Columbus, Ohio USA
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Jesse Stuart: A Ploughman and a Poet
By Betty Garrett Deeds
April 2011 Issue
It was a dreary mid-March afternoon in 1970, and clouds were scudding across a gray sky as I sat in the rare silence of the Columbus Citizen-Journal newsroom on one of those infrequent, but sometimes welcome, days when nothing seems to be happening. The teletypes were tapping out the national headlines, and interns were checking out their assigned hospitals and writing post-dated obituaries.
At such times, particularly once March arrives, I find myself feeling restless, weary of winter, and longing for the day when April comes and when the hills back home in southern Ohio will be lined with the blossoming redbud, crabapple and dogwood trees. Then I can finally get on Route 23 and rush back to the beauty that breaks the boundaries of winter and industrialization. Monet painted nothing more beautiful than this impressionistic foam of pastels and new-leaf greens in his gardens at Giverny.
Well, the sound of the phone ringing finally broke the silence on that gray March day, and my dreams of Down Home receded as I reached for the receiver. The call was from Jeanne Thomson, publicist for Lazarus Department Store, when it was a bustling castle for consumers looking for practically anything and everything. And nowhere was it more busy, or more alluring to me, than in its bookstore. It seems a poet named Jesse Stuart had come to town from Kentucky with a new book, and Jeanne wondered if I would like to interview him.
Would I like to interview Jesse Stuart? The only writer, to my knowledge, who had ever written about the hill country in both prose and, especially, poetry. I had not known of his work when I lived in New Boston visiting my relatives in Ashland and Greenup, Kentucky, but I was introduced to his work in my literature class here at Capital University, to my great joy. Jesse Stuart is the only writer I have ever read who captured the beauty of the Appalachian land marked with its steel mills and coal mining, although Harry Caudill has chronicled its history in Night Comes to the Cumberlands.
Jeanne told me he was staying at the Neil House, and asked if I would like to meet them there before he headed out to the bookstore at Lazarus. Well, I grabbed my notepad and practically ran to that hotel, where I was greeted at the door by his wife, Naomi Deane Stuart. Stuart himself rose from his chair, and it was like watching an oak tree at its full height reach out a branch to encompass my hand.
“Well, young lady, I’m mighty glad to meet you,” he said. “I hear you come from the hills yourself, and I think I may know some of your people. My home is in Greenup County, on land where my mother and father used to live in a small cabin with several acres. I’ve added to that until I own 1,000 acres now, and my wife Naomi Deane and I call it ‘W’ Hollow.”
I told him that, indeed, my father and his relatives were born in Greenup County. My father had died during the 1937 flood, but I had several aunts and cousins who still lived there. My Aunt Mayme continued to teach in Greenup County even though she was nearing 80 at the time.
Stuart broke into a hearty laugh, and his wife joined in. “You mean Mayme Ramey – used to be Mayme Alexander?” I confirmed that. “Why, Mrs. Garrett, your aunt lives just across the way from us, and she has taught school with my three sisters for many years. And your father was Charles Alexander? Your cousin Charles, named for him, is superintendent of the Wurtland County Schools, as I used to be. And one of Naomi Deane’s sisters married your Uncle Floyd.”
He motioned for me to sit down in what was suddenly a circle of relatives and family history which had never been made known to me before. This was due to my father’s death during my infancy.
“Your people, the Warnocks and Alexanders, came through the Cumberland Gap in the late 1700s, even before my clan, the Stuarts, came through in the early 1800s. There is still a Warnock settlement down by Tygart Creek. My people settled right here in Greenup County later.”
I was so excited that I had to remind myself that I was there to interview Jesse Stuart, not vice versa, although thankfully, this turned out to be the first of several meetings and letters which helped me learn more about my family and our mutual territory in Kentucky. He spoke as freely and profusely as the natural well he boasted about on his property at W-Hollow: “Tap into it anywhere, and you get a spate.”
