He was born in Greenup County, Kentucky, the son of poor parents who moved from one Kentucky hill farm to another, working hard to make the land pay. His father was illiterate. But he would grow up to become a prestigious and highly paid writer who traveled the world and eventually owned all the land he and his parents worked to survive. Jesse Stuart, one of the most important voices in Appalachian literature, created a distinguished body of work as novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, essayist and poet. Stuart was a husky man of enormous energy who wrote more than sixty books and loved traveling about as much as he loved his native Kentucky. He also left a lasting legacy as a powerful teacher who believed in the value of education to help others make their lives better. His memoir of teaching, The Thread That Runs So True, is a classic 20th century book on American education.
Jesse Stuart was born on August 8, 1906 in W-Hollow, Kentucky. His parents were Mitchell and Martha Hilton Stuart, Kentuckians of old mountain stock and the children of Civil War veterans. Stuart grew up in the hill country, working the fields and enjoying hunting, fishing, and wandering the woods and fields. He took pleasure in the communal events that mountain families shared: the dances, bees, hunts, and corn shuckings. Although there were times in his youth when he felt overwhelmed by the mountains and yearned to escape the hill country, he nevertheless had an enduring love for his native earth that was a prominent part of his character. It would be a constant in his writing.
Although Stuart deeply loved the natural world surrounding him, he was also a voracious reader and a keen observer of mountain life, both human and animal. A thirst for knowledge made Stuart relentless in pursuit of an education. He had less than two years of classwork in the local one room school before entering Greenup High School. For Jesse, going to high school meant walking five miles to and from school each day. Even before graduating high school he served a term as a one-room schoolteacher in Greenup County, an experience described in the first part of The Thread That Runs So True. The years to come brought a wealth of experience his way. Following his high school graduation he worked with a traveling carnival, then spent six months in a CMTC (Citizens Military Training Camp) at Camp (later Fort) Knox, Kentucky. The CMTC was a War Department program established after the First World War that provided free military training to interested young men and created potential officer candidates for the services. After his time at Camp Knox he labored for six months in the steel mills of Ashland, Kentucky—an arduous, dangerous job. A young man who filled in for Stuart one night on a machine called an air hammer was struck and killed by the machine.
But Stuart was hungry for more learning. He applied at Berea College but was rejected, so he turned to Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, a school established for the education of mountain youth. Most of the students worked their way through, and Stuart was no exception. When not hitting the books hard—and often having little to eat—he was at work in the school kitchen or out laying water pipe in all sorts of weather, among many other jobs. His persistence paid off, and Stuart became the first in his family to graduate from college. In some respects, Jesse Stuart was like Jack London–a young writer from a poor family who fought hard for an education and knew early on the grind of exhausting manual labor. Both were tough, and their life stories fit the pattern of the young man who fights his way upward towards success.
Stuart’s time at LMU had not only given him more education. He met other young people interested in writing and literature. Two other young men were there who became friends with Stuart and went on to their own renown as Appalachian writers: James Still and Don West. He also found a good mentor in Harry Harrison Kroll, a novelist and English professor. Stuart was by this time also a physically powerful man. He knew hard labor from an early age, and had weathered many physically demanding situations. The reader of Stuart’s autobiographical works soon realizes how rugged he was. Whether it is hitchhiking for miles in threadbare clothes in poor weather, working in the heat and din of a foundry, or struggling not to freeze while taking shelter in a hayrick on a winter night, the reader shares vicariously the difficult experiences Stuart endured.
After graduating from LMU, Stuart contemplated returning to the steel mills in Ashland and finding his way into business. It was the 1920s, and opportunity seemed to be everywhere, especially for a young man who had both the brains and brawn to succeed in any number of fields. But the schoolroom came calling. Some local citizens prevailed upon the young man to become the principal and sole faculty at Warnock High School, which was essentially a one-room high school. Stuart later became principal at the much larger Greenup High. He followed this stint of teaching experience with a year of graduate school at Vanderbilt University. These experiences are detailed in The Thread That Runs So True and other education books Stuart authored.
Here he came to know three of the most distinguished figures in southern letters: Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, and Donald Davidson. Stuart’s prior education was uneven, and he struggled in particular with a class taught by a professor named Edwin Mims. When Mims assigned a term paper, Stuart responded with a long autobiography. Mims was irritated when Stuart handed him the stack of manuscript, but several days later told Stuart it was one of the most powerful things he had ever read. That paper became Beyond Dark Hills, one of Stuart’s most important autobiographical works. E.P. Dutton published the book in 1938. Stuart was the kind of man who could unleash a torrent of prose that spilled forth in a headlong surge of energy when he sat down to write. He wasn’t the kind of writer who worried about the well running dry.
