The Small Town in the Machine Age: Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White”

Leave a comment

Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson

For those generally familiar with American literature, particularly that of the early twentieth century, the name Sherwood Anderson likely brings to mind his famous collection of interconnected short stories called Winesburg, Ohio (1919). This book is one of a number appearing around the time that helped, as is often said in some literary histories, to “blow the lid” off of that venerated American institution–the small town. This “revolt from the village,” as it has often been called, was a central element of American letters from the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1930s. Even after World War II novels continued to appear which probed the darker realities of American life behind the surface of small American communities. One such notable book is Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, which created excitement and debate in its time and is still well worth reading today. Some of this writing was in reaction to the notion that American small towns and cities were bastions of goodness and wholesomeness in contrast to corrupt and filthy cities.

Spoon River in Illinois.

Spoon River in Illinois.

It was 100 years ago, in 1915, that Edgar Lee Masters’ seminal poetry collection Spoon River Anthology appeared (which will be the subject of a special post here on buckeyemuse before the year’s end), a book in which the dead in the local cemetery speak of their thwarted dreams and desires, their sins and crimes, their adulteries and scandals. Sinclair Lewis published his notorious novel Main Street in 1920, and followed it a few years later with his satirical treatment of the small-time businessman Babbitt (1922) and his portrait of the corrupt minister Elmer Gantry (1927).

Sherwood Anderson with his wife, children, and father-in-law in 1909.

Sherwood Anderson with his wife, children, and father-in-law in 1909.

Zona Gale, Ruth Suckow, Willa Cather and others created fictional works capturing the loneliness, alienation, narrowness and corruption in smaller communities. Thomas Wolfe wrote his four autobiographical novels about small town North Carolina that infuriated his former neighbors. Journalist H.L. Mencken famously excoriated the culture of rural America, particularly in the South. This notion, by the way, that small town life in these times was full of corruption, bigotry, complacency, mean-spirited religiosity and sterility is also sometimes referred to as “the village virus.” Mencken wanted to see American life inoculated against the virulent strains he believed residing in its provincial culture, and railed against them accordingly.

Sherwood Anderson as a boy.

Sherwood Anderson as a boy.

But this literary history is more complicated than this short description may suggest. The more unflinching kind of literary treatment of small town life and everyday folk was part of a much larger movement towards realism in literature not only in the United States but Europe as well. Writers wanted to capture the realties of a changing modern world, a world that would be upended by the First World War and once again with a second conflict. The desire to throw off the inhibitions of the Victorian period was relentless, and novelists, poets, and short story writers began to more openly address issues surrounding sexuality. The influence of Sigmund Freud, to name but one important figure, was profound.

The critical examination of rural and small town life had roots extending back to the previous century. One of the first books to examine a sterile rural community is Edgar Watson’s The Story of a Country Town, published all the way back in 1883. Hamlin Garland wrote of bleak lives on the prairie in his realist classic Main-Travelled Roads. And Mark Twain was no stranger to the darkness of the human heart, particularly in the rural hamlets alongside the Mississippi River, and there are strange things that go on in the nighttime even in the sunny world of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Last but certainly not least, I would be remiss not to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne, who gave us one of the great treatments of hypocrisy and cold-hearted morality in the much smaller Boston of the 1600s in The Scarlet Letter.

Camden, Ohio--birthplace of Sherwood Anderson

Camden, Ohio–birthplace of Sherwood Anderson

There is yet another layer to this that demands our attention. This “revolt from the village” is further complicated when we look more closely at these books, such as Winesburg, Ohio. While there was at times a negative impulse animating this kind of writing that peered so deeply into the depths of small town and rural America, much of it was also driven by a desire not only to examine and expose, in the name of realism and honesty, but also to awaken others to what was missing in the lives of people and to raise questions about what had been lost in pursuit of opportunity in this fledgling nation.

Big Etna coke furnace in Ironton, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Appalachianhistory.net.

Big Etna coke furnace in Ironton, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Appalachianhistory.net.

Some of these writers were outraged idealists who felt deeply the rift between the positive forces and ideals that were supposedly present in American life and the realities they saw around them. In many of these novels and short stories there are moments of transcendence and vision, love and honesty, insight and inspiration. Positive people and influences in these small communities appear alongside of barrenness, rigidity, and pharisaical religion. Often we sense a love for these characters suffocated and oppressed by the forces and people governing their lives. Even the satirist Sinclair Lewis often reveals affection for the places and people he writes about, and Carol Kennicott, the outsider protagonist of Main Street who seeks to uplift the provincial types around her, can be seen as foolish and judgmental in contrast to the simple and straightforward people of the town of Gopher Prairie. The fact remains that, like much else in our world, these towns were a mixture of darkness and light. Human nature played its role in  shaping individual lives for good or ill. Any fair reading of history has to note that many people loved the places where they lived and chose to remain in the small communities they called home.