“The greatest thing in my life,” he began, sounding like the first paragraph of David Copperfield, “is that I was born. That was August 8, 1906.” He drew on a large cigar as he continued “My mother was Martha Hylton of English descent, a Democrat and a Baptist. My father was Mitchell Stuart, a Republican and a Methodist. Never did get together on the politics, but they weren’t too strong on religion anyway… When they settled here, they had seven children, five of whom lived. Between us, my three sisters and I have taught school 120 years. But I’ve been the only writer in the family.”
Stuart’s father, like many mountain men, could neither read nor write, but took his sons with him into stores to sign checks “for the best bulls and the best grasses, even Korean clover.” His mother had gone to second grade. “Both turning out all the pennies they had for our education,” he continued. His mother “hung our A’s up on the wall, and said, ‘I want people to see you on the streets of Greenup and say, There’s Martha Hylton’s son! How could you fail a woman like that?”
The man who became a teacher at the age of 17 in a one-room schoolhouse believed in the value of competition. “Trying to eliminate grades and competition is just plain crazy. There were 15 chairs in those one-room schoolhouses and the students always competed for that number one chair with grades. They will always find a way to compete, and should.
“I’ve had about 10,000 students over the years, and every one of them was my child. Now some Americans have got the silly idea that money can do everything, but it can’t buy ambition and incentive to learn,” even with scholarships and subsidies. “Motivation’s the word they’re using now, isn’t it? In my day, it was just called inspiration.
“When I was head of McKell School in South Shore, Kentucky, in the ‘30s, folks got awful mad when I fought for just payment of teachers. They figured they shouldn’t pay as much for a first grade teacher as an eighth grade teacher ... and they wouldn’t hire married women, but I insisted.” That got him blackjacked on the head at the time. “Kentucky folks are good hard workers,” he said matter-of-factly, “but you don’t fool with them when they get mad.”
He beamed and concluded that “a lot of those kids went on to college, and not one of them ever failed.”
He also helped his father on the farm, and wrote many of the 703 sonnets which were later published as Man with a Bull Tongue Plow in a total of 11 months. “When I was plowing, I’d lean on the plow. That team would sure thank me now for the rest, if they was alive. One time I wrote 42 in a day. I’d just write anytime I could.”
In that first book, he immortalized his parents as well as the land he was helping them farm. He wrote this of his father:
All this hill man knows is work and work.
The color of the sun is in his face,
The pick and axe have calloused his bare hands,
The weight of loads he lifts have curved his back.
But by hardship he understands
This is a place to live and a place to die.
Depository for him at the end.
The earth at last becomes his bosom friend,
He’s of the dirt and he’ll go back to dirt.
For his mother, he vowed:
I shall not speak soft words for her – my mother.
I shall not praise her to the lofty skies,
But I shall leave her on the earth – my mother
Would choose the earth in preference to the skies.
I say the strength of oak is in my mother
And in her is the courage of the wind.
And in her is the rain’s cool sympathy.
Both are now buried in Greenup Cemetery.
The 62-year-old author customarily carried a tablet to the breakfast table, according to his wife, “the writing never stops.” She also confided to me that he had suffered a heart attack the previous year, and although he followed his doctor’s orders to take a cruise and rest, while they were at sea, he confiscated every piece of paper on board and had written several hundred pages before they returned.
As we prepared to leave for Lazarus, Stuart commented that he was looking forward to meeting new people and putting his book to market in “the concrete flatlands of Columbus.”
Nearly two years later, after an exchange of several letters and many kind gifts of Jesse’s signed books, I got onto Route 23 and headed down to visit my Aunt Mayme Ramey and to stop by for an interview with Jesse and Naomi Deane. Both the farms lined the same road leaving the city of Greenup, where the courthouse and a drugstore that sold Jesse Stuart’s books stood in the town square.
An unpaved road led to their home, a place Stuart described in quatrains as “My Summer Valley” where “grasshoppers sing on green cornstalks … [while] White mists rise up to meet blue skies.” There were no chemicals in the farmland to choke the sweet fragrance of honeysuckles twining on the crossed log fences which surrounded his vast acreage, and a gate was open to let us into the driveway up to the porch where they waited.
The shingled cottage that had expanded into many rooms surrounding what was once his parents’ cottage was filled with plump armchairs and sofas, mementos of the many countries they had visited, Victorian furniture, campaign chests from the East and primitive paintings.