During his time at Vanderbilt, Stuart had his first work published. It was a volume of poetry entitled Harvest of Youth. Stuart published it with a vanity press. It was essentially a collection of juvenilia, and Stuart was embarrassed by it. But within several years Stuart would publish poetry again, and the result was much different.
Stuart returned again to Greenup County in 1932, and became, at the age of twenty-four, the youngest county school superintendent in Kentucky. He wrote furiously while attending to his administrative duties, and attracted the attention of an editor at E.P. Dutton who admired a piece that Stuart placed in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Stuart responded to the editor with the 703 poems that became Man with a bull-tongue Plow.
In 1933, Stuart became principal of McKell High School and Man with a bull tongue Plow was published in 1934. The poems met with critical acclaim, and the young writer placed stories in several major magazines. Stuart continued to produce a flood of poetry and prose. His first book of short stories, Head o’ W-Hollow, appeared in 1936. Stuart applied for a Guggenheim fellowship, was accepted, and in July of 1937 sailed for Scotland, a country he had long wanted to see as his paternal ancestors hailed from there. Another reason was that the great Scots bard Robert Burns, who had been a ploughboy just like Stuart, was a special favorite of Jesse’s. During his time overseas, Stuart traveled widely in Europe, savoring the experience of wandering from one country to another. It was the beginning of a lifelong love of travel that would take Stuart and his wife Naomi Deane to many countries around the world. During his time in Scotland, Stuart visited Burns’ grave. From a volume of Burns’ poetry he took a dried spray of goldenrod from his Kentucky hills and laid it on the poet’s grave. The young writer from Kentucky surely must have been moved to think how far he had come in his life, and amazed to find himself in a land he had read about in books and likely only dreamed of ever seeing.
Beyond Dark Hills—his infamous term paper for Edwin Mims—was published in July of 1938, one month before Stuart returned from his fellowship year. He returned to Greenup County to find that his job at McKell High was no longer there and that a new and repressive county administration was in place. He took a job teaching across the river at Portsmouth, Ohio, and also started a small Republican newspaper in Greenup County to fight the interests he opposed—and trouble soon followed. Then as now, politics was often deeply intertwined with education, and Stuart had long been an advocate for educational reform in his state. Education in Kentucky at this time was especially poor, and a system in place that allowed districts to be operated, often in heavy-handed and corrupt ways by trustees, many of them men with no experience in education, exacerbated educational problems in the Commonwealth. Stuart had become an enemy of the politicians who now controlled Greenup County.
On a number of occasions in his teaching career, Stuart had to physically fight his opponents. As early as his days as a teenage one-room schoolteacher, he successfully fought a young man who had beaten up and run off Stuart’s sister Martha when she taught at the same school and was determined to do the same to Stuart, and he had also battled several other adversaries who wanted to resolve their problems with Stuart with violence. But he encountered a different level of violence during his battle in Greenup County. One day in October of 1938, a man came up to Stuart at a drugstore and struck him three times across the head with a blackjack. According to Ruel E. Foster in his Twayne’s study of Jesse Stuart, “the attending physician said they (the blows) would have killed an ordinary man.” The incident was covered in the eastern press, and Time magazine did two stories on the attack.
The event proved a turning point in his life. The case went to trial, and the man who attacked Stuart only received a fine. But Stuart, much as he loved teaching, had had enough. He had long endured difficult parents (young teachers of today—note that this is not a new problem), corrupt trustees, meddling politicians, and disinterested students. His life had been threatened numerous times. And now he had been nearly killed. But the crux of the matter was money. In all his years of teaching, the amount he earned totaled only around $10,000. He wanted to marry another young teacher named Naomi Deane Norris, and his teaching salary wasn’t going to cut it. Stuart opted to buy some land, continue writing, and raise sheep. He married Naomi Deane, and their daughter Jane, their only child, was born in 1942.
But Stuart’s timing was good. The period from the late 1930s to the early 1950s was to be one in which Stuart created many of his best-known and most lucrative works. Following the publication of Man with a bull-tongue plow in 1934, Stuart published his first collection of short stories, Head o’ W-Hollow in 1936. Beyond Dark Hills, Stuart’s first autobiographical volume, appeared in 1938, and Trees of Heaven, his first novel, appeared in 1940. Men of the Mountains, a short story collection, appeared in 1941, and two years later his novel Taps For Private Tussie was published. Taps For Private Tussie, a comic novel about a poor mountain family during World War II, was Stuart’s best selling book. A second large collection of poetry, Album of Destiny, appeared in 1944. During that same year, Stuart enlisted in the Navy, becoming a Lieutenant (junior grade) in the U.S. Navy Reserve and serving in Washington until being mustered out on December 31, 1945.