Morning Sun Presbyterian Church in Morning Sun, Ohio. This church was built in the late 1800s. Anderson's parents lived in Morning Sun for a while.

Morning Sun Presbyterian Church in Morning Sun, Ohio. This church was built in the late 1800s. Anderson’s parents lived in Morning Sun for a while.

There is another predominant theme that emerged in American literature at this time, and that was the impact on American communities and people by industrialism and the rise of major commercial interests. These interests shaped not only the physical landscape of the nation, but the spiritual, moral, and economic dimensions of American society. The theme appears in works by writers such as Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and others, and operates as a low but audible hum in the background of many other narratives even when other themes are predominant.

It was once a sleepy village: Chicago, Illinois.

It was once a sleepy village: Chicago, Illinois.

Even in a book like Winesburg, Ohio, which focuses so much on the interior lives of its characters, there is the knowledge that the world around them is being transformed, a point that is highlighted at the conclusion when the central character, George Willard, departs from Winesburg to make his way in the big city. There is little opportunity for a young man like him in the town of his birth. Larger forces have sent their tremors into the countryside, bringing inevitable change with them.

Historical marker for Sherwood Anderson in Camden, Ohio. Anderson was born there, but his family moved to Clyde just a year after his birth.

Historical marker for Sherwood Anderson in Camden, Ohio. Anderson was born there, but his family moved to Clyde just a year after his birth.

Poor White is a novel by Sherwood Anderson that examines this transformation of agrarian America, but also explores the forces that shape life in a small community, the lives of some of its people, and asks what is it missing in the lives of Americans. Poor White is often considered Anderson’s best novel. Although best known for Winesburg, Ohio and a number of other short stories, Anderson wrote novels, memoir, autobiography and journalism as well.

A fictional memoir of Anderson's:

A fictional memoir of Anderson’s: “Tar: A Midwest Childhood.” Sherwood is the boy seated at far left.

Poor White appeared in 1920. It tells the story of Hugh McVey, a young boy who grows up in conditions not unlike Huck Finn’s in a squalid Missouri riverfront town called Mudcat Landing. His father, like Huck’s Pap, is a drunken loafer. Hugh grows up in a state of torpor, spending his days idling by the river. It is only when he takes a job at the Mudcat Landing railway station that his life changes. The telegraph operator’s wife, a New England woman who senses Hugh’s potential, encourages Hugh to put his mind to work. Hugh soon leaves Mudcat Landing and heads east to Ohio, drifting from job to job and eventually landing in a town called Bidwell. He carries in his mind the images of thriving factories after hearing the telegraph operator’s wife speak of vibrant industrial New England towns.

Sherwood Anderson's

Sherwood Anderson’s “Poor White.”

In Bidwell, Hugh explores and develops his capacity for creating labor-saving machinery. His first machine is a cabbage-planting device. This invention ultimately proves unsuccessful, but Hugh’s talent for invention becomes clear, and in turn attracts the attention of a budding capitalist named Steve Hunter. McVey’s friend and associate Hunter is a man interested only in profits. McVey develops a successful farm machinery business—but at a cost he doesn’t expect. Farm hands find themselves out of work because of McVey’s machines. Some find themselves factory hands, removed from the lands on which they labored in close connection with the farmers who employed them. The factories also attract outsiders, many of them job-seeking immigrants who do not understand the local culture of Bidwell. Slums begin to appear in the town. Men also leave Bidwell to work in other places. Older businesses, mainly small operations run by artisans and craftsmen, such as a harness making shop, are casualties of the machine age.

Richland, Missouri: a Midwestern town that's seen better days.

Richland, Missouri: a Midwestern town that’s seen better days.

McVey, a kind of natural man and innocent, is disturbed by the changes he unknowingly helps bring to Bidwell. Much of the second half of the book concerns his relationship with a woman named Clara Butterworth and McVey’s efforts to untangle himself from what he has wrought and live a life in alignment with his true values. Critics are correct in finding the structure of the book unwieldy. But it has many rewards for the reader willing to follow this ambling tale.

