hired to fling water on fighting dogs or beautiful fainting girls, men chewing tobacco while chatting about "crops and the cattle and the doings of the Lord to the wicked people for their sins." Madame Defarge, eat your heart out.
It is this powerful, often comedic, moral irony of Stuart's tales which makes me wonder why the editor chose to call this collection, "The Best-Loved Short Stories . . ." Such a title leads the first-time Stuart reader to expect an Edgar Guest telling tales from his porch rocker as he gazes, tear on cheek, over the lavender hills. How can you "best love" a story that gruesomely, albeit hilariously, details in sequence five public hangings? Or love a painful account of adultery and murder in two generations like "A Land Beyond the River," even if the title does belong to a beloved old country hymn? Moreover, by choosing a mere 34 out of Stuart's nearly 500 published stories, you're bound to invoke grumblings from Stuart admirers that their particular favorites have been left out, as indeed Robert Penn Warren seems to be doing in the introduction to this book.
Well, no matter. It is a good collection and well balanced. The violence of stories like those already mentioned is intermingled with tender stories of married love and aggravation like "The Storm," macabre tales like "Word and the Flesh" which gives Poe a run for his money, and high comedy like "Nest Egg," the tale of a Don Giovanni of the hen-yard who kills every fighting rooster in the district and seduces all the female fowls in the hollow, only to be brought low by "a little screech owl no bigger than [Pa's] fist."
Jesse Stuart is often referred to as a "regional writer." And certainly he devoted his life as a writer to poetry and tales of the Kentucky mountain people he knew so well. "I write of what has actually happened," he once said to a Princeton University audience, "and in the only way I can—the way that comes naturally to me." But Stuart's natural way of writing is the way of the artist, the selection of revelatory detail. He achieves what Conrad indicated was the task of the writer of fiction—"by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel . . . to make you see."
Stuart makes us see his world. Most of his stories are more extended picture than formal plot. Usually this doesn't matter, the pictures are so vivid that they can live without more formal construction. Occasionally, however, this becomes a weakness, as in in the story, "Eustacia," which begins strongly but winds down to a platitude. On the other hand, there is the last story in the book, "This Is the Place," in which an old man wants all his relatives buried in the same plot of mountain soil, so that on judgment day they will all rise together. This piece has far less story line than "Eustacia," yet somehow manages to rise above platitude and sentimentality on the back of lyrical language.
"And what do we do while we are waiting—while our dust is sleeping the long night," I say to Uncle Mel, "in the narrow confines of our small world—in the village of this silent city of Powderjays and Sheltons with our in-laws plus that have come to sleep beside their wives." "My son," says Uncle Mel, "we shall go on living in the same way we lived here—only we'll be light as the wind. We shall be as we have been—have the same color of hair, shapes of noses, the same voice—we shall run with our old company—I expect to have my farm here and do the things as I have always done. How can that which is the real Mel Shelton die? It can't die. You can't take a hammer and beat it to death even if you beat my head off. The real Mel Shelton will be here. You can't kill it. It was not born to die—only the husk that encloses it was born to die. We are going to bring all these husks right here and crib them."
A particular favorite of mine is another story about life and death. "Uncle Fonse Laughed" describes the friendship of two hill farmers who built good fences between their lands and then shared food and worries and practical jokes and good-natured arguments about religion. When Fonse predicts his own death, Mick, the narrator's father, assumes that Fonse is joking again. But he is mistaken.
"Fonse is dead as a piece of dirt," said Pa. "He died last night sometime. I was there just a few minutes ago. I took the mole along to slip in his pocket. But he was dead. The family is all crying and going on something awful. I didn't stay. I couldn't stay. Fonse, there so quiet—not laughing! W'y he laughed when he was going to have the James boys to make his coffin. I thought he was joking. He didn't care to die. He laughed quietly into the arms of Death. I've always thought God would want a man that could laugh no matter what church he belonged to . . . Fonse there so quiet, so silent. He didn't speak to me. I couldn't stand it."