The torrent of words continued. A novel about small town pettiness, Foretaste of Glory, appeared in 1946, as did a short story collection called Tales From The Plum Grove Hills. But in 1949 Stuart published a book that brought him to an even wider audience, and one that might very well be perhaps the first really prominent example of a genre I call the “teaching memoir.” That book is The Thread That Runs So True. This book is an account of Stuart’s teaching days from his first spell in the classroom as a one-room schoolhouse teacher during to his high school days until his final days at Portsmouth High School. Stuart originally intended to write a novel about his teaching days, but opted instead to write a memoir, simply changing the names of people and places. This is one of his most enduring books, and it continues to be widely read today.
One interesting aspect of Stuart’s career that has been obscured by his later status is just how much he was a kind of pariah or outcast within his home territory back in the thirties and forties. Stuart later became virtually a Kentucky institution, a man nearly synonymous with the Commonwealth. He later traveled extensively throughout the U.S., lecturing at various universities, and also lectured and taught overseas in connection with programs organized by the U.S. State Department. He was a Rotarian and a Republican–two affiliations you don’t often see in the world of arts and letters. He received numerous honorary degrees and edited anthologies for high school students. His own works often found their way into school anthologies, with his story “Split Cherry Tree” being a frequent choice for inclusion. He was only in his fifties when a bust was erected of him in the town square of the Greenup County seat of Greenup, Kentucky. He offered constructive criticism of the youth revolts of the fifties and sixties, and even served briefly again as principal of McKell High School in the mid 1950s.
But Stuart’s earlier years were difficult. His actions as a dedicated and reform-oriented principal and teacher often aroused the ire of some local residents, and sometimes resulted in violence or the threat of it. Even after leaving teaching, his writings aroused considerable controversy in his home county. For a while he and Naomi Deane considered moving elsewhere. This stance is notably different from an author such as Thomas Wolfe, who wrote repeatedly and at length about his mountain region in North Carolina, creating no shortage of anger and resentment, and chose to live in a kind of exile. Stuart stayed, endured, and lived to see the tide swing in his favor. The mayor of Greenup even asked him to write a pamphlet about himself for visitors to the area.
The years to come would bring continued publication, along with bouts of travel and teaching. Stuart was relentlessly busy managing his land, writing, and giving readings and lectures. His whirlwind of activity came to a halt with a massive heart attack that struck him shortly after he read at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky in the autumn of 1954. He would spend the next year recovering, and out of that experience would come his memoir The Year of My Rebirth. Mortality was much on his mind given this experience, and this theme was underscored in December of 1954 when his father died. In the year of his recovery, Stuart would meditate much on his own life, on the land around him, and the legacy of his father. In 1956 he published The Year of My Rebirth, and four years later he published God’s Oddling, a biography of Mitch Stuart, his father.
Awards, accolades, and opportunities for travel and teaching continued to come Stuart’s way. In the summer of 1960 he began a year of teaching at the University of Cairo in Egypt. That same year a “Jesse Stuart Room” was dedicated at Murray State University, and in February of 1961 he won a $5,000 fellowship from the Academy of American Poets. In 1966, Jesse Stuart High School in Jefferson County, Kentucky was dedicated (the building is now Jesse Stuart Middle School), a remarkable honor for a man who was only fifty-nine years of age. During the late 1960s a number of critical works on Stuart appeared as well.
In the years that followed, Stuart continued to write voluminously, producing short stories, novels, essays, and children’s books. In 1979 he began working with English professor H. Edward Richardson of the University of Louisville on a biography. But the man who had been so vigorous when young continued to suffer health problems. He had more heart attacks, and by 1980 his health began to deteriorate. He suffered two strokes. In 1982 he was moved to the Jo-Lin Health Care Center in Ironton, Ohio. He would remain there for the last two years of his life, dying on February 17, 1984 at the age of seventy-seven. Richardson’s excellent biography, Jesse: The Biography of An American Writer—Jesse Hilton Stuart, appeared later that year. A more recent biography—Jesse Stuart: An Extraordinary Life—by Jesse Stuart Foundation Director James Gifford and Erin R. Kazee, appeared in 2010.