I first read Poor White in 2001, and I had never before encountered a book that captured for me so completely much of what I felt to be the Midwest of the late 1800s and early twentieth century. McVey is a witness to history and change, and agent of the same, and we follow him along the country roads and over the bridges of the great rivers as he makes his way across the land, a figure working on the railroads and in the fields, searching for some purpose in life as he makes his way to Bidwell. He is like the Midwest itself awakening to its destiny in the life of the nation.

Dirt road outside my mother's hometown of Richland, Missouri.

Dirt road outside my mother’s hometown of Richland, Missouri.

The book is powerfully evocative. The drowsiness of Bidwell after all the hands have left for the fields, the joking and raillery around the dinner table among farmers and hands, the great Ohio oil field boom, the passage from bucolic town to thriving industrial city—all of this is wonderfully captured in Poor White. I have thought often of this book through the years when driving the back roads and highways of the Midwest, seeing the farmland rolling away on either side and wondering about all the untold and forever unknown histories of the people who lived upon that earth.

Farmland outside of Richland, Missouri.

Farmland outside of Richland, Missouri.

Horace Gregory, a distinguished poet and translator, wonderfully captures the qualities of Poor White in an introduction he wrote to The Portable Sherwood Anderson:

“Poor White belongs among the few books that have restored with remarkable vitality the life of an era, its hopes and desires, its conflicts between material prosperity and ethics, and its disillusionments, in a manner that stimulates the historical imagination.” Later Gregory writes that “No novel of the American small town in the Middle West evokes in the mind of its readers so much of the cultural heritage of its milieu as does Poor White; nor does Anderson in his later novels ever recapture the same richness of association, the ability to make memorable each scene in the transition from an agrarian way of living to a twentieth-century spectacle of industrial conflict with its outward display of physical comfort and wealth.”

There is one other dimension of Poor White worth noting, and it harkens back to the material at the beginning of this post about the community life of small town America. McVey, by the end of the book, has not only taken stock of what has happened to Bidwell. His marriage to Clara Butterworth and the future of their unborn child directs him back to deeper needs within himself—his need to love another person, to be more truly connected to others, to find meaning in life beyond worldly success. The things that separate one person from another, especially men from women, were an important concern for Anderson. His work is filled with people who yearn for connection, who are bursting with unlived life, who ache for relations with others that are anchored in real values.

Sherwood Anderson in later years.

Sherwood Anderson in later years.

The Midwest is home to culture aplenty now, but our American economy still leaves too many victims in its wake, and our small communities especially have been profoundly damaged by the terms upon which we live. We face a new threat to community life by the isolation and anomie bred by technology. We are in some ways as mute and disconnected as any character in these books of long ago, while we face threats unimaginable in the heyday of Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson. This deeper search for reconciliation and connections remains with us. Our country’s recent confrontations with the long and bitter heritage of racism underscore the need for all of us to live in right relation as one people. As another Midwestern writer of a different kind—John Mellencamp—once put it, “the air could be cleaner/and the water could too/ but what we do to each other/ are the worst things that we do.”

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Poor White by Sherwood Anderson, New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 1993. First published in 1920.

Sherwood Anderson by Rex Burbank. Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1964.

The Portable Sherwood Anderson, edited and with an introduction by Horace Gregory. The Viking Press, New York, 1949.

“Another Sunny Day, 12/25” by John Mellencamp and George Green from the album “Dance Naked.” Mercury, 1994.

America’s Teacher: William Holmes McGuffey

Leave a comment

William Holmes McGuffey

William Holmes McGuffey

American educator William Holmes McGuffey, famous for creating his McGuffey Readers, an influential series of school texts in 19th century America, was born on September 23, 1800 in western Pennsylvania. He received a sparse education in his childhood and youth, but learned enough to eventually teach in the one-room country schools of rural Ohio after his family moved to the buckeye state. McGuffey eventually earned an A.B. from Washington College in Pennsylvania and took an appointment as professor of ancient languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he served for ten years.

McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader

McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader

It was at Miami that he began collecting and organizing the material that became the first of the McGuffey Readers with the assistance of his brother Alexander, a teacher and a lawyer. Visitors can tour the McGuffey House near the Miami campus and see the room and desk where McGuffey worked on the Readers. In the coming months I will write a post about this site as part of a road trip segment.

The William Holmes McGuffey House in Oxford, Ohio near Miami University. McGuffey assembled the first of his Readers here.

The William Holmes McGuffey House in Oxford, Ohio near Miami University. McGuffey assembled the first of his Readers here.