I think one reason I like this particular story so much is that I have heard it read aloud. Jesse Stuart's pictures are meant to be heard as well as seen. They are full of music.
Ruel E. Foster (essay date 1984)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1660
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 count), but we should not hold this against him since he has lodged so many of that five hundred everlastingly in the imagination of America. Stuart, like many American writers, has created a magic sense of place. He has brought to lasting fictional life the world of W-Hollow, the locale of most of his short stories. W-Hollow now joins Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Elizabeth M. Roberts's Pigeon River country, and Thomas Wolfe's Altamont as one of the places we visit imaginatively and lose ourselves in.
The present volume, Clearing in the Sky, clearly has about it that talismanic sense of place which fascinates American readers. This book gives us in generous portions a mountain way of life which is now long past but which was once prickly hard with the thorny individualism of Kentucky mountaineers. W-Hollow is a world of hills and mountains, dark hills in the wintertime but marvellous flowering hills in the spring. It is a hard land where people make their living by hardscrabble farming, cattletrading, mining, timbering, or moonshining. The people are primarily of Scotch-Irish or English stock with old-fashioned names—Sam Whiteapple, Cief Salyers, Battle Keaton, and the Powderjays, Pa and Ma and children Finn and Shan; Shan frequently functions as the first person narrator in the stories.
What has made this world of Stuart's short fiction so lively, so compelling that readers for the past fifty years have followed it with timeless fascination? Though genius can never be analyzed to its ultimate source, it can at least be annotated and described. Among the obvious virtues of Stuart's short stories are their convincing primitivism, humor, natural talk style, and epiphanic insight.
Take, for example, his hard primitivism. If the term seems needlessly abstruse, let us say his short fiction is of the earth, earthy. In Stuart's phrase he is "just a dirt-colored man." He is a "one horse farmer singing at the plow." His fictional creatures are children of the earth, a voice from the clods. His stories call us ever to the outdoors. They give a poet's voice to the far and lost land of the Appalachians. We open Clearing in the Sky and get the odors of new plowed ground and feel the fine mist of nature blow into our face. A father hoists a handful of rich loam from the virginal soil of the story "A Clearing in the Sky" and smells its fecund odors with a kind of ecstasy. Stuart stops under the oaktrees and prays an earth-prayer—"Give me life close to the earth." "Get close to the soil and know Him" (Beyond Dark Hills).
The story "Clearing in the Sky" is an excellent example of Stuart's belief that earth and nature provide a healing, annealing power to men. In that story a father conducts his son to the top of a mountain where the father has a vegetable garden in virgin soil. The father explains that the doctors had given him up, had told him he had no chance to live. He has been saved by his work in the virginal garden soil. "The best days are the first to flee" wrote Willa Cather in My Antonia, translating a line from Virgil's Georgics. This is the classic theme of the primitivist and it is stated succinctly here by Mitch Stuart who yearns back to the garden world of his youth. "Clearing in the Sky" is his therapy which does for him what physicians could not do. Later Stuart mulling over the earth tie that both his mother and father had, wrote: "They were the least book-educated but the best earth-educated people I have ever known."
Stuart as a short story writer learned to follow his own life and his instincts. Like Robert Frost, Stuart can say that almost all of his stories are based on events that either happened to him or were told to him. He has written from within a great globe of actual event and of myth and oral tales of which he is the center. More than that the greater part of his work falls for the most part into readily discernible categories. Stuart and his editors have already recognized these categories by bringing out a volume of short stories, Save Every Lamb, in which all the stories have to do with farm animals. Later Stuart published Dawn of Remembered Spring in which every story features a snake. One familiar with Stuart's work could easily pick stories for a volume simply on dog stories, or one on political stories, or one on politics, moonshine, etc. Please note that the present volume mingles several categories. Stuart's strong primitivistic, agrarian bent is featured in the title story, "Clearing in the Sky," as well as in "Testimony of Trees," where Uncle Mel foils a land thief by demonstrating that an old blaze mark never completely disappears from a tree; i.e., nature, which provides so many norms to man, can also be a silent witness in a court battle. Other categories found in the stories that follow are animals, politics, feuds, and moonshine. An important mode in the above categories is Stuart's brand of southwestern humor. Although there is a streak of surrealistic or "black bile" humor in Stuart, a mixture of the comic and horrible, this does not appear in Clearing in the Sky. In the present work, Stuart's humor is a good natured reveling in comic incongruities, as in Sam Whiteapple's corn eating duel with Lester Pratt's game rooster ("The Champion").