The land that Stuart owned was purchased by the Commonwealth of Kentucky and is now the Jesse Stuart Nature Preserve, a 714 acre nature preserve in Greenup County. The Jesse Stuart Foundation, created in 1979 by Stuart with the help of business and educational leaders in the Commonwealth, owns the rights to Stuart’s works and continues to bring titles by Stuart and other noted Appalachian writers back into print. There is also a lodge named after Jesse Stuart at Greenbo Lake State Resort Park in Greenup, Kentucky.
Stuart’s place in American letters is problematic. Within Appalachian literature he is an important figure. He is better known throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia then he is in the country at large, it seems safe to say. Secondary and elementary teachers and school librarians have helped to keep his legacy alive in those states, and the Jesse Stuart Foundation has been a major player in this as well. But it seems equally safe to say that Stuart has fallen into obscurity within the larger literary culture of the United States. This is all too often the case with so-called “regional” writers. This is unfortunate. Stuart was a deeply gifted writer who created works that are not only entertaining and thought-provoking, but also important for capturing a part of the American experience that has largely vanished.
One issue that makes his status controversial is the sheer amount of what he wrote. Stuart composed more than sixty books. He also wrote a total of 450 short stories and at least two thousand poems. Most critics would agree that he wrote too much, and that he did not revise as sufficiently as he should have in many cases. Stuart was a whirlwind of energy, a vital and dynamic man, and once he had finished a project he was on to the next. He was not a slow-moving craftsman of the Henry James variety. Critics have faulted him for his looseness, for insufficient development of character and plot, and an overabundance of flat characters. The situation was well put by William S. Ward in his A Literary History of Kentucky:
“Even when one agrees that Stuart wrote too much, exercised too little care, and blazed no new trails, it seems fair to say that the literary establishment has been at fault in failing to discover the merit that Stuart unquestionably has: effectiveness in handling an episode, skill in descriptive narrative, power of language, and excellence in the portrayal of a static character. At the same time, no thoughtful student of literature can successfully brush away Stuart’s lack of skill in technique or ignore the defects that grew out of the headlong pace at which he wrote and his seeming resistance to careful revision.”
On the other hand, Stuart’s writing is known for its lyricism, its vitality and comedy, its abundance of wonderfully evoked moods, and its rootedness in a genuine rural folk culture. Stuart was outstanding in writing poetic prose that captured both the rigors and pleasures of life in the mountains. Stuart also created a number of vibrant poems. He later revised Man with a bull-tongue Plow, cutting a number of poems, but despite the large number of poems in the book, there is still a rich assortment of gems.
The more I read Stuart, and the more I learn about him, I find myself gaining a deeper sense of his importance when considering him in relation to the period in which most critics would agree he produced his strongest work: from the mid 1930s to the early 1950s. The 1930s and early 1940s were a time in which novelists and other writers found themselves closely reexamining life in America, particularly the lives of rural and everyday Americans. Historical novels and works of American history became popular. Too many literary histories of the past have focused on the Thirties in particular as the time of “proletarian” literature and political engagement by American writers. This is part of the story, but there are other aspects of these years that have been too long overlooked, and recent literary histories such as Peter Conn’s The American 1930s: A Literary History, have addressed more broadly American literary culture during the period. This more balanced treatment was overdue. Stuart’s tales of rural life were in keeping with the literary culture of these decades. During this period his work regularly appeared in Esquire, the American Mercury, and other respected periodicals. Stuart’s work became “out of fashion” in the following decades, but that doesn’t negate his strengths as a writer. It’s time to take a fresh look at his work.
It was also during this period that Faulkner produced his best work, and other southern writers such as Erskine Caldwell, Eudora Welty, and Robert Penn Warren began to make their mark on American literature. Zora Neale Hurston produced her outstanding works of both fiction and folklore during this time. John Steinbeck, Sanora Babb, and Josephine Johnson created memorable novels about the struggles of rural people. Gladys Hasty Carroll crafted novels about the regional life of New England, especially Maine.
Writers such as Louis Adamic, Theodore Dreiser, Edmund Wilson, and Sherwood Anderson hit the road to document the lives of everyday Americans during the years of the Great Depression. The writers of the Works Progress Administration, many of them later to become famous, traveled the length and breadth of the country to create the remarkable books in the American Guide series, one of the great achievements of the New Deal. In 1941 appeared the classic work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, with text by James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans, which examines in remarkable detail the lives of several tenant farm families. A number of writers created works of “photo-text” at this time. These were works that sought to capture American life in both words and photographs. Erskine Caldwell and his wife, the brilliant photographer Margaret Bourke-White, created You Have Seen Their Faces (1937) and Say, Is This The USA (1942). Archibald MacLeish wrote one photo-text as well—Land Of The Free in 1938-and during the 1940s, Wright Morris created both photos and text for his books The Inhabitants (1946) and The Home Place (1948). Many of the photos in all of these extraordinary books are of rural American citizens and scenes.
