Inspiring a Story
Experience with Jesse Stuart
Glen Edward Taul
Today I have not
written a story I planned to write. This has taken one of our last days in time
allotted to us to live. But John Preston has been worth every minute of it.
As I traveled across W-Hollow toward
Stuart’s home, there was an air of expectation. For many months I had been
anticipating the moment when I would meet Jesse Stuart. The visit was the
culmination of a connection begun through correspondence. On the day that Jesse
Stuart welcomed me (aka John Preston) into his home, a serendipitous
relationship evolved for both visitor and host. I wanted to understand him as a
writer and establish a friendship with my favorite author of fiction. I had fantasized
cursorily about being a character in one of his stories, but that was not my
primary interest in meeting him. To my amazement though, I discovered
first-hand how he was able to bring fictional characters, based on people he
actually knew, to life and make them seem so real.
Stuart was an accomplished Appalachian
author. I first read one of his books in high school. Mrs. Becker, my
literature teacher, had given the assignment to choose a book by our favorite
author and prepare to give an oral review. The problem was that I had never
read any fiction outside of a textbook. When I told her of my dilemma, she
suggested Stuart’s Taps for Private Tussie. I immediately liked it. It was
funny and it was about the people of eastern Kentucky, which was from whence my
My interest in Stuart lay dormant until I
entered graduate school in Texas. At the time of my visit with Stuart and his
wife, Naomi, in 1975, I was working on a Master’s degree in American Studies.
My American literature professor, E. Hudson Long, like my high school teacher,
had given the assignment to pick an author and be prepared to make a
presentation about the writer and his or her fiction. I had first chosen John
Steinbeck, but on second thought I wanted to know more about Stuart. Dr. Long
let me make the change. I selected six of Stuart’s books: Beyond Dark Hills,
Trees of Heaven, Taps for Private Tussie, Foretaste of Glory, The Thread That
Runs So True, and Hie to the Hunters.
Stuart is best known for Taps and The
Thread That Runs So True. Taps was his most successful novel, selling more than
a million copies when it was selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club® feature in
1943, and it won the Thomas Jefferson Award the same year.2 The Thread That
Runs So True is a semi-fictional story about a heroic teacher who teaches in a
one-room school in rural Greenwood County, Kentucky, and later becomes
superintendent of the county’s schools amidst the Great Depression. Beyond Dark
Hills, Stuart’s first prose work, was written first as a term paper for his
graduate class at Vanderbilt University. It is an autobiographical account of
Stuart’s first twenty-one years in eastern Kentucky. Trees of Heaven, his first
novel, tells the story of the conflict between two mountain families who represent
different views of life—materialistic versus non-materialistic. Foretaste of
Glory is an account of residents in a mountain community responding, often in
comical ways, to the phenomenon of the aurora borealis which actually reached
down to northeast Kentucky, Stuart’s home region, in 1941. Never experiencing
such a sight, the residents of Blakesburg, Kentucky take the event as a portent
for Christ’s second coming and for the end of the world.
My sixth choice, Hie to the Hunters, was
my favorite. Ruel Foster classifies it as a minor novel of Stuart’s.3 Hie to
the Hunters is a story, reminiscent of Mark Twain’s classics, of a city kid,
Didway “Did” Hargis (a Tom Sawyer-like character) learning about country life
from Jud “Sparkie” Sparks (a Huckleberry-like character), who rescues Did one
day from a beating by two bullies. Did accepts Sparkie’s invitation to live
with him where Sparkie can protect him and teach him country ways. The two boys
hunt, shoot, plow, trap, and do all other things country together. Did grows
mentally tough and physically strong and embraces country life
enthusiastically. A memorable scene is of the boys sleeping between fox hounds
in a barn loft on cold winter days. The action in the novel is built around a
conflict between town and hill people and a feud between tobacco growers and
fox hunters. The town versus country clash is revealed whenever Did’s parents
attempt, with the help of people from Greenwood, to compel Did to return to
them. The most comical scene is a mass fight, the squabble’s climax, on a night
when the people of Plum Grove are festively picking and shucking the year’s
corn crop. The Plum Grove people, defending Did’s choice to stay, defeat
Title Page for
Hie to the Hunters
At the same time, someone is pitting
tobacco growers against fox hunters. Barns are mysteriously burned and fox
hounds, prized possessions of rural mountain people, are poisoned. Each group
suspects the other, and there is difficulty in finding a way to conciliate the
two. The second climax in the novel comes when the barn in which Sparkie and
Did sleep is burned. Eventually Sparkie and Did catch the barn-burner,
“Brier-Patch Tom” Eversole, who confesses to burning the barns and to poisoning
the dogs. So peace comes between town and country and between tobacco growers
and fox hunters, and Did reconciles with his father. In the last scene of Hie
to the Hunters, Sparkie decides that he will not attend school, but remain on
the land to which he is attached. Did will return to high school and graduate,
but will eventually go back to the land which he came to love while living with
At the suggestion of Dr. Long, I began
corresponding with Stuart. Stuart readily wrote back as if cultivating a
disciple. His handwriting was bold, evoking an aura of vigor and effusiveness.
