His parents were illiterate sharecroppers, but they were guided in all their dealings by an honest, hard-work ethic. His mother was nearly 6 feet tall and a Democrat and a Baptist, while his father, referred to by some as a “banty-rooster,” was a Republican and a Methodist.
Stuart, vowing at the age of 12 to make his life count, grew up to become one of America’s most prolific writers, producing more that 60 books — novels, poetry, short stories — in a career that spanned nearly 50 years.
Young Stuart, while helping his father plow the steep hillsides behind a mule, wondered at nature all around him. Now and then, using what education he gained in the one-room school just outside the hollow, and later at the high school in Greenup, he paused to pull out a stub of a pencil and a piece of paper – the inside of a tobacco sack, an envelope, whatever he could lay hands on – and his thoughts flowed out into words.
How he went on to make his life count can be found within the 480 pages of “Jesse Stuart: An Extraordinary Life,” a new biography by James M. Gifford and Erin R. Kazee.
It takes you from his birth in 1906 to his death in 1984. It tells about all of Stuart’s literary achievements, but even more so it tells you about the complex and sometimes belligerent individual he was, yet a great force for good in the lives of many people who read him.
On the dust jacket of the book, the authors write, “His place in literature is controversial, the tales he wrote about himself suspect. But the influence of his works and the importance of his life made him a national icon, a hero to America’s teachers, and a friend to the thousands of people he met and inspired.”
Some literary critics, such as those who judge by style and content, Gifford points out, have not been kind to Stuart; while others, “those who see writing purely as a means to propagate a people’s culture and stories…praise him for writing something that everyone can relate to.”
“We have approached Jesse Stuart not as a celebrity or a category, but as a human being,” Gifford said. “This book is more of a characterization than an exhaustive biography. In examining his life, Erin and I have attempted to answer the two questions that define every life: who was he, and what did he do?”
Stuart’s thirst for education led him to earn a degree at tiny Lincoln Memorial University and begin a teaching career in his home county.
He proved to be a good educator, but writing remained his passion. The thoughts that filled his mind on still moonlit nights demanded to be spilled onto paper and shared with readers.
After a year of graduate work at Vanderbilt University, he served a difficult year as superintendent of financially-strapped Greenup County Schools, then became principal of McKell High School from 1933 to 1937. During this time, his poems and short stories were being published in magazines and journals.
The editor of the New York publishing house E.P. Dutton saw some of his poems in the Virginia Quarterly and called Stuart to see if he had any more like them.
Stuart sent him a manuscript of 703 poems, most of them written in 1932 and 1933. E.P. Dutton published the collection in 1934 under the Title, “Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow.” The book sold out in a month. It didn’t make him rich but it gained him a writer’s reputation far and wide.
Two years later, E.P. Dutton published “Head O’ W-Hollow,” a collection of 21 short stories, and in 1937 Stuart received a Guggenheim Fellowship and lived in Scotland for a year.
In 1938, E.P. Dutton published Stuart’s autobiographical book “Beyond Dark Hills” and in the 1940s it brought out “Trees of Heaven,” a novel; “Men of the Mountains,” a collection of short stories, “Taps for Private Tussie,” a novel and his best seller; “Album of Destiny,” a collection of poems; “Mongrel Mettle: The Autobiography of a Dog,” a novel; “Foretaste of Glory,” a novel; and “Tales From the Plum Grove Hills,” a collection of short stories.
Now Stuart was not only famous, but he had enough money to pay off the debt on his father’s farm and eventually to buy up all the land he and his father once sharecropped.
In 1949, Charles Schribner’s Sons published Stuart’s autobiographical book, “The Thread that Runs so True.” It was quickly proclaimed one of the best books ever written on education. Many people credited it with sowing the seeds that helped bring improvement to education in America.
There was no time now for Stuart’s love of farming and raising cattle. He was busy grabbing bags and running to catch planes. He rushed from lecture to lecture, making money, from city to city, speaking to applauding crowds – all the time his wife, Naomi Deane, urging him to slow down.
On Oct. 8, 1954, after speaking to a standing-room-only audience at Murray State University, he ran to catch his chartered plane and collapsed with a massive coronary.
It nearly killed him. He was bedfast for months, entirely dependent on others.
But he survived, and even though his best work was behind him, he was soon writing just as much as ever.
For instance, in “Jesse Stuart: An Extraordinary Life,” on Page 147, it’s recorded, “The amount of work he accomplished in 1964 alone could have reflected that of an entire lifetime, rather than the productivity of 12 months.”
During that year, he received 4,079 letters and sent 4,835 letters out. He sent 575 brochures to high school and college students who had asked for information for school papers. He delivered 74 lectures to groups big and small, including presentations in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan and California.
He published 84 short stories, including nine new ones, 12 new articles and 14 new poems. Reprints of previously published material were many.
After the 1954 heart attack, Stuart saw more than 30 books published. His last writing came in 1977, when he completed the manuscript for “The Kingdom Within: A Spiritual Autobiography.”
A stroke suffered in 1978 left him paralyzed down the left side of his body. For the next four years he was bedridden at home. Richard Prince came in late afternoons to get him into a wheelchair and wheel him out into sunshine and birdsong. Prominent literary people came to visit him, as did two Kentucky governors.
A second stroke, suffered in May 1982, left him comatose for 20 months, until he died Feb. 17, 1984, at Jo-Lin Health Center in Ironton, Ohio, where Naomi Deane kept her vigil to the end.
“Jesse Stuart: An Extraordinary Life,” is published by the Jesse Stuart Foundation, where Gifford serves as CEO and senior editor and where Kaze worked as an editorial assistant for three years.
The foundation, established in 1979, is a non-profit entity devoted to preserving Stuart’s literary legacy as well as the nearly 700 wooded acres in W-Hollow — now a state nature preserve belonging to all — where he gained much of his inspiration for the stories and characters he brought to the printed page.
The hard cover biography can be bought by writing the Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1645 Winchester Ave., Ashland, KY 41101; by calling (606) 326-1667; or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gifford will be talking about the book, fielding questions from the audience, and autographing copies at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the annual Jesse Stuart Weekend, held in the Jesse Stuart Lodge in Greenbo Lake State Resort Park.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (749) 353-3101, ext. 236.