Stuart is a true devotee of animals. He finds them splendid, courageous, and admirable. In the present volume, at least six stories revolve about animals and one about bees. In "The Champion," champion eater Sam Whiteapple matches himself against a cock-of-the-walk rooster at eating raw corn with farcical results. "To Market, to Market" trots out Pa and his prize bull trained to walk on his hind legs at Pa's command. Pa takes him to market and has a run-in with the local pin-hookers where, in classic comic fashion, the con man gets conned. "Fight Number Twenty-five" enlists our sympathies for a mongrel dog who has to take on a wildcat that has slaughtered a vast number of dogs. "Horse-trading Trembles" is a traditional tale of the old South (A. B. Longstreet's "The Horse Swap") and of Faulkner's The Hamlet translated into an Appalachian milieu. Once again the cheater gets cheated. "No Hero" pits a six-foot five-inch bean pole who weighs 135 pounds against a 385-pound bear in a wrestling match which comes to a miraculously gentle conclusion. "Battle with the Bees" shows the organized mayhem which results when a hundred beehives are turned over by marauding hogs and the bees invade the family farm house in a mad orgy of stinging. "Hot-collared Mule" shows how Pa learns a lot more about mules from a retired mule skinner who cuts down Pa's braggadocio. Essentially a third of the stories in this book treat animals, their habits, devotion, and idiosyncrasies. These stories record Stuart's deep kinship with the animals of the earth and his almost mystical feeling for the wild life of the earth, a feeling very similar to Thoreau's thoroughly primitive "Brute Neighbors" chapter in Waiden. This sentiment is italicized for us by Stuart's final line in Save Every Lamb—"And the saddest and loneliest countries in the world are those without wildlife."
Lesser categories in this volume are the stories of politics—"Thirty-two Votes before Breakfast," "Road Number One," and "Governor Warburton's Right-hand Man." These confirm the Kentucky cliché that "politics are the damnedest in Kentucky." Then there are the moonshine stones, "Coming Down the Mountain" and "Evidence Is High Proof." The remaining stories treat feuding, social consciousness, and young love.
Please note that all the stories in this book were published between 1941 and 1950. The years from 1930 to the mid 1950s were Stuart's freshest and more spontaneous period. The stories written in this period are closer to the elements of nature that he enjoyed so much as a young man; the dialect is stronger, the language more evocative. This early fiction becomes in the aggregate a great sustained elegy to a lost world of Appalachian experience, a nostalgic greeting and farewell to an important part of America's past.
I would argue that this short fiction is essentially optimistic. Stuart believes in and practices Allen Tate's concept of "Knowledge Carried to the Heart." He has continued to live so close to his material that he can, as he says, "hear it snore." As a good primitivist he is not out of time with nature and his best short stories are not out of time with nature. Even city people—in some cases especially city people—will find the timeless archetypes of Stuart's fiction attractive. Animal fables are as old as civilization, their appeal timeless.
The reader who comes to the present work will find that the author is indeed a genuine, original, marvelously fecund writing man. These stories are well representative of his genuineness and his great vitality. They are the incarnation of a matchless individuality. Stuart says "yes" to life all along the way. He obviously belongs to what R.W.B. Lewis in The American Adam calls "the party of hope." These stories are a welcome part of his affirmation.
Mary Rohrberger (essay date 1984)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1927
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 volumes, hundreds of poems, seven novels, five juvenile books, and scores of articles and lectures. Born in an isolated log cabin in Kentucky, Stuart appears to have lived a life fast passing into mythology, where boys roamed the hills shooting squirrels and, grown into men, continued male pleasures of fighting, handling guns, and shooting them whenever there was a chance; where the women were likely to be more educated, having attended a couple of years of school; where there was in the house one book, a Bible; and where, in spite of the paucity of reading material (or maybe a Bible is enough), education is sometimes valued, as Stuart came to value it along with firmly held democratic ideals.
