Jesse Stuart: The Heritage
David Dick provides an intimate portrait of the late Jesse Stuart, while we get a glimpse into both writers’ connection to a sense of place
If kindred spirits are meant to find each other, Jesse Stuart and David Dick were destined to meet.
Stuart, Greenup County’s most famous son and Kentucky’s best-known author, is the subject of Dick’s recent book Jesse Stuart: The Heritage, the 10th book he has written or co-written with his wife, Lalie.
Why spend two years gathering information in order to retell the story of a man who died in 1984, and whose work is seldom read today?
“To introduce the man from W-Hollow to a new generation living in a technologically driven century in which television dominates the popular culture, and computers make hoe handles look as ancient as bull-tongue plows,” he writes.
But more than that caused him to retrace the path that led Stuart away from eastern Kentucky time and time again, but always brought him home. One need only consider Dick’s own life journey, which took him around the world as a network news correspondent and eventually brought him back to the banks of Plum Lick Creek in Bourbon County, to understand the connection.
Both men shared a love of Kentucky and the stories of Kentuckians told in carefully crafted words. Both shared a love for the land. Both spent time in the classroom—Stuart as a teacher in Greenup County’s one-room schools and later as college lecturer, Dick as a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. Both experienced brief and less-than-satisfying careers as weekly newspaper editors. Both realized their lifelong dream of acquiring land that once belonged to their ancestors—Stuart’s W-Hollow and Dick’s Plum Lick Farm—and, in the process, reclaiming their sense of place.
“Sense of place is something that can be talked about rather carelessly,” Dick says. “Jesse has done a much better job than most of pulling together the elements of the place that gave him a sense of being.”
In explaining what drove him to write the book, he says, “I can’t account for how the inner voice works. All of my life I’d heard about Jesse Stuart. Who was he? Why was he so popular? And why is he slipping over the edge of obscurity?”
He knew he was on to something as he gathered material for the book. “Wherever I would go,” he says, “if I would say, ‘I’m writing a book about Jesse Stuart,’ it seemed to resonate.”
As he worked, Dick says, “Little by little, I became fascinated by the man. And I think that my appreciation for him and his role increased. I don’t think there was ever a time, as there has been in almost every other project I’ve been involved in, when I came close to being so discouraged as to want to quit. I wanted to see if I could pay some real homage to Jesse, but at the same time not leave out the chapter about those who are critical of him.”
For all his popularity, Stuart was held in mixed regard by critics. Dick introduces the chapter he refers to with a quote from William S. Ward’s A Literary History of Kentucky: “Stuart…was one of Kentucky’s most prolific authors; and his place in the literary world is decidedly controversial.”
His prodigious outpouring—several thousand poems, nearly a dozen novels, more than 500 short stories, and eight children’s books—is but one reflection of a man who was driven throughout his life. His dream of a college education led him to hitchhike more than 100 miles from Greenup County to Berea College, only to be told there were more than 100 students on the waiting list ahead of him. He wound up receiving an undergraduate degree from Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee—“chicken roost for the poorest of the poor,” Dick says—and later tried unsuccessfully to get a master’s degree from Vanderbilt University.
He wrote more than 700 sonnets for his second volume of poems, Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow. Once established as a writer, he became a highly sought speaker on the lecture circuit, and would sometimes deliver as many as three speeches a day in three different states. He did not slow down even after suffering a near-fatal heart attack while speaking at Murray State Teacher’s College in 1954. Against his doctors’ orders, he continued to write, and over the last 30 years of his life suffered several more heart attacks and strokes. He spent his last two years in a coma at a nursing home in Ironton, Ohio. He died the afternoon of February 17, 1984, at 77, leaving a daughter, Jessica Jane, and his wife of 44 years, Naomi Deane.
“He wrote and wrote and wrote just as he breathed,” says Dick. “Lord only knows what he might have churned out if he’d had the benefit of a word processor.”
His driven nature could also be seen in his quest to buy every acre of land on which his parents ever lived as tenants. So, too, in his commitment to conservation.
“Who today,” says Dick, “after working a lifetime to acquire over 1,000 acres of land, would transfer over 700 acres, not to developers, not to family, but to the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which is today the Jesse Stuart Nature Preserve.”
Dick believes that Stuart, for all his faults, remains “a promising starting point” for the study of American literature.
“So much of what Jesse represents is not in vogue,” he says. “He was born in poverty, grew up in poverty, walked miles to school, worked for as little as 25 cents a day, had a real emotional passion for the earth. In many ways he was prehistoric.
“He comes out poorly when compared with (Kentucky author) James Still, his college classmate at Lincoln Memorial University and later at Vanderbilt. He certainly does not occupy the same niche as (Kentuckians) Robert Penn Warren or Wendell Berry.”
Dick describes the six-foot-one, 220-pound Stuart as a “hard-working, tall-tale telling, big strong man” with a natural passion for promotion. “He promoted himself through his lectures and through his workshops and through his writing, and he became bigger than life.”
Jesse never succeeded in overcoming his roughness, he says, “but in that roughness there is a genuine feeling that communicates.”
“He talked a lot. He was boorish. He was insufferable, as far as some were concerned. Others sat in rapt attention and hung on every word he said.
“Maybe he could have studied more and worked more skillfully at what he was writing, but if he had done that, he would have stopped being Jesse. I think as Kentuckians we are fortunate to have had a Jesse Stuart to write with such passion.”
Dick sums it up this way: “Jesse Stuart should be acknowledged, not revered. He should be read and certainly not be forgotten, and then one should move on to writers yet to be born. I think Jesse would think that’s a heck of an idea.”
JESSE STUART BOOKS
Jesse Stuart: The Heritage is published by Plum Lick Publishing Inc. It has 292 pages in hardcover and costs $24.95, available at your local bookstore. Or order a copy with David Dick’s signature and enscribed with a personal message of your choosing by going on the Web to www.kyauthors.com or writing Plum Lick Publishing, P.O. Box 68, North Middletown, KY 40357.
In an afterword to Jesse Stuart: The Heritage, Dr. Thomas Clark, Kentucky’s late Historian Laureate, wrote: “a compassionate biographer, searching indefatigably for the inner spiritual nuances that buoyed Stuart’s overflowing imagination…But perhaps his greatest contribution is to help us understand Jesse Stuart’s attachment to his native place—W-Hollow in northeastern Kentucky—and to the deeply ingrained folkways and traditions of that place that shaped him both as a man and as a writer.”
According to the Jesse Stuart Foundation, the list of books by Jesse Stuart, published between 1930 and 1976, includes 10 collections of poems, 15 collections of short stories, three collections of poems and short stories, 11 novels or novelettes, eight juvenile novels, two biographies, eight autobiographical works, six essays, and one travel journal.
Stuart’s better known works include Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow, Beyond Dark Hills, Taps for Private Tussie, The Thread that Runs so True, Kentucky Is My Land, and The Year of My Rebirth.