by
John A. Cuthbert


I am a farmer singing at the plow
and as I take my time to plow along
A steep Kentucky hill, I sing my song. 

Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow, 1934.


     It was with these simple lines that Jesse Stuart burst onto the American literary scene in 1934. The words began the opening sonnet to Stuart's Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow, a volume of verse about the ebb and flow of life, and death, in the hills of eastern Kentucky. If a bit "rough-hewn," critics found the book to be a refreshing respite from the dense symbolism of other poets of the age. Readers delighted in its sentiment, its local color charm, and its timeless homespun philosophy. The young writer was instantly hailed as "an American Robert Burns."

     A collection of 67 books written by and about Stuart, including many signed and inscribed first and early editions, was recently donated to the Regional History Collection by Maryan Dahmer of Pendleton County. Along with related materials including more than 100 autograph letters written by Stuart to Dahmer, the collection is an important resource for studying of the life and works of this celebrated central Appalachian author. 

     Jesse Hilton Stuart (1906-1982) was born and raised in the small community of W- Hollow, Kentucky, just a few miles west of Huntington, West Virginia. He first became interested in literature while attending high school in nearby Greenup, Kentucky. After graduation, he worked briefly in a steel mill before enrolling at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrowgate, Tennessee, where received encouragement from Harry Harrison Kroll. He later continued his studies at the George Peabody College for Teachers and at Vanderbilt University under John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and David Davidson. 

     Though Stuart earned the respect, though not always satisfactory grades, from his illustrious teachers at the latter institution, he was largely discontented with his experiences as a graduate student. He later referred to these years in his life as "a failure." In 1933, he decided to abandon graduate study, return home and "write to suit myself the way I damn well please." 

     What suited Stuart was writing about the world he knew and loved -- the Kentucky hills, its people, old loves and lovers, the changing of the seasons: 
When golden leaves begin to shiver down
Among the barren brush beneath the trees,
And scarlet leaves and yellow and light-brown
Begin to play in wind and pepper down
To earth-- these clean and frosted leaves drip down,
Then it is time the corn is in the stack,
Potatoes in the hole--hay in the mows.
This is the time rust has grown on the plows;
The time to haul the pumpkins to the shed,
Since frosts have come and pumpkin vines are dead.
And this is time to garner autumn fruit,
Give unto earth the waste--you take the loot--
And time to run the apples through the press
And share the multi-colored ruggedness
Of shreds that drop from each tree's golden dress.
Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow (#14)

     To his surprise, Stuart found that the subjects that suited him suited others as well. When Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow appeared the following year the book received the Jeanette Sewal Davis Prize of 1934. Not long afterwards it was named to a list of the "100 Best Books in America." 

Stuart invited his readers further into his world in the prologue to his next book, a volume of short stories titled Head o' W-Hollow (1936): 

     [The] road that leads to W-Hollow is a wagon road, the first three miles of it. For the rest it's a cow path, a goat path, a rabbit path, a fox path, a mule path-- it is whatever you want to call it. But the drum of the automobile is far away. The clockin of the horses hoofs used to beat this road-- and still does....
W-Hollow is a place in the sun, fenced in by the wind...its just a place with four seasons, wind, sun, rain, snow, � with scrub oaks and old log houses and new plank shacks--a place that's somewhere for some and nowhere for most. 

     In the spring you can hear the beetles and the whippoorwills...you can hear the wind slushin around in the leaves. In the summer you can hear the wind and the corn blades parleyin around. You can hear the grasshoppers and the crickets. You can hear the lazy wind.... The whole Hollow looks lazy in the summer sun. And the sun allus shines on W-Hollow in Kentucky. It never reaches some of it until noon. But it gets there. 

     In the fall you can see the brown leaves along the path, and you can see them flyin in the wind. You can hear the beetles in the bean-patch--and down in the old cornfields. Falltime is good to hear in W-Hollow...a place in the sun, walled in by the wind and the hills,--nowhere for many--somewhere for some. 

     The great natural beauty of this isolated place formed the backdrop for a diverse set of stories about life in Appalachia, its hardships and pleasures, and the values and lifestyle of its inhabitants, good and evil, comic and pathetic, heroic and frail. One story, "Dark Winter," tells of a family's near starvation during a hard winter when the father becomes bedridden. Another, "Bellin of the Bride," is an uplifting tale of communal celebration. Critics praised the book for its penetrating characterizations and finely crafted scenes, as well as for the author's clever use of regional idioms and dialect. The book led to Stuart's receipt of the second major award of his yet-brief career, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1937.

