By JAMES L. NICHOLSON
12:20 PM CST, February 5, 2013
Editor’s note: “The Thread That Runs So True,” 1949, by Jesse Stuart, is the seventh in a series of book reviews about works of Kentucky fiction.
Except when away at college, Jesse Stuart lived all his life in Greenup County. After marrying, he returned to the very farm in W-Hollow where he’d been born. A renowned Kentucky author, he also was a noted educator. In “The Thread That Runs So True,” he wrote a teacher’s classic.
The account of his career in education is only fictionalized thinly. Names of places and persons (except Jesse’s own) have been changed, but the classroom experiences he recounts are drawn from actuality.
With three years of high school and a second-class certificate, Jesse was assigned in July 1923, at age 17, to a one-room school, grades 1 to 8. The pay was $68 a month. He was young and unseasoned, but he brought enthusiasm to Lonesome Valley School.
“For me,” he said, “going to school never was work but recreation,” and he wanted to make it that for his 35 pupils.
He took his cue from a song the children sang at play, “The needle’s eye that does supply,/The thread that runs so true.” For Stuart the needle’s eye was the teacher, and the thread was play. By means of play, he would cause them to work and to learn.
Not all his pupils were children. One, Guy Hawkins, was older, taller and heavier than Jesse (he’d been in first grade eight years). He held a grudge and declared to his teacher one evening when he caught him alone in the classroom, “I won’t be satisfied until I’ve whipped you.”
In four pages worthy of an action novel, Jesse describes the ferocious fist fight that ensued. In the end, after the young teacher had delivered a blow “hard enough to knock two men down,” Guy lay sprawled on the wood floor. The victor fetched the water bucket and bathed Guy’s face until he came around.
Stuart did not expect Guy Hawkins to return to Lonesome Valley School, but he did come back. And when he did, he no longer referred to his teacher as “Old Jess” but addressed him as “Mr. Stuart.” At the end of the term, he advanced from first grade to fifth.
In just three years, Jesse Stuart earned a B.A. from Lincoln Memorial. Two years later, the reputation of the Southern Agrarians group lured him to Vanderbilt. There, misfortune struck, sending him back to Greenup County without the master’s degree he sought. A boarding room fire had consumed his belongings, including the thesis on which he worked.
Nevertheless, in the Vanderbilt English Department, the name Jesse Stuart became legendary. One Friday, a professor advised him to write the story of his life growing up in the hills of Kentucky. When he returned on Monday, he brought 300 pages. This autobiographical manuscript eventually was published as “Beyond Dark Hills.”
An esteemed Vandy teacher, Donald Davidson, astonished at Stuart’s potency as a writer, wondered, “How does it happen that Kentucky produced that marvelous phenomenon Jesse Stuart?”
Upon coming home, Stuart turned for a while from prose to poetry and produced another amazing feat. “Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow” is a work of 703 sonnets. It begins, “(I am) a one-horse farmer singing at the plow!”
Stuart was a versatile writer. Subject dictated the form he chose. “Taps for Private Tussie” could be nothing but a novel — Stuart’s best. It is the story of what happens when a World War II serviceman is reported killed and his poor family is paid an indemnity. This windfall brings trouble. Read to discover how it is resolved.
The man for whom Stuart had greatest admiration and respect was his father, Mitchell “Mick” Stuart, a little-schooled hill farmer. His biography is titled “God’s Oddling.” Actually, “oddling” is what Mick called Jesse, the reasons being, “I had gone away to school and become a writer, I didn’t smoke the tobacco we grew or drink the mountain liquor brewed nearby.”
Nevertheless, Stuart developed clogged arteries and one day while speaking at Murray State, suffered a severe heart attack. He survived, and the experience provided a subject for autobiography, “The Year of My Rebirth.”
Stuart, native of W-Hollow in Greenup County, Ky., had the gift of writing. Of his life, his place, his people, he wrote large and well. He was prolific and proved he could just about do it all: prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
Donald Davidson was right: “a marvelous phenomenon.”
His books abound in all our libraries.
Nicholson lives in Danville.
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