There was an openness and an inviting spirit about the letters. They became a
conversation exploring mutual interests. Stuart’s interest was heightened when
I told him about my mother coming from Johnson County, Kentucky. “What
interested me in your letter your ancestors had come from Paintsville, Ky My
grandfather, father of my mother, Nathan Hilton was born in Paintsville . . . .
My father’s mother Cynthia Meade was born there . . . . The pioneer Preston Cemetery,
is filled with my kindred dead. I’m descended from the Prestons. . . . This is
the land of your ancestors and mine.”4 In response I told him that I was
descended from the oldest pioneer families of the Big Sandy Valley—Price,
Preston, Ward, Meek, Daniel, Sellards, among others. Stuart replied, “No
question about it, our early ancestory, all pioneer ancestory tie-up on the Big
Sandy River Valley, which was the route the pioneers came. All your ancestory
mentioned here are old names. . . . If you were to extend your Genealogy a
little more I’m sure you’ll tie-up with Prestons.”5 Many years later his
assertion was proven. Both of us are descendants of Moses Preston, Sr., a
veteran of the Revolutionary War, and Fanny Arthur, who settled in Lawrence
County, Kentucky, in 1800. Stuart descends from Preston’s oldest child,
Susannah (Suka) while I descend from his fourth child, Linda (Lynchie).6
After a few exchanges of letters, I asked
Stuart about the possibility of visiting him. I proposed to visit during my
annual pilgrimage back to Kentucky to visit my grandparents. When I arrived on
a hot August day, I was expecting to spend only an hour or two with him and
Mrs. Stuart, but ended up staying for five. We had engaging conversations. He
showed me his home, downtown Greenup, and places where the action of his
stories happened. He treated me to lunch at Greenbo Lake State Resort Park,
where I ate catfish for the first time. Before departing I gave him a jar of my
uncle Dallas Taul’s honey. He gave me a signed copy of his latest novel, The
Land Beyond the River.7
Sometime later Stuart informed me that he
had written an “article-story” about my visit. “I changed some names, school
and yours, to make it semi-fiction—however, it isn’t—and this piece was
accepted last week by The Ball State University Forum. . . .”8 When the story
was published in 1980, it was entitled “Sparkie and Did—Still Young”.
Writers, whether artisans of stories,
poems, songs, or drama, approach their craft according to what works for them.
The elements, however, are the same. They include a mix of observation, memory,
imagination, and creativity. The material used in their work comes from
witnessing and encountering people engaging daily with life, from the culture
they know, from the traditions of the past, from the present. These artisans
absorb their environment and store the experiences in their memories until
their imaginations make connections to create a story.
Stuart’s stories are not plot driven.
Unlike Henry James, he is not the consummate practitioner of the well crafted
novel. Except for a few notes, he never begins a book by outlining it. He
writes intuitively. His stories “have a kind of subconscious plot,” writes
Foster. Stuart “has some image, some ‘hunch,’ some node of interest in his own
mind which is the real subject matter”9 of a story. Stuart implied this in his
letter to me of March 1, 1976 when he says that he wrote it the day after my
visit. It sounded as if it were almost spontaneous. Near the end of my visit,
Mrs. Stuart showed me his work area, which was on the second floor of the last
addition built on his house in 1971. While Mrs. Stuart was showing me his desk,
“When does he write?”
“It depends a lot on his mood,” she said.