McGuffey left Miami to become president of Cincinnati College (a forerunner of the University of Cincinnati) in 1836, and later took on the presidency of Ohio University in 1839. He returned to Cincinnati and taught at Woodward College (later Woodward High School) before becoming professor of mental and moral philosophy at the University of Virginia. He held this position until his death in 1873. In addition to his teaching and editorial work, McGuffey was also a Presbyterian minister and one of the founders of the public school system in Ohio.

A later edition of McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader (Image credit: Hoover Archives).

A later edition of McGuffey’s First Eclectic Reader (Image credit: Hoover Archives).

McGuffey was the driving force behind the first four readers, which were published by Truman and Smith, a Cincinnati company, in 1836 and 1837. Later readers were compiled by others. There were a total of eleven McGuffey school texts. Scholars estimate that 122 million of the McGuffey books appeared between 1836 and 1920, becoming a part of the school experience for millions of American children.

One room schoolhouse built in 1872 near Oxford, Ohio.

One room schoolhouse built in 1872 near Oxford, Ohio.

The historian Henry Steele Commager gives a good summary of McGuffey and the importance of the Readers in the life of the nation. Here is Commager:

“Justice Holmes said of John Marshall that part of his greatness was in being there; so, too, we can say that part of the greatness of the McGuffey Readers was that they were there at the right time—they were there to be read by millions of children from all parts of the country, from all classes, of all faiths. They gave to the American child of the nineteenth century what he so conspicuously lacks today—a common body of allusions, a sense of common experience, and of common possession…The McGuffey Readers, then, are far more than a historical curiosity. They played an important role in American education and in American culture, and helped shape that elusive thing we call the American character.”

Patrick Kerin

 

Sources:

McGuffey’s Sixth Eclectic Reader, 1879 Edition. With a Foreword by Henry Steele Commager. Signet Classic—The New American Library of World Literature, Inc. New York, 1963.

Ohio Authors and their Books 1796-1950. Edited by William Coyle. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1962.

Der Dunbar: Paul Dunbar’s German-American Dialect Poem “Lager Beer”

Leave a comment

Paul Dunbar

Paul Dunbar

It’s Oktoberfest season around the world, so I’ve decided to highlight an interesting poem of Paul Dunbar’s in honor of the occasion. Oktoberfest is a sixteen-day long beer and folk festival held in Munich each year in September that has inspired other similar celebrations around the world. The poem is “Lager Beer,” an early dialect work Paul Dunbar published in 1890. He was only eighteen years old when this appeared.

Paul Dunbar—poet, short story writer, novelist, librettist—was born on June 27, 1872 in Dayton, Ohio, the son of former slaves. Despite the racial injustice of the era in which he lived he had a remarkable career. In his short lifetime he was prolific, creating a rich body of work, particularly in poetry that alternated between standard English and dialect forms. Although much of his dialect verse was in African-American dialect, he also tried his hand at some other dialects—in this case, a German-American one.

Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in the late 1800s. The neighborhood was located north of the Miami-Erie canal route, now Central Parkway, and was home to hundreds of German immigrants. "The Rhine" was a local joking reference to the Miami Erie Canal since so many Germans lived on the other side of it.

Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in the late 1800s. The neighborhood was located north of the Miami-Erie canal route, now Central Parkway, and was home to hundreds of German immigrants. “The Rhine” was a local joking reference to the Miami Erie Canal since so many Germans lived on the other side of it.

Two aspects of nineteenth century culture are reflected in this poem. One is that literary works in dialect were common at this time, particularly in stories or poems with a rural “local color” setting. Comic works often employed dialect. One poet who was especially popular during Dunbar’s lifetime, and who influenced Dunbar, was Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley. Many of Riley’s poems were set in rural Indiana and featured rustic characters. The other cultural aspect is the widespread dissemination of German culture, particularly in the Midwest. German immigrants have powerfully shaped my own city, Cincinnati, as well as cities like St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. There is also a large German-American presence in Texas. Dunbar would have encountered Germans and German-Americans during his time in southwestern Ohio.

Here's a good lager beer made in Ohio: The Great Lakes Brewing Company's Dortmunder Gold. The company is based in Cleveland.

Here’s a good lager beer made in Ohio: the Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Dortmunder Gold. The company is based in Cleveland.

In “Lager Beer,” Dunbar experiments with German-American dialect for humorous purposes. “Lager Beer” appeared on December 13, 1890 under the pseudonym “Pffenberger Deutzelheim” in the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper Paul Dunbar created and edited to serve Dayton’s black community. His good friends the Wright brothers printed the paper. The poem has also been set to music recently.