Stuart is an optimist, an affirmer, in love with his people and his region, and though his stories sometimes tend to broad comedy and even black humor where grotesquerie is dominant, the world he presents is for the most part realistic, three-dimensional and characterized by solidity and depth. Stuart's hill and mountain people are strongly passionate, fiercely religious, loyal within families, and hardworking. And as hard as they work is as hard as they play. Buttressed by moonshine, they give themselves over to relaxations—courtships, basket dinners, fox hunting, and always fights. But the simple verities prevail, and, in this, Stuart is a cultural primitivist, blending in his stories of W-Hollow a romantic exuberance with realistic detail and an ear for idiom that cause the people and the region to come alive. The cumulative effect of the stories is of the presentation of authentic mountain folk, come alive by vigorous force. Also characteristic are the oral character of the narrative (mainly first person and present tense) and the abundance of visual and auditory images. For the most part, the stories are plotless, primarily incidents recording a response to an action. They are also simple and direct, so that a person used to and valuing the complexities of the modern short story must find Stuart's value as a writer of short stories in accumulated detail rather than in story valued as story.
Tales from the Plum Grove Hills is typical Stuart. Most of the stories are told in the first person by a boy (adolescent or a young man, depending on the story) named Shan who is Stuart's persona. The stories range from character sketch to incident to story with well-developed plot, and from the serious to the playful and humorous to the farcical and absurd.
"Another April," the first story in the collection, characterizes Grandpa, who is ninety-one and did not retire from cutting timber and farming until he was eighty. Grandpa is Shan's mother's father, and as the story opens, the mother is carefully putting layer after layer of clothes on the old man to prepare him for his first walk in the spring after the long winter. During his walk, Grandpa stops frequently to look at things in a careful manner, apparently making contact with life around him. When he returns, instead of coming in through the front door, he toddles around toward the back. Before long it becomes apparent that Grandpa is having a conversation with an old terrapin that is, at the least, ninety-five years old.
The boy wonders about who cut the date in the terrapin's back and about whether and how long that person lived in Plum Grove and whether that person, also, like Grandpa in the spring, enjoyed the April and his walks, and looked at the blossoming trees, and talked to the terrapin. At the end of the story, in order to make the identification clear, Stuart has the boy say, "Gee, Grandpa looks like the terrapin." In the identification of Grandpa and terrapin and in boy and grandfather and in boy and grandfather with the person who carved the date in the terrapin's shell, Stuart comments on processes where birth and death are no more than part of a natural order.
"My Father Is an Educated Man" makes clear a relationship between father and son and explains why the son of his father went to school and got educated and became a "book-writer." The scene is a town, the center of the father's universe, four miles from his home, where he meets a group of men on the courthouse square; they talk and tell stories and chew tobacco and whittle. The situation concerns the narrator's overhearing a schoolteacher talking to another group of men, telling them that the father never amounted to anything and never would. The narrator wants to walk over to the schoolteacher and tell him a few things—how his father could read his name and, if he wanted to, piece together letter sounds to make words, how his father came from a heroic race, tillers of the earth who brought plows to rocky mountain slopes, who helped to build the railroads and provide the coal, who helped to build the cities and the highways and the churchhouses. What use to them was book learning? But they were educated, Shan would insist. The father's tragedy was that he was educated in a time when that kind of education was not valued as much as sitting behind a desk and wearing a neat suit and tie. But the father knows enough to encourage his son's education; he knows also that an "educated" son can no longer kill his enemies, since the son will be caught in abstractions of the kind the father will never understand, for the father's life is based in the real, the solid, and the durable.