“When he starts, he will work until he finishes.”10
While the activities during my visit
provided the framework of “Sparkie and Did—Still Young,” my interest in Hie to
the Hunters was the principal motif. “Let us call him John Preston and his
university Mayberry University. . . .”11 Preston was chosen, of course, because
of our common family lineage in the Big Sandy Valley. “Mayberry University” was
the fictional name of Baylor University, where I was attending at the time, and
Dr. Long appeared as “Dr. Langsford.”
From the moment I shook Stuart’s hand, he
was absorbing everything about me. Before escorting me into his house, he took
measure of me, physically putting his six-foot four-inch frame beside my
six-foot form. He described Preston in the story as “about six feet tall, twenty-four,
clean-shaven, dressed in a checked shirt and dungarees. He had a natural smile,
curved lips, his white teeth were slightly uneven. His hair was parted on the
side and of average length.”12 When we entered his house, after being
introduced to Mrs. Stuart, I was captivated by walls and walls of books, even
in the living room. I did not sit immediately, going instead to the shelves in
the “old living room” to see what he had. When a book caught my attention, I
took it and browsed through the pages. This part of the house was a log cabin
once, dating from 1820.13
“‘Would you like to sit down, John?’ Naomi
“‘No, not particularly,’ he said. ‘I’d
like to look around this house. That is if you have more books!’”14
We eventually sat
under the original low ceiling to begin my visit. The room invited reading and
conversation. The low ceiling, the rough log walls, and sofas and chairs
arranged in a half-circle facing a stone fire place created an ambience of
hospitality, comfort, and intimacy.
Jesse and Naomi
Deane Stuart in 1977
of the Jesse Stuart Foundation)
They continued to show me the rooms
downstairs. As we moved slowly from room to room, we talked as I looked at
books. We eventually began talking about the characters—Sparkie, Did, Peg, and
Arn—in Hie to the Hunters. Although it had been a year since I had completed my
assignment for Dr. Long, they were still alive in my imagination. Did, the city
boy, went on an adventure into the rural part of his county with a country boy,
Sparkie, who had saved him from a thrashing by two bullies. I identified with
Did and yearned, even at age twenty-four, to experience the life that Sparkie
represented. I had tasted country life during my adolescent years while
visiting, for long periods, my paternal grandparents on their farm in western
Kentucky. I had participated in many of the same activities as Did—hunting
squirrels and rabbits with my dad, cousins, and uncles during Thanksgiving,
stripping tobacco on a cold fall day, riding the tractor with my grandfather as
he prepared the ground to plant corn, feeding hay to cattle in the barn during
winter, collecting eggs from the hen house, and plucking feathers from just
scalded chicken carcasses. I could even imagine myself sleeping in a hay loft
between two blood hounds, like Did and Sparkie, on a cold winter’s night. There
were two rooms in my grandparents’ one hundred-year-old, wood-framed house that
lacked insulation. Sometimes my brother and I slept in the attic room covered with
layers of blankets and quilts, lying near each other for warmth. In the
mornings, after a fire was well under way in the kitchen’s wood stove, we
quickly lowered the retractable stairs and scurried down to get warm before
I saw Sparkie and Did as fictional
characters, but Stuart had drawn them from people he knew. Sparkie, according
to H. Edward Richardson, was based on Jack Dysard, a colorful man who had a
reputation in Plum Grove as being “‘the gun man and the razor man.’” He had
been expelled from grade school for carrying a pistol.15 Preston thought
Sparkie was a great character, and mused that he was younger than him. Stuart
stopped Preston in his tracks when he said that, “‘Even characters in the flesh
grow and die like the rest of us.’” Sparkie had grown old and died and was
buried at Plum Grove cemetery. Like Preston, I must have had a shocked
expression on my face. Stuart records that Preston “was silenced;”16 amazed
that the real Sparkie was dead.
As in his other novels, Stuart drew on
real people as the sources for his stories. In his best literary work, Stuart
takes the material from the environment in which he had been immersed for his
entire life. Richardson states, in his essay “Stuart Country”, that as a novelist Stuart fictionalized his
community of W-Hollow. Stuart drew upon it repeatedly, adapting and
transforming his sources as he moved them through generations and the present.
