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Jesse Hilton Stuart (August 8, 1906February 17, 1984) was an American writer, school teacher, and school administrator who is known for his short stories, poetry, and novels as well as non-fiction autobiographical works set in central Appalachia. Born and raised in Greenup County, Kentucky, Stuart relied heavily on the rural locale of northeastern Kentucky for his writings. Stuart was named the poet laureate of Kentucky in 1954.

Stuart was born near Riverton, Greenup County, Kentucky, to Mitchell and Martha (Hilton) Stuart on August 8, 1906. Stuart served in the US Navy during World War II but did not see combat as his mission in his life. In 1939, Stuart married Naomi Deane Norris, a school teacher. They settled in W Hollow and had one daughter, Jessica Jane.

After being denied admission at three colleges, Stuart was finally accepted at and attended Lincoln Memorial University, located in Harrogate, Tennessee. After graduating he returned to his home area and taught at Warnock High School in Greenup, Kentucky. Later he was appointed principal at McKell High School, but resigned after one year to attend graduate school at Vanderbilt University, where Edwin Mims was one of his professors. He then served as superintendent of the Greenup County Schools before ending his career as an English teacher at Portsmouth High School in Portsmouth, Ohio.

One day while Stuart was plowing in the field, he stopped and wrote the first line of a sonnet: "I am a farmer singing at the plow," the first line of the 703 sonnets he would collect in Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow (1934). The book was described by Irish poet George William Russell (who wrote poetry under the name of AE) as the greatest work of poetry to come out of America since Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass. Stuart was named poet laureate for the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1954, and in 1961 he received the annual award from the American Academy of Poets.

Stuart's first novel was Trees of Heaven (1940). Set in rural Kentucky, the novel tells the story of Anse Bushman, who loves working the land and wants more land. Stuart's style is simple and sparse. Taps for Private Tussie (1943) is perhaps his most popular novel, selling more than a million copies in only two years. The novel also received critical praise and won the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Award for the best Southern book of the year. In 1974, Gale Research (in American Fiction, 1900-1950) identified Jesse Stuart as one of the forty-four novelists in the first half of the 20th century with high critical acclaim. Jesse Stuart was the second youngest of that group (William Saroyan was one year younger).

Stuart published about 460 short stories. He wrote his first short story "Nest Egg" when he was a sophomore in high school in 1923. The story is of a rooster at his farm, whose behavior was so dominant that it began attracting hens from other farms, leading to conflict with the neighbors. Twenty years later, he submitted the story unchanged to the Atlantic Monthly, which accepted the story and published it in February 1943; it was later collected in Tales from Plum Grove Hills.

One of his most anthologized stories is "Split Cherry Tree," first published in Esquire, January 1939. In this story, a high school teacher in a one-room schoolhouse keeps a boy after school to work and pay for damage he did to a cherry tree. The boy's uneducated father comes to school to argue with the teacher, but comes to appreciate the value of higher education.

The theme of education appears often in Stuart's books. He described the role that teaching played in his life in The Thread that Runs So True (1949), though he changed the names of places and people. He first taught school in rural Kentucky at the age of 16 at Cane Creek Elementary School, which became Lonesome Valley in his book. The Thread that Runs So True (1949) has become a classic of American education. Ruel Foster, a professor at West Virginia University, noted in 1968 that the book had good sales in its first year. At the time, he wrote, sales for the book had gone up in each successive year, an astonishing feat for any book. The book has remained continuously in print for more than 50 years.

Stuart died February 17, 1984 at Jo-Lin Nursing Home, near his boyhood home, in Ironton, Ohio. He was 77 years old. He was buried in Plum Grove Cemetery in Greenup, Greenup County, Kentucky.

The natural settings of W Hollow were prominent throughout Stuart's writings. Prior to his death he donated 714 acres of woodlands in W Hollow to the Office of Kentucky Nature Preserves. The Jesse Stuart State Nature Preserve is dedicated to protecting the legacy of Stuart, and ensures that a significant portion of W Hollow will remain undeveloped in perpetuity. The trail system is open to the public from dawn to dusk all year long.

Bibliography

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