Over-the-Rhine saloon in 1875.

Over-the-Rhine saloon in 1875.

The poem has a kind of lurching quality and a ponderous humor, which richly evokes the image of a drunken German man stumbling around the city (“shumps aroundt”) and getting himself in trouble. I can picture a German workingman, clad in the rough clothes and boots of the time, woefully reciting this to himself in his kitchen while watching his fellows troop down to the corner saloon.

Another view of Over-the-Rhine, courtesy of the University of Cincinnati archives.

Another view of Over-the-Rhine, courtesy of the University of Cincinnati archives.

The second and fourth lines of each stanza are indented, but the wordpress format is fighting me on this one. Anyway, here is the poem, which you might want to enjoy with a good lager beer.

“Lager Beer”

I lafs and sings, und shumps aroundt,
Und somedimes acd so gueer,
You ask me vot der matter ish?
I’m filled mit lager peer.

I hugs mine child, and giss mine vife.
Oh, my dey was so dear;
Bot dot ish ven, you know, mire friend,
I’m filled mit lager peer.

Eleetion gomes, I makes mire speech,
Mine het it vas so glear:
De beoples laf, und say ha, ha,
He’s filled mit lager peer.

De oder night I got me mad,
De beoples run mit fear.
De bleeceman gome und took me down
All filled mit lager peer.

Next day I gomes pefore de judge,
Says he, “Eh heh, you’re here!”
I gifs you yust five-fifty-five
For trinking lager peer.

I took mine bocket book qvick oud,
So poor I don’t abbear;
Mine money all vas gone, mine friend
Vas gone in lager peer.

Und den dey dakes me off to shail,
To work mine sendence glear;
Und dere I shwears no more to be
Filled oup mit lager peer.

Und from dot day I drinks no more,
Yah, dat ish very gueer,
But den I found de tevil lifed
In dot same lager peer.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Go easy on that lager beer!

Patrick Kerin

 

Resources:

The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited and with an introduction by Joanne M. Braxton. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London. 1993.

Our “Greatest Civil War Novel?”: MacKinlay Kantor’s “Andersonville”

Leave a comment

This picture provides a dramatic example showing just how overcrowded Andersonville was.

This picture provides a dramatic example showing just how overcrowded Andersonville was.

Deep in the quiet Georgia countryside lies twenty-six and a half acres of land that once were home to 45,000 men. The very silence of the spot stands in sobering contrast to the constant din that resounded here one hundred and fifty years ago. What was once a landscape of squalor, disease, and suffering is now a well-manicured area that invites reflection and remembrance. This bucolic place was the site of Andersonville Prison, the most notorious of all POW camps during the American Civil War, now a National Park dedicated to preserving the memory of not only Andersonville but the American POW experience in all wars.

Andersonville, officially called Camp Sumter, opened in February of 1864 in southwestern Georgia and existed until the end of the war in 1865. Andersonville was originally sixteen acres designed to hold 10,000 men, but the site expanded to twenty-six and a half acres. By August of 1864 it was home to 33,000 men, a number that swelled to 45,000. Thirteen thousand men perished at the prison, most of them from scurvy, diarrhea, dysentery, and exposure to the elements. There were no wooden structures for housing prisoners. Men constructed what shelter they could out of tent halves, pieces of clothing, and stray pieces of wood. A stream that ran through the prison served as both latrine and drinking water source. It quickly became fouled, contributing to much of the sickness that reigned at Andersonville.

bwanderson

Its commandant, Captain Henry Wirz, was the only Confederate brought before a military tribunal to stand trial for war crimes during the American Civil War. He was convicted and hanged in November of 1865. General Lew Wallace, an Indiana native who later wrote Ben-Hur, presided over his trial. Historians have criticized this trial and Wirz’s treatment, arguing in large part that the suffering of Andersonville’s prisoners was due to conditions beyond Wirz’s control, such as a consistent and widespread lack of fresh vegetables that could have prevented scurvy.

Captain Henry Wirz

Captain Henry Wirz

Andersonville was the subject of a novel published sixty years ago that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. MacKinlay Kantor’s Andersonville (1955) was the fruit of years of research and a longstanding interest Kantor had in the prison. It wasn’t his first Civil War novel. He published Long Remember about Gettysburg in 1934 and followed this two years later with Arouse and Beware, a novel about two Union soldiers escaping a southern prison.

