Split Cherry Tree

by Jesse Stuart

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Discussion Topic

The relationship between the societal context of 1920s-1930s Kentucky farmers and the characters in "Split Cherry Tree."

Summary:

The characters in "Split Cherry Tree" reflect the societal context of 1920s-1930s Kentucky farmers, highlighting the tension between traditional rural values and modern education. This period saw a clash between the old ways of farming life and new societal changes, which is embodied in the generational conflict and evolving perspectives portrayed in the story.

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How does the quote about 1930s Kentucky farmers relate to the story "Split Cherry Tree"?

In the story, Dave's Pa represents the Kentucky farmers who struggled to adapt to a changing world. While America was rapidly changing in cities, as represented by Professor Herbert's professional knowledge of instruments such as microscopes, farmers like Pa were isolated from these developments.

Pa's day is filled with laborious farm work, and he rises at four o'clock in the morning to get a start on his day. Farmers in rural Kentucky during this era needed to chop their own wood, take care of cattle, feed hogs, draw water from the well, and make sure the stove had enough wood to prepare meals. These farmers worked hard to make sure their families simply survived, and there was no free time to wonder about things like "germs"; in fact, Pa informs Professor Herbert that he doesn't even believe microscopic life exists.

Pa has chosen to continue a life of farming, and in doing so, he is committed to the work involved in that lifestyle. His son, who reflects the younger generation, is being educated in topics that simply weren't considered useful to those who grew up in Pa's time. In fact, Pa explains this to Professor Herbert:

"School has changed a lot in the hills since you went to school. I don't guess we had high schools in this county when you went to school!"

"No," says Pa, "jist readin', writin', and cipherin'. We didn't have all this bug larnin', frog larnin', and findin' germs on your teeth and in the middle o' black snakes! Th' world's changin'."

"It is," says Professor Herbert, "and we hope all for the better."
Professor Herbert is symbolic of the increased knowledge that is necessary for students to become successful adults in a more modern world. When Pa was a student, the expectation was simply that students be able to read, write, and complete basic math; these skills reflected the needs of adults who would become farmers—and those without access to the technology that was becoming more common in other places.
Dave is caught between the two worlds, helping his father with farm chores and working diligently on "new" topics of study, such as biology and plane geometry. This will allow him greater choices to navigate society and decide which world he would rather settle into as an adult.
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How does the quote about 1930s Kentucky farmers relate to the story "Split Cherry Tree"?

"The farmers in Kentucky in the 1930s were less modern than the people in the bigger cities in America. These farmers were uneducated. This is because it took a few generations to get schools in Kentucky. When the children of these farmers grew up and became adults, they had three choices about where to live; they could stay on the farm, they could move away to the city, or they could move and come back again."

This quote connects closely to Jesse Stuart's "Split Cherry Tree," which was published in 1939 and is set in rural Kentucky.

Dave Sexton's father seems an archaic figure in 1930s America, a throwback to the nineteenth century. He is an uneducated farmer but, at the same time, a man of strong moral character. When Dave is kept after school by his teacher, Professor Herbert, to pay back his part in replacing a cherry tree he and some other high school boys destroyed during a science experiment, Mr. Sexton is furious. He needs Dave home, helping with farm chores, not staying after school. He thinks science experiments are ridiculous.

Mr. Sexton heads for the school the next day in his rough farm clothes, armed with his gun, to have a talk with Professor Herbert. Dave is mortified and anxious about what his father might do, but at the school, Professor Herbert and Mr. Sexton hit it off. Professor Herbert invites Mr. Sexton to look at bacteria through a microscope and has the time and patience to give him a complete tour of the science department. Mr. Sexton comes away a transformed believer in the power of education, saying to his son,

You must go to school. I am as strong a man as ever come out'n th' hills fer my years and th' hard work I've done. But I'm behind, Dave. I'm a little man. Your hands will be softer than mine. Your clothes will be better. You'll allus look cleaner than your old Pap. Jist remember, Dave, to pay your debts and be honest.

The story illustrates what the quote asserts: farmers in Kentucky were less educated and less modern than urban dwellers in the 1930s. It seems evident that modern education has come later to rural Kentucky as Dave is getting it and his father did not.

The story is an interesting period piece, reflecting a time when people had respect for public institutions like high school and when high school teachers treated rural farmers with respect. It is an idealized story, but it shows a belief in progress and a better future, arguing, too, that old-fashioned moral values need to be retained as knowledge and education advance. It seems, too, that while Mr. Sexton will stay on the farm, Dave may well end up leaving for the city.

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How does the societal context of 1920's Kentucky farmers relate to the characters in "Split Cherry Tree"?

The farmers in Kentucky in the 1920’s were less modern than the people of some bigger cities in America. These farmers were uneducated. This is because it took a few generations to get schools in Kentucky. When the children of these farmers grew up and became adults, they had three choices about where to live. They could stay on the farm, they could move away, or they could move to the city to study and come back again (which is what Jesse Stuart did).

Author Jesse Stuart based "Split Cherry Tree" on information he picked up while he served as the principal of a rural Kentucky school, and he may have seen a similarity between the character he created, Dave, and himself. Stuart was born in a backhills log cabin, became the first member of his family to complete high school, and eventually graduated from a small, rural college (Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee). Dave does seem to be destined to eventually leave the small community from which he hails, and he already thinks of running away from home when he recognizes that his father is planning to pay a visit to the school with his trusty .44. Dave's father is determined to see that his youngest son finishes high school--the first in the family of of eleven children to do so. Presumably, the other ten children have remained farmers--in Kentucky or elsewhere--since none received an education past grade school. Luster will no doubt die there, a hard-working man who knows nothing else but tending to the soil; meanwhile, Dave will get an education, leave the area, and earn an easier living, and he may choose to return to the Bluegrass State just as Stuart did.

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