Other writers working in the Thirties and Forties who had a regional or rural focus, or who composed fiction, drama and poetry about small town life or early America include Mildred Walker, John Sinclair, Conrad Richter, Paul Engle, Wallace Stegner, Harold Sinclair, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Caroline Gordon, Paul Green, DuBose Heyward, Julia Peterkin, Lynn Riggs and Thomas Wolfe, among others. Looking back on this period from the early 21st century, I see value in this massive amount of poetry, prose, drama and documentation not only as literature, but also as history. There almost seems to have been an impulse at work behind all this creation that sprung from some awareness that this world was coming to an end. The 1940s was arguably a time when much of the country was still rural. Changes were already underway, but those following World War II moved at hyper speed, leaving behind the old world in the wake of interstates, suburbs, and consumerism.
The Forties in particular were also a time when some of the most noted works in Appalachian writing appeared. In addition to the books by Stuart mentioned earlier, the decade also saw the publication of James Still’s River of Earth (1940), Mildred Haun’s The Hawk’s Done Gone (1940), Hubert Skidmore’s Hawk’s Nest ( 1941), and Harriette Arnow’s Hunter’s Horn (1949). Each book in this clutch of novels is a potent work of fiction deserving placement alongside better known works of the times.
I believe we need to see Jesse Stuart not only as a vibrant voice within the Appalachian tradition, but in American literature as well. Likewise we would do well to see the writers of Appalachia not only within the context of their culture, a culture that has often been misunderstood, condescended to, or denigrated by outsiders, but also as an important tradition within the broader scope of our national heritage. Appalachian literature is American literature. We should not let the mountains confine these voices.
Jesse Stuart was a complex and contradictory man: a man who loved both his mountain traditions and travel abroad; a man who relished time in the outdoors as well as classical music and literature; a man who could speak with the townspeople in Greenup County and the people of Cairo, Egypt. He created memorable books alongside of his noted peers of the Thirties and Forties and never stopped writing. It would be good to see a new critical study that takes into account the later work of Stuart and weighs it within the balance of his career. Credit also goes to Stuart for pioneering the form of the teaching memoir with The Thread That Runs So True.
In his best work, Stuart creates a vibrant world that takes embraces both nature and man, community and individual, birth and decay, springtime and autumn, and celebrates all with a lyrical freshness that is evergreen. Like his favorite month, April, coming around again after the long winter, there is something perennial in the best of his work.
Sources and Resources:
Jesse Stuart by Ruel E. Foster. Twayne Publishers, Inc. New York, 1968. Although published in 1968, it is still an excellent treatment of Stuart’s work through the mid 1960s, seeing clearly his many strengths while acknowledging his limitations. Highly recommended despite its publishing date of forty-seven years ago.
Jesse: The Biography of an American Writer–Jesse Hilton Stuart by H. Edward Richardson. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. 1984. An excellent biography of Stuart published shortly after his death. Stuart worked closely with Richardson, who interviewed Stuart numerous times and was given access to documents and other resources. Richardson also worked with Stuart and others to create the Jesse Stuart Foundation.
A Literary History of Kentucky by William S. Ward, foreword by Thomas D. Clark. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville. 1988. A valuable overview of Kentucky literary history.
The Literature of the Appalachian South by George Brosi. 1994. George Brosi is a bookseller and authority on Appalachian literature. He teaches English at Eastern Kentucky University and edits a quarterly journal devoted to Appalachian literature called Appalachian Heritage that is affiliated with Berea College. He wrote and hand-published this valuable little guide to the literature of Appalachia. I bought a copy from him at the Cincinnati Appalachian Festival in 1995 and have always found it enormously useful. I am grateful I met him that day and bought a copy.
Beyond Dark Hills: A Personal Story by Jesse Stuart. Edited and with an introduction by John H. Spurlock. The Jesse Stuart Foundation, Ashland, Kentucky, 1996.
Jesse Stuart: An Extraordinary Life by James Gifford and Erin R. Kazee. The Jesse Stuart Foundation, Ashland, Ky., 2010. I just became aware of this book while composing this post and have ordered a copy. I look forward to reading it.
Here’s a link to the Jesse Stuart Foundation:
Here’s a link to Greenbo Lake State Resort Park: