Jesse Stuart

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 44

Although Jesse Stuart probably found the best outlet for his artistic expression in the short story, he published more than two thousand poems, a number of autobiographical works, nine novels—the latter including the best-selling Taps for Private Tussie (1943), and six children’s books.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 234

Through the vivid pictures that he presents in his stories of life in the Kentucky hill country, Jesse Stuart opened up significant veins of material for other writers who follow him. While not adding new dimensions to the short story, he did nevertheless produce many excellent examples in that genre.

Virtually all Stuart’s stories deal with the hill country of eastern Kentucky, where generations ago people dropped off from the movement West to settle in the hills and hollows of what has come to be a part of Appalachia. The life depicted in these stories is hard, and the people who live it are fundamentally religious and close to the earth. A natural storyteller, Stuart captured not only the idiom of his characters but also the very essence of their relationship to one another and to the natural world around them. He does not take solely the realist’s approach but blends in a strain of romantic optimism.

Although cast in what appears to be a realist mode, Stuart’s stories often blend a romantic optimism with an exuberance for life that is sometimes expressed in comic juxtapositions that verge on the grotesque. A popular as well as prolific author, Stuart was named poet laureate of Kentucky in 1954, won an award for Taps For Private Tussie in 1943, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for The World of Jesse Stuart: Selected Poems (1975).

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Jesse Stuart initially gained prominence as a poet. His first collection, Harvest of Youth (1930), contained eighty-one poems, which are considered largely juvenilia. His second collection, Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow (1934), was composed of 703 poems written in sonnetlike forms (Stuart did not always hold strictly to the sonnet structure). The book was a popular and critical success and brought Stuart his first recognition. His next volume of poetry, Album of Destiny (1944), was less well received, although Stuart considered it his best. Subsequently, he published three other books of verse: Kentucky Is My Land (1952), Hold April (1962), and The World of Jesse Stuart: Selected Poems (1975).

Stuart was also a prolific short-story writer. From his more than three hundred published short stories, Stuart gathered several collections, including Head o’ W-Hollow (1936), Men of the Mountains (1941), Tales from the Plum Grove Hills (1946), Clearing in the Sky, and Other Stories (1950), Plowshare in Heaven: Tales True and Tall from the Kentucky Hills (1958), Save Every Lamb (1964), My Land Has a Voice (1966), and The Best-Loved Short Stories of Jesse Stuart (1982). “Huey the Engineer,” a story first published in Esquire (August, 1937), was later printed in an anthology, The Best Short Stories of 1938. It is generally agreed that Stuart’s best work has been in the short story.

Stuart’s biographical and autobiographical writings, which are among his most important, include Beyond Dark Hills (1938), The Thread That Runs So True (1949), The Year of My Rebirth (1956), and God’s Oddling (1960). In addition, he has written several books for children, including The Beatinest Boy (1953), A Penny’s Worth of Character (1954), Red Mule (1955), The Rightful Owner (1960), and Andy Finds a Way (1961).


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As a writer, Jesse Stuart was both a spokesperson for and a popularizer of Appalachia, a region and people that have long bewildered and fascinated. In some ways, Stuart was responsible for strengthening and prolonging, if not creating, a number of the myths and stereotypes that have beleaguered this area, although Stuart insisted that he rarely exaggerated the truth. Stuart himself seems larger than life, and given that so much of his fiction is heavily dependent on his own life, it is difficult to determine where the actual leaves off and the imaginative begins. There was Stuart as the mountain boy from a large, poor family, who worked his way through school fired by a need for knowledge; then, as an educator who returned to his region and almost single-handedly (and sometimes two-fistedly) brought learning into a backward land; and finally as an extremely successful writer who scribbled poems by the bushel while plowing fields, who produced novels in a few weeks’ time, and who gained a reputation as a true primitive, a writer who created as a force of nature. Still, there is no denying the impressive scope of Stuart’s achievements. With boundless energy and enthusiasm, he established himself as perhaps the foremost American regionalist writer of the twentieth century.