     Stuart's triumphs continued to mount in the ensuing years. His first novel, Trees of Heaven (1940), the tale of a patriarch sharecropper named Anes Bushman, helped earn him an award for achievement in literature from the American Institute for Arts and Sciences in January 1941. His second, Taps for Private Tussy, the humorous story of how a deceased World War II soldier's life insurance benefit transformed the lifestyle of his formerly impoverished mountain kin, received the Thomas Jefferson Southern Award for the best Southern book produced in 1943. 

     Accolades poured in again several years later with the publication of Stuart's autobiographical book, The Thread that Runs So True, which traced Stuart's personal odyssey in the field of education, from child of a farmer who could barely write his name, to student, teacher, administrator, author and lecturer. The National Education Association recognized the volume as the "Best Book of 1949." The Association's founder and president, Dr. Jay Elmer Morgan pronounced it "the best book on education in the last fifty years." 

     Five years later, in recognition of his outstanding contributions and talents, the Kentucky legislature installed Stuart as the "Poet Laureate of Kentucky." He would retain this prestigious post for the next thirty years.

     Jesse Stuart's pen continued to flow with amazing fluency for the remainder of his career. Indeed, until suffering a disabling stroke in 1978, he published at least one book in most years, and often two or three. Collections of short stories and poetry, novels and books for children, nearly all are set in the environs of Stuart's beloved W-Hollow, a place as yet undefiled by modern technology, where an age old way of life prevails. It was Stuart's uncanny ability to communicate the essence of this world through careful natural observation, and penetrating human characterization aided by a clever use of dialect, that led critics such as J. Donald Adams to praise him as "a local colorist of the first rank--probably the best we have produced in the United States." 

     The late West Virginia University Appalachian literature scholar Ruel Foster, perhaps summed up Stuart's contributions best in the final chapter, "Elegist of a Lost World," of his 1967 biography, Jesse Stuart:

Jesse Stuart...a prober and chronicler of the Appalachians, the last American frontier-- [was] the regional writer par excellance.... Through W-Hollow and its peoples shine universals--a kind of unconscious welling up of stoicism, endurance, eternal laughter, love.... And the region he has created has now taken its permanent place in the timeless geography of American fiction. It will keep its place there long after more fashionable writers of the present have faded completely away.

The Jesse Stuart -- Maryan Dahmer Correspondence 

     In addition to 67 books, twenty-four periodicals and dozens of reviews and news clippings, the Jesse Stuart Collection includes more than one hundred letters and cards sent by Stuart to Dahmer between 1966 and 1976. The letters reveal much about Stuart's character, ambitions and opinions on various topics ranging from literature to politics. His attitudes are generally in keeping with the tenor of his work as a spokesperson for the citizens of rural Appalachia -- independent, moralistic, and isolationist. Several letters display the same contempt for all manner of public officials and government that runs throughout Stuart's work. A letter of January 11, 1967, reveals that he himself spurned numerous requests to throw his own hat into the political arena: 

Day before yesterday I got a phone call to run for [state government]. Today I got two more. All refused, such has no lure for me. I've worked with all "the boys" in both sides, Republican and Democrat, and I know I don't want state office.

     Though he himself was a world traveler, the letter goes on to reveal that Stuart's isolationist views extended to world politics. He was especially disturbed by the Federal Government's courting of ties with foreign powers that were unfriendly to the US: 

LBJ's State of the Union Message, (did you hear it) More of the same. Just expansion of all money for our enemies. I disagree violently with this. I've traveled more and know you don't buy friendship - let them come to us!

     In regard to his literary preferences, Stuart's letters reveal that, "The old testament has always excited me. It's such great writing." His contemporary favorites included William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. "Both Faulkner's and Hemingway's pictures hang in my room" he noted. "Steinbeck's would too if I had one." Of his teacher, Robert Penn Warren, he expressed the opinion that while he was "good on research and scholarship, ...RPW can't write a story." 

     A lover of books, Stuart had a special appreciation for the people who cared for them. After attending a conference of the American Library Association he wrote that he found the Association's membership to be "a wonderful group of very prominent people who do much for America's destiny."

     A number of the letters concern the efforts of Dahmer and several others to promote Stuart's candidacy for a Nobel Prize, an award he coveted but which eluded him as did the Pulitzer Prize which he disdained: "....who needs it." 

     Stuart did receive many accolades during the course of his long and highly prolific career including a Guggenheim fellowship and appointment by the state legislature as the Poet Laureate of Kentucky, a post he held for more than thirty years.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the West Virginia and Regional History Collection Newsletter Vol. 15 #2, Spring 2000

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