At one point, Stuart said, he gave a speech in Athens, Greece, and remarked that his parents, like most Kentucky hill folks, made sure “we were raised like Spartans. Do you know, a lot of those Athenians walked out?” He laughed heartily. “Held a grudge for 2,000 years!”
He explained that it was necessary to have that kind of discipline and rigor to survive his journeys once he finished high school, working in street carnivals and the steel mills of Fort Knox while saving money for college. He stopped at two colleges that cost too much; a third, Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, accepted him for the $29.30 he possessed. He also washed pots and pans for money and became editor of the college paper, publishing his own poems. He graduated in three years, but felt no desire to migrate north.
Stuart went on to Vanderbilt University “for further study where they had a bunch of writers there called the Agrarian Movement. They wanted to combine farming and writing, and that suited me fine, except it turned out they were gentlemen farmers with three tomatoes in the backyard. Also, they wouldn’t let me into a writer’s club.
In one class, he was told to write an 18-page autobiography in 11 days. “Well, I turned in 322 pages, margin to margin. The teacher said, ‘There you go, Stuart – it’s the greatest paper I have ever read in my life. You are some kind of genius, and if you were my son, I don’t know what I’d do with you.’ But he failed me, that’s what he did. I hadn’t done the job the way he said. I learned right then, writing sure is a funny game.”
Six years later, in 1934, that “assignment” was published as a book, Beyond Dark Hills. Only 2500 copies were published, and it was reissued in 1972 to rhapsodic reviews. Stuart shook his head. “Now they are saying it’s a great book, and will last a few years.”
At the time his teacher rejected it, though he decided to leave Vanderbilt. He took the advice of another teacher, Donald Davidson, who read some poems he had written about the hills and his people. “He said, ‘Go back to your country and write about your people as the Irish write of the Irish and the Scots write about Scotland.” That was a good piece of advice.” He borrowed two dollars, hitchhiked back to Greenup and returned to his father’s bull-tongue plow.
I remarked to him that when I was living in New Boston and traveling to South Shore and Ashland, Kentucky, I had no idea I lived in “Appalachia” until Lyndon Johnson used the word in the ‘60s. Stuart smiled at the irony too. “That’s a poetic name, isn’t it? … But it’s ironic that the rest of this country thought it could impose its standards of culture, in the name of help to what they’re calling Appalachia … when Appalachia is sitting here with the only real true culture left in this country.
“You read the obituaries any day and you can see what’s happening to Kentucky: folks dying off, their kids are spread up here and everywhere. But all the same, I believe now there remains in the people an originality and a culture that just cannot be erased.”
He foresaw the tenacity of that way of life even when it had to be abandoned physically in his poem “Deserted Coal-Mine Camp”:
Where have they gone to leave their dead behind
In unmarked graves upon this lonely slope?
What way of life have these men gone to find
To earn them bread and give their loved ones hope?
In years to come their mother mountain earth
Will hide scars where these veins of coal ran thin;
Bracken and fern will lay a pretty wreath
To hide the sunken spots where mines caved in.
Rich dust from these decaying shacks will grow
Tall briars whereon birds will alight to sing,
And soft white petals from their stems will blow
Down leafy corridors of April spring.
He was right. The migrants moved to cities and found new jobs, but they brought with them the customs that came to be called Appalachian: the cadences of their speech and music; the foods that sustained both body and soul; the bonds of kinship, both blood and friends. And a longing to head back to the hills as often as possible to see the bracken and the fern, the dogwoods and redbuds in their season, and the people who stayed, who cling to that land still as honeysuckle twines along the wood fences up and down unpaved roads.
When Jesse Stuart died in 1984 at the age of 77, his body had endured a long series of heart attacks and strokes. But the raging energy and work that sustained him through that time produced more than 50 volumes of novels and short stories – the most memorable being The Thread that Runs So True and Taps for Private Tussie, and literally thousands of poems. They, too, are collected in many volumes under many titles, but you cannot pick a finer place to start than he did, as a Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow.
© 2011 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
First published in the December 2002 Short North Gazette.
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