General Lew Wallace of Indiana and author of "Ben-Hur."

General Lew Wallace of Indiana and author of “Ben-Hur.”

Kantor grew up with the legacy of the Civil War. Born in Webster City, Iowa in 1904, Kantor was fascinated by the old Civil War veterans he saw around town and during events held on Memorial Day (then called Decoration Day), and the Fourth of July. “I can remember parading through cemeteries on the Fourth of July, the old men of the town, and me, a skinny kid in his teens with a fife. Sometimes the Civil War seemed closer than the time I was living in,” recalled Kantor.

MacKinlay Kantor

MacKinlay Kantor

He worked for newspapers in Iowa and elsewhere while publishing stories, eventually publishing his first novel, Diversey, in 1928. A flood of books followed this first novel, a number of which were made into films. His books sold well. During WWII he served as a correspondent with the U.S. Army Air Corps in England. His verse novel about returning veterans, Glory For Me, was adapted for the screen as The Best Years of Our Lives, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1946. Kantor continued to publish books until his death in 1977 in Sarasota, Florida.

Image credit: Amazon

Image credit: Amazon

Andersonville may be Kantor’s best-known novel. It is episodic and a kind of ensemble piece. The closest thing to a central character is Ira Claffey, a southern planter whose land is used for the prison grounds. Claffey is a humane and reflective man appalled at what comes to be at Andersonville. The novel features a variety of characters from both north and south, military and civilian. The reader follows Kantor’s imprisoned characters as they endure life in the camp, and he provides a history for each man so we can see the stark contrast between their previous lives and the privation of Andersonville. Historical figures appear, ranging from Henry Wirz to Father Peter Whelen, a Catholic priest who spent a month at the camp ministering to its inmates, to Wirz’s supervisor General John H. Winder.

General John H. Winder

General John H. Winder

Kantor’s imprisoned characters reflect the diversity of the men trapped behind its walls. One character is a fifty-eight year old soldier named Tom Gusset. Another is a young Jewish soldier named Nathan Dreyfoos, an immigrant who traveled widely in Europe before the war and is well-educated. Union sailors are also held at Andersonville. Among the prison characters portrayed in the book are some who actually existed, such as the brutal “raider” Willie Collins. The “raiders” were a group of criminals within the stockade who preyed on their fellow captives. Other prisoners eventually formed a police force and hanged them with the permission of their Confederate overseers.

Union survivor of Andersonville

Union survivor of Andersonville. Photos such as these enraged the northern public.

Kantor’s novel met with high praise upon publication. The distinguished mid-twentieth century American historian Henry Steele Commager called it “the greatest of our Civil War novels” in an article in the New York Times. In a review in the Chicago Tribune, the noted Civil War historian Bruce Catton called it “The best Civil War novel I have ever read, without any question.”

This photo of Andersonville shows the "dead line" prisoners were forbidden to cross--the fence at right. Crossing it meant being shot, an option attractive for those who had had enough of Andersonville.

This photo of Andersonville shows the “dead line” prisoners were forbidden to cross–the fence at right. Crossing it meant being shot, an option attractive for those who had enough of Andersonville.

Kantor’s novel is long—my smaller sized Signet edition comes in at a whopping 725 pages—and while readable is still not an easy book to take on given the detail of squalor and suffering Kantor describes. I first read it as a high school junior in the spring of 1983, and I can still recall how I felt stifled by the descriptions of the oppression and misery of Andersonville. It was a fascinating but sobering read. Kantor did his job well.

There are many fine novels of the Civil War out there, and Kantor wrote three of them. I can’t say which novel among the dozens of truly high quality works is “the greatest.” But I would say that Andersonville is an excellent novel of the Civil War that deserves to be more widely known.

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor. World Publishing Company, New York, 1955.

Andersonville: The Last Depot by William Marvel. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1994. One of the best Civil War history books I have ever read. Fair, authoritative, well-written. If you’re looking for a good overall history of Andersonville, this will serve you well.

The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. 1988. A monumental one volume history of the war by one of its most distinguished historians.

National Park Service site for Andersonville National Historic Site.

