Growing up as a child in Northeast Kentucky, the influence of writer Jesse Stuart was far-reaching. Oddly enough, the influence was not necessarily positive toward Stuart. My family attended the dedication of the Jesse Stuart Statue at the county courthouse, and I vividly remember my dad and others remarking that “some” people thought he made the area look “bad” by writing about his poor childhood in a heavy Appalachian/East KY accent. My parents weren’t offended, though. In school, especially grade school, one of my teachers was a sister-in-law to Stuart and pushed his works while another teachers obviously disliked him and mocked the slightest idiom or accent of the area.
Those views seem extreme to me now, especially the rather snobbish one denying our heritage. I don’t usually speak with a strong accent but I find all accents interesting without finding one superior or inferior. Most of my relatives had strong accents and I miss that. I especially miss hearing all the wonderful idioms or watching the expressive folk gestures. I reread 2 Stuart works with that feeling of a loss; one work left me with the same reaction from several decades ago but the other work surprised me.
Foretaste of Glory [E P Dutton, 1946] is a collection of vignettes based upon a real and rare occurrence, the appearance of an Aurora Borealis, which caused great consternation among the overwhelming majority of area residents. This book was never a favorite of mine, and the rereading produce the same result. I see why many locals didn’t like the book since most of the characterizations are mocking and unflattering. Stuart provides a keen eye with insight in amusing stories but I felt that I already knew every person in the book and was a little underwhelmed. These are essentially relationships I grew up with and I was a little bored.
On the other hand, I was bored long ago when I read Hold April [McGraw Hill, 1962], but I was delighted and touched rereading this book of poetry. Poignant realizations of love with its changes and similarities while growing old together. I also enjoyed Our Heritage, a tribute to our eternal and beloved his Eastern Kentucky hills, and a poem that reminds me of another lovely poem Our Prisoning Hills by James Still. I’m a tremendous admire of Still, who attended Lincoln Memorial University with Stuart and whose initial friendship turned sour when Stuart accused Still of copying an unpublished he had asked Still to critique work. An embittered Still never forgave Stuart – who was undoubtedly mistaken – and I’ve heard Still say that he refused to read another’s unpublished work after that. I’d met Stills several times before this death -lamented by Bob Edwards on NPR – and don’t understand how anyone could mistake works of the two Appalachian authors. Similar subjects, indeed, since they shared similar experiences but very different writings. I think the accusation damaged Stuart’s legacy among later Appalachian authors but that’s conjecture. Both authors now dead, both authors left libraries of valuable works and both left admirers. Most are like me, respectful of both authors and grateful for both.
Links to info on the very talented and prolific Stuart: http://www.kentuckymonthly.com/culture/people/jesse-stuart/ and the Jesse Stuart Foundation, which also has a FB account. http://www.jsfbooks.com/#sthash.7MuvGrdo.dpbs