Today—October 14, 2014–marks the eightieth anniversary of the publication of Jesse Stuart’s rambling and powerful collection of 703 sonnets called Man with a bull-tongue Plow. Yes, you read that number correctly—703! Stuart was a tall and robust man from the hills of Kentucky who wrote like a force of nature. He was born in Greenup County, Kentucky on August 8, 1906 and died on February 17, 1984.
Stuart is a writer who deserves wider recognition, but his importance has been rightfully acknowledged as a seminal figure within the Appalachian literary tradition. He was a novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and memoirist who was also a gifted teacher. He wrote some stirring books on education, most notably The Thread That Runs So True, which tells of his days teaching in the mountain schools of Kentucky.
Man with a bull-tongue Plow had a foreground that dated back one year. Frustrated with his earlier attempts to write in a more modern style, Stuart decided to write poems after his own heart and composed his first sonnets while out plowing during the summer of 1933 after returning home from graduate study at Vanderbilt. He sent one off to H.L. Mencken at the American Mercury. This first sonnet—“Elegy For Mitch Stuart”—was his first publication in a nationally recognized magazine.
That fall he published twelve more sonnets in the Virginia Quarterly Review under the collective title of “Man With a Cutter Plow.” He followed this submission with thirteen more poems once again in the American Mercury, and then published some more in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in May of 1934. The firm of E.P. Dutton contacted Stuart about a book of poems, and Stuart responded with the 703 poems that were published on October 14, 1934 to generally positive reviews.
In Man with a bull-tongue Plow, Stuart shows us the world of his Kentucky hills through the course of the seasons, telling stories of the people who inhabit this world. Some of the poems tell the stories of those buried in the local cemetery—a stillborn child buried by a grieving mountaineer father, a constable shot dead by a moonshiner, soldiers killed in France and returned home for burial. But there are also episodes full of comic exuberance and earthy humor, and celebrations of the land.
Man with a bull-tongue Plow demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of his work. Just about any scholar of Stuart will claim that he wrote too much, and didn’t revise as much as he should have. On the other hand, his work is full of vitality and celebration. Despite the faults, there are many riches to be found here. Stuart issued a revised version of the book in 1959 of only 622 sonnets (!).
I’ve been working on a more in-depth treatment of Stuart that should appear in the next few months here on Buckeyemuse. However, here’s hoping that readers might take a look at Man with a bull-tongue Plow.
Jesse Stuart. Ruel E. Foster. Twayne Publishers Inc., New York. 1968.
Man with a bull-tongue Plow (revised edition). Jesse Stuart. E.P. Dutton Co., New York 1959.