Ray Bradbury: Born August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois

Leave a comment

"Dandelion Wine" was richly inspired by Bradbury's memories of growing up in 1920s Illinois. Photo credit: electricliterature.com

“Dandelion Wine” was richly inspired by Bradbury’s memories of growing up in 1920s Illinois. Photo credit: electricliterature.com

Today would have been Ray Bradbury’s ninety-fifth birthday. He was born on August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. Except for a couple of brief moves to California and Arizona in his childhood, Bradbury spent most of the years from birth to age fourteen in Waukegan before the family permanently relocated to Los Angeles, California. Although Bradbury would remain in Los Angeles the rest of his life, he often returned to the Midwest of his childhood in his fiction, most notably in a number of short stories and his novels Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Ray Bradbury in 1959.

Ray Bradbury in 1959.

Ray Bradbury’s work cannot be simply classified. Although some of what he wrote was science fiction, other works by him could be described as stories of mystery, the supernatural, or fantasy. He wrote novels, short stories, plays, poetry, essays and works for both television and the screen. He wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s film version of Moby Dick in the 1950s. He died on June 5, 2012.

Ray Bradbury (Photo by and courtesy of Alan Light).

Ray Bradbury (Photo by and courtesy of Alan Light).

Two of Ray Bradbury’s books will be featured on buckeyemuse this fall—an appropriate time given Bradbury’s often spooky subject matter. Stay tuned!

Patrick Kerin

Jesse Stuart’s “Hie to the Hunters”

Leave a comment

Recent reprint cover of

Recent reprint cover of “Hie to the Hunters.” Photo credit: Amazon

Recently on this blog I profiled the noted Appalachian author Jesse Stuart. Stuart, born in Greenup County, Kentucky in 1906, was a prolific writer who published novels, short stories, essays, books for children and youth, and autobiography. His memoir of teaching in rural Kentucky, The Thread That Runs So True, published in 1949, has long been a classic work about American education and is one of the first popular teaching memoirs. Stuart, a man of enormous energy, authored more than sixty books, many of them set in the rural Kentucky he knew so well.

1950 edition of

1950 edition of “Hie to the Hunters.” This was a discarded book in a pile of giveaways from the library at North College Hill Junior-Senior High School, where I taught for a number of years.

One of those books, Hie to the Hunters, appeared sixty-five years ago. Hie to the Hunters, released in May of 1950, tells the story of two boys: Didway Hargis, known as “Did,” and Jud Sparks, known to his friends as “Sparkie.” Did and Sparkie are a kind of Tom and Huck duo. Did is a boy from town who is rescued from a beating one day by local bullies thanks to Sparkie. Sparkie, a boy from the hills, takes Did home to his parents—and Did eventually decides he wants to stay with Sparkie’s family, much to the dismay of his own family back in town. Did takes to the life of the hills, sleeping alongside Sparkie in the barn and learning to trap, hunt, plow, and perform other tasks that are part of a rewarding but hardscrabble life in the mountains. The boys become inseparable.

“High School Edition” of “Hie to the Hunters.” In the spring of 2013, the Half Price Books store in Mason, Ohio purchased some books from a Stuart collector. Most were quite expensive, but this poor scholar was able to snag this autographed copy for the grand total of ten U.S. dollars.

Ruel Foster, in his Twayne’s study of Stuart published in 1968, describes Hie to the Hunters as “a beautiful agrarian hymn,” while also placing it among Stuart’s minor works. The novel is full of lyrical descriptions of life on the land that are contrasted with down to earth descriptions of some of the tasks and routines of mountain life—such as how to fell a tree properly or how to strip tobacco.

Stuart's autograph inside my copy of the

Stuart’s inscription and autograph inside my copy of the “High School Edition” of “Hie to the Hunters.”

There is also a subplot concerning a feud raging between tobacco growers and fox hunters, which echoes a larger conflict of town versus country. In the end, Did is reconciled to returning to his family in town although he remains friends with Sparkie. Country life has matured and toughened Did, and he has developed a deep love for the hill life.

Frontispiece from

Frontispiece from “High School Edition” of “Hie to the Hunters.”

Hie to the Hunters is a simple and entertaining story that still charms readers with its lyrical descriptions of the mountain earth and the self-reliant ways of its people. I can easily see this novel being made into one of those brightly colored rural-themed Disney films of the 1950s and 1960s. The story lends itself to that kind of treatment. Incidentally, only one of Stuart’s works was made into a film. A ninety-minute movie version of his much-anthologized short story “Split Cherry Tree” was released in 1982. Colleen Dewhurst starred in the picture.

Patrick Kerin

Resources:

Hie to the Hunters by Jesse Stuart. Whittlesey House (McGraw-Hill Book Company), New York, London, Toronto. 1950.

Jesse Stuart by Ruel Foster. Twayne’s Publishers Inc., New York, 1968.

