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Jesse Stuart

By Kentucky For Kentucky |

Thanks to a tip from The Jesse Stuart Foundation, we discovered several eloquent quotes from one of the most thoughtful and prolific writers of Kentucky. And we've created a heavenly marriage between the hand of Bryan Patrick Todd and the pen of Jesse Stuart so that this week's print may grace the walls of your old Kentucky home. We'll have a limited run of 250 hand-pulled screenprints for sale at 10am on Friday, August 8th – so you'll have to be quick. Light blue and white ink, printed on 18" x 24" French Paper Company Paper, these are high-quality Kentucky gems. But before you get a copy in your hands, take a moment and open your heart to the story of Jesse Stuart, an original born and bred kick-ass Kentuckian.

The bard of Appalachia, Jesse Hilton Stuart was born in Greenup County's W-Hollow, northwest of Ashland, Kentucky, in 1906. He would live in that holler for all but a handful of his seventy-seven years. The second of seven children of illiterate sharecroppers, Jesse was well accustomed to subsistence living in his childhood. He quit school at age twelve to work full time – and we may never have heard of him if he hadn't gone back to school at age sixteen.

Jesse was an educator throughout his life: he was fond of saying, "First, last, and always, I am a teacher." Fittingly, he got his first teaching gig before he even graduated high school. He worked as teacher and principal at various schools, both before and after his literary career gained momentum. Stuart's bestselling book is The Thread That Runs So True, his memoir about teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. He also served several terms as Greenup County school superintendent, and taught at colleges and universities from Reno to Cairo.

A prolific writer, Jesse published over sixty books: memoirs, novels, poetry and story collections, and children's books.  He had no problem staying busy—for most of his career he managed to teach, write, and tend his ever-expanding family farm all at once. His first published book, Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow (1934), is a poetry collection that portrays the simplicity—and complexity—of the Appalachian land and its people, and it brought immediate national recognition to its author.

Jesse was clearly a kickass Kentuckian, but he was known to kick actual ass from time to time: he was involved in more than a few fistfights, and appears to have won most of them. The Stuart family—male and female alike—was known as one of the toughest in the holler, and Jesse described himself as a "first-class fighting man." Despite being thirty-five, he volunteered for the Navy after World War Two began, and was upset when he was assigned to write pamphlets in Washington, DC rather than fight in the Pacific.

Jesse Stuart was a man of contradictions. His polarizing personality caused many people to find him overbearing and egotistical, while plenty of other folks revered him as charming and charismatic. He had a tendency to exaggerate, especially with respect to his own accomplishments, and took criticism of his work poorly. He didn't receive the same level of critical acclaim that his friend James Still did, but he wrote—and sold—many more books than Still. He was an author of the people, and of his beloved Appalachian foothills.

Jesse acted as a literary ambassador outside Kentucky, lecturing across the globe in the 1960s for the U.S. State Department.  But his first ambassadorial role was within Kentucky, when he became the Commonwealth's poet laureate in 1954. His "audition" for that appointment was to read the title poem from his latest collection, Kentucky Is My Land, to the Kentucky State Legislature. The poem is an open love letter to Kentucky: "The heart of America / Pulsing with a little bit of everything."

We can thank Jesse Stuart for his linguistic elegance and love of the Kentucky wilds for the words we're celebrating this week: "If these United States can be called a body, then Kentucky can be called its heart." Letters gracefully designed by Bryan Patrick Todd in Louisville. Printed with love by kick-ass Kentuckian Tim Jones in Lexington on Navy French Paper Company Paper for a limited run of 250 18"x24" prints, $30 each.

Words by Hap Houlihan and photos by Stanley Sievers.

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