In "Thanksgiving Hunter," Stuart recounts how Shan could not kill doves, though his Uncle Walt had carefully taught him how to shoot and care for his gun and hunt. The occasion is a dove hunt, but the boy has two memories that interfere with his desire to join in the kill and please his uncle. The first is of live doves, singing their mournful songs, carrying straws to build their nest, flying in pairs, carrying food, and feeding the young. The other is of a time when he was younger and killed a groundhog with a sassafras stick because the groundhog was eating a blister-ear of corn; he remembers hitting the groundhog over and over again for no good reason. The boy waits for the hunting party, sunning himself on a rock and noting the death around him as the season changes to winter. Everything, he thinks, is dead but a few birds and rabbits: the gun, for him, means death, too.
But the hunters know nothing of these thoughts as they hunt doves for Thanksgiving dinner. Still, the boy, hearing them, believes that he has let his uncle down, and he hopes that he can overcome his feelings and kill one dove before the hunting party returns. So he whistles his dove calls, and he is answered. As the dove comes closer to him he lifts his gun; then seeing that the dove appears unafraid, the boy thinks that the dove is a pet and lowers the gun. The dove comes closer, and the boy sees that the dove is blind in one eye, caused by a hunter's bullet. The dove turns its head, and the boy sees that both eyes have been blinded. Nevertheless, though blind, the dove calls to its mate, and soon its mate answers, its whistle becoming a beckoning voice.
These kinds of stories, told from the perspective of a sensitive boy, are different from ones in which the narrator participates as part of a ritual experience. Apparently now a feisty young man in "Death Has Two Good Eyes," Shan and his cousin, Finn, have been summoned by other cousins who live at Blanton on the Big Sandy River. Shan and Finn are met at the station by their cousin Frank, who tells them there is trouble at home with "blood-kin" whom they respect enough to put aside pistols and knives to fight with fists, clubs, and rocks. The problem has been precipitated by their Uncle Melvin, who, it appears, has seven boys by a legal wife and seven boys and two girls by another woman. The knowledge that her husband has gone to live for good with another and younger woman is driving Aunt Mallie to her grave. Since seven brothers have been pitted against seven brothers, the fight has been in stalemate; therefore, Cousin Frank has sent for reinforcements with whom he intends to win the battle. So brothers fight brothers with a couple of cousins thrown in, and, indeed, the cousins do make the difference. The fight is stopped, mighty as it is, when the other woman, wringing her bony hands and pushing her coarse black hair back from her face comes crying, "My true love is dead." It seems Uncle Melvin complained of a pain in his heart and then died in the outhouse. But dead or alive, Uncle Melvin is carried back to his lawful wedded wife while the unlawful wedded wife screams out her despair.
More like a tall tale in the local color tradition celebrating the rites of manhood than the kind of account celebrating kinship knowledge experienced by Shan in "Death Has Two Good Eyes," the story ends on the comment that Finn, who is a mighty fighter, must take after the father's side of the family, while Shan, who is not so good in a fight, undoubtedly takes after his mother's people.
At an even greater distance from the Shan of "Death Has Two Good Eyes" is the narrator of "Another Hanging." He speaks in a dialect, is overjoyed at the prospect of a hanging, joins crowds of drunken people on the way to the site, picks up a girl to watch the hanging with, and "loves her all the way home." The man who is being hanged is a murderer who has been too free with a razor and has finally slit someone's throat from ear to ear. The drunken crowd of people on their way to the hanging includes young men with pistols and girls. One is tempted to tie together these image patterns and those in "Death Has Two Good Eyes" and see in them grotesqueries of the male psyche, at least the male psyche in W-Hollow. Given, however, that Stuart's life experiences as presented in his autobiographical writing seem to deny such a meaning, and given that the story has been called an example of Stuart's "exuberant lyricism," a "wild and delirious ride" through the night proceeding with "joyous abandon," it might be better just to agree with Ruel Foster in his book on Jesse Stuart that the story is one of Stuart's "most potent and economical" and leave it at that. The narrator, Eif, is not Shan, and one can say that the callous views expressed are his and his neighbors', friends', and parents', not Stuart's. "Comic gusto," Foster goes on to tell us, "is a very American brand of humor."