A Force of Nature: The Life and Work of Jesse Stuart

Leave a comment

Image courtesy of WUKY Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

Image courtesy of WUKY Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

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.

Image courtesy of Powell's Books.

Image courtesy of Powell’s Books.

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.

Courthouse Rock in the Red River Gorge Geological Area in Kentucky. Photo by Corey Heitz courtesy of Flickr and Wikipedia Commons).

Courthouse Rock in the Red River Gorge Geological Area in Kentucky. Photo by Corey Heitz courtesy of Flickr and Wikipedia Commons).

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.

0808151603b

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.

Sketch of Lincoln Memorial University from 1915.

Sketch of Lincoln Memorial University from 1915.

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.

0807151922b

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.

Poet and scholar Donald Davidson, one of Stuart's instructors at Vanderbilt who told Stuart to follow his own voice and vision. Photo credit: Vanderbilt archives.

Poet and scholar Donald Davidson, one of Stuart’s instructors at Vanderbilt who told Stuart to heed his own voice and vision. Photo credit: Vanderbilt archives.

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.

0807151939

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.

Vanderbilt University's Kirkland Hall.

Vanderbilt University’s Kirkland Hall.

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.

Image courtesy of Amazon.

Image courtesy of Amazon.

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.

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Naysmith.

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Naysmith.

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.

A rare photo of Stuart teaching. This is a photo of a photo. The picture appears in The Jesse Stuart Foundation's edition of

A rare photo of Stuart teaching. This is a photo of a photo. The picture appears in The Jesse Stuart Foundation’s edition of “Beyond Dark Hills.” The original is part of the H. Edward Richardson Collection in the Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville.

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.

Jesse Stuart hard at work. Photo credit: Kentuckymonthly. Original photo in the H. Edward Richardson Collection at the Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville.

Jesse Stuart hard at work. Photo credit: Kentuckymonthly. Original photo in the H. Edward Richardson Collection at the Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville.

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.

0808151604

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.

0807151936a0807151937

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.

0807151922a

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.

0807151940b

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.

Thomas Wolfe, born in North Carolina in 1900. Photo by Carl van Vechten.

Thomas Wolfe, born in North Carolina in 1900. Photo by Carl van Vechten.

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.

0807151930

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.

Jesse Stuart in 1954. Photo credit: Life Magazine.

Jesse Stuart in 1954. Photo credit: Life Magazine.

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.

Photo credit: Amazon

Photo credit: Amazon

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.

Jesse Stuart with fellow Appalachian writer--and later civil rights activist--Don West during their time at LMU. This is another photo of a photo from the Jesse Stuart Foundation edition of

Jesse Stuart with fellow Appalachian writer–and later civil rights activist–Don West during their time at LMU. This is another photo of a photo from the Jesse Stuart Foundation edition of “Beyond Dark Hills.” The original photo is part of the Jesse Stuart Collection in the Forrest C. Pogue Special Collections Library at Murray Sate University in Murray, Kentucky.

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.”

Rural cemetery near my mother's home town of Richland, MO. Stuarts' work is rich with motifs of life and death, work and pleasure, harvest and barrenness. The cycle of seasons and the return of life out of death were perennial themes for him.

Rural cemetery near my mother’s home town of Richland, MO and the farm she grew up on in the 1930s. Stuart’s work is rich with motifs of life and death, work and pleasure, harvest and barrenness. The cycle of seasons and the return of life out of death were recurring themes for him.

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.

0807151931a

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.

Jesse Stuart as an older man with young readers. Photo credit: Jesse Stuart Foundation Pinterest page.

Jesse Stuart as an older man with young readers. Photo credit: Jesse Stuart Foundation Pinterest page.

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.

Robert Penn Warren

Robert Penn Warren

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.

0808151559

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.

Josephine Johnsons'

Josephine Johnson’s’ “Now In November,” a powerful novel about a farm family that appeared in 1934 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1935.

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.

Mildred Haun's

Mildred Haun’s “The Hawk’s Done Gone,” another distinguished work of Appalachian literature.

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

Jesse Stuart

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.

One room schoolhouse built in 1872 near Oxford, Ohio.

One room schoolhouse built in 1872 near Oxford, Ohio.

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.

Patrick Kerin

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:

http://www.jsfbooks.com/#sthash.DH0MifTU.dpbs

Here’s a link to Greenbo Lake State Resort Park:

http://parks.ky.gov/parks/resortparks/greenbo-lake/

Older Entries Newer Entries