To read Jesse Stuart and not to read James Still is as big a mistake as to read James Still and not to read Jesse Stuart.
Jesse and Jim were born in 1906. Both graduated from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. Jesse’s roots were in W-Hollow in Greenup County. Jim was from Alabama, but he became a Kentuckian, and he’s remembered as the soul of Forks of Troublesome in Hindman, in Knott County.
Stuart and Still were as different as a hot sun and a reflective lunar surface. A case can be made that Stuart wrote too much and Still didn’t write enough.
Jesse was the bold thrust of Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow, Taps for Private Tussie, and The Thread that Runs so True.
Jim was the gentler spirit of River of Earth, Sporty Creek, and The Wolfpen Poems.
Comparisons remain odious—nothing seems gained by fanning the flames of one while whispering on the currents of the other. Both writers are gone (Jesse in 1984, Jim in 2001), but both live on in a priceless heritage of change and challenge.
In the summer of 2005, while teaching nonfiction at the Appalachian Workshop at the Hindman Settlement School, my wife and I were honored with extraordinary hospitality. We spent our nights in James Still’s home high on the hill overlooking Troublesome. We were surrounded by books, in every corner and along the sides of every room. It was as if Mr. Still himself had each night tucked us in. We were inspired!
Jesse comes to us now through the Jesse Stuart Foundation, whose executive director is Dr. James Gifford. In the home office in Ashland, there are books, books, books, neatly shelved in every direction—a place to be visited as a quiet, thoughtful destination.
And so, it should be remembered, good and important writings do not begin and end with Jesse Stuart and James Still. Of course, they would not have wanted it that way. What they would have wanted, we should imagine, is for every boy and girl in the Commonwealth of Kentucky to become more thoughtful and more passionately written.
There is a way, Jesse and James would say. Roll up your mental sleeves and go to work. Don’t let the grownups slow you down with their own stale ideas. Never be tempted to be somebody other than your own precious self.
You have a gift, a priceless token of love. Please don’t use it carelessly, and don’t think that you too cannot become an improvement over that which has preceded you. Don’t think and write for money and fame alone. Write and think and love because they are vital parts of creation.
We are all blessed with the differing gifts of Jesse Stuart and James Still. They take their special places in the hills and valleys of Kentucky literature. They have pointed in the direction of many ways to go, and it is now up to us to put aside the coats of armor, if only for a little while, in favor of peacemaking and community spirit.
Should none of that work, we ought to take our stand in the place we call our Commonwealth. We should be willing to die so that others might live. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, should be as rich in our memory as General George Patton. We can rightfully have it both ways. One without the other is a prescription for destruction.
Jesse Stuart and James Still are cornerstones for the building of a better civilization. One without the other is a tearing down of possibilities before they’ve had a chance to flourish.
After the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman and the Jesse Stuart Foundation in Ashland, know that there are side-by-side rooms in the library of Morehead State University—The Jesse Stuart Room and The James Still Room.
Be sure to visit both.