Stuart was labeled as an original from the time of his first important work, Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow, in 1934. He claimed to have written these poems primarily for his own pleasure, as reflections and observations on the world of nature in which he lived; but when they were published, their vitality, apparent artlessness, and obvious sincerity captivated a large section of the literary establishment and the reading public. Stuart, the writing mountain man, was called “a modern Robert Burns,” the kind of easy pigeonholing that reveals a misunderstanding of both writers. When Stuart followed the poems with a collection of stories (Head o’ W-Hollow), a book of autobiography (Beyond Dark Hills), and an impressive novel (Trees of Heaven), he had declared himself a writer to be reckoned with.

The recognition and awards came quickly. In 1934, he received the Jeannette Sewal Davis poetry prize of one hundred dollars for Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow (beating out such other contenders as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams). In 1937, he was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Literary Award for his poetry and short stories. In 1941, he was given the Academy of Arts and Sciences Award for Men of the Mountains, his second short-story collection. In 1943, his second novel, Taps for Private Tussie, was chosen for the Thomas Jefferson Southern Award as the best Southern novel of the year. The Thread That Runs So True, which detailed Stuart’s experiences as a young teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, was selected by the National Educational Association as the “most important book of 1949” written on the subject of education (the president of the NEA, Jay Elmer Morgan, called it “the best book on education written in the last fifty years”). In 1954, Stuart was named poet laureate of Kentucky; in 1955, he was given the Centennial Award for Literature by Berea College. The recognition that meant the most to Stuart came in 1961, when the 1960 fellowship of the Academy of American Poets was bestowed on him for “distinguished service to American poetry.”


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Blair, Everetta Love. Jesse Stuart: His Life and Works. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1967. Blair opens with a brief account of Stuart’s life and background. Subsequent chapters survey his poetry, short stories, novels, and other accomplishments. General discussions provide insight into particular works and overall trends.

Foster, Ruel E. Jesse Stuart. New York: Twayne, 1968. One of the earliest, and with a few exceptions, one of the best of the critical studies. Contains biographical information as well as extensive critiques on Stuart’s work up to the date of publication.

Le Master, J. R. ed. Jesse Stuart: Selected Criticism. St. Petersburg, Fla.: Valkyrie Press, 1978. A good start to Stuart criticism, this volume includes previously published articles by different scholars. Excellent introduction to Stuart’s work.

Le Master, J. R. and Mary Washington Clark, eds. Jesse Stuart: Essays on His Work. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1977. These essays (written specifically for this volume) provide critical perspectives on different facets and forms of Stuart’s work, including poetry, short fiction, and novels, as well as his humor and use of folklore. The editors indicate that a primary purpose here is to bring into sharper focus Stuart’s use of multiple perspectives.

Lowe, Jimmy. Jesse Stuart: The Boy from the Dark Hills. Edited by Jerry A. Herndon, James M. Gifford, and Chuck D. Charles. Ashland, Ky.: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1990. A good, updated biography of Stuart.

Pennington, Lee. The Dark Hills of Jesse Stuart. Cincinnati: Harvest Press, 1967. Pennington discusses Stuart’s system of symbolism as it emerges in his early poetry and later through his novels. Argues that Stuart is far more than a regionalist; rather, he is an important creative writer and spokesman not only for a region but for all humankind.

Richardson, H. Edward. Jesse: The Biography of an American Writer—Jesse Hilton Stuart. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984. This inclusive study, printed in the year of Stuart’s death, contains some photographs. Sensitively written, it offers invaluable reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in Stuart’s life and work.

Thompson, Edgar H. “A Cure for the Malaise of the Dislocated Southerner: The Writing of Jesse Stuart.” Journal of the Appalachian Studies Association 3 (1991): 146-151. A good survey of Stuart emphasizing his regional heritage.

Towles, Donald B. “Twenty Stories from Jesse Stuart.” The Courier-Journal, September 20, 1998, p. O51. A review of Tales from the Plum Grove Hills; surveys the themes and subjects of the stories and comments on their use of Eastern Kentucky dialect.

Ward, William S. A Literary History of Kentucky. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988. Includes a biographical-critical discussion of Stuart’s work, pointing out that Stuart deals with people as individuals rather than in sociological terms; claims that a principle source of his success with the short story was the zest with which he carried a story through in a flood of detail.

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