He imbued this raw material with local color, characters, and events, and in
the process, expanded, embellished, and eventually unified the whole,
re-creating his world in miniature.17
After showing me (aka Preston) the rest of
their home on the lower floor, they took me to the Jesse Stuart Lodge at
Greenbo Lake State Resort Park for lunch.18 On the way there, Stuart drove a
route which went past or near sites related to the story of Sparkie and Did.
When the Stuarts and John Preston reach the intersection of W-Hollow Road and
State Route One, Stuart explains that they were at the beginning of the Plum
Grove Hills, “the real setting for Hie to the Hunters. . . .” Stuart stopped on
that spot long enough to point out the Plum Grove Church on top of a nearby
hill. He said there are two cemeteries at the church. In the old one lies
buried Stuart’s father, mother, two brothers, and “other kin”. In the newer one
lies Sparkie. At this point in the story about Preston, Stuart reminds the
reader of the principal motif of this story. He has Preston saying:
“‘I can’t believe Sparkie is dead,’ he
spoke with a lamenting tone. ‘To me he will always be alive and young.’”
“‘Remember him that way,’”19 Stuart
As they travel south on State Route One,
Stuart pointed out the woods where Peg and Arn Sparks were buried, their graves
most likely not marked. He remarked that Did and Sparkie once hunted among
those trees. A little farther, after dropping over Barney Tunnel Hill, Stuart
slows to show Preston a seldom used, one lane road to the right that Sparkie
and Did once walked. Preston could see the oak grove where Peg and Arn’s house
was located, and beside it was the barn in which Sparkie and Did lived. To his
left, at the same place, was an area that was once known as Buzzards’ Roost. In
Hie to the Hunters, this was Sparkie’s favorite place to go and listen to “my
hounds drive home the fox!” It was the country way of fox hunting. During
evenings, whether summer or winter, mountaineers would turn loose their prized
hound dogs to run the foxes. “This ridge road is the home of the fox hunters.
Here’s where we come to hear the chases. Ye can come here at night and listen
to the hounds after the fox, . . .” Sparkie said. The fox chase is a
competition, like a horse race, except the spectators follow the race with
their ears rather than their eyes. They know each dog’s personality and
competitive style. They know the terrain. Each dog strategizes to win against
his opponents to win.
‘“Listen,’ Sparkie held up his hand, ‘I
hear them comin’.’
“The hounds broke into music as they came
around the east point of the mountain toward Buzzard Roost Ridge. Brierpatch
Tom’s War Horse was back in the lead. Thunderbolt was back in the pack and
Lightning was no longer in the chase.
‘“Lightnin’ ran only one circle
tonight,’ Did apologized to Pollie.
‘“One long or two short circles is all
old Lightnin’ ever runs,’ Sparkie interrupted. ‘That’s enough to bust the
hounds that try to stay with ‘im. Thunderbolt understands. He waits until
Lightnin’ is out of the chase. Lightnin’ is on his way to the fire now and
Thunderbolt is pullin’ up to take the lead. Hear ‘im! Hear his bark!’
‘“Think of hounds runnin’ all night
fightin’ just to lead the chase,’ Lucy said. ‘And then they never do ketch the
It was a part of
Appalachian life that was confirmed for me when I visited my mother’s only
sister in Wyoming County, West Virginia for a family reunion. In the rear of
their house, four hounds were tethered in front of their dog houses. My uncle
Claude said he and his neighbors would release their hounds into the
surrounding hills during evenings to chase foxes. They could monitor the
progress of the chase by each dog’s distinctive bark.
In 1975 Didway Hargis was still alive,
though Stuart did not reveal his actual name. Stuart told Preston that Did
returned to visit a sister and two brothers once a year. He made it a point to
visit Stuart. They were close from the years they grew up together. They were
As they proceed to their lunch
destination, Stuart points out more sites of Sparkie’s and Did’s adventures.
There was Tom Fitch’s store “where they sold their pelts and bought their
supplies.”21 And the station high on a hill where Sparkie and Did flagged
trains to stop so they could ship the pelts of the animals they had trapped.
Over here to the right was Sleepy Hollow which flows down to the Little Sandy
River at Putt-Off Ford. At this place people were baptized in the spring (think
of the scene in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) after the winter ice had thawed.
In the first third of the twentieth century, baptizings were common events in
the Sandy River all the way to Hopewell (about a sixteen-mile stretch), Mrs.
Stuart tells Preston. Stuart says that every time he went to a baptizing as a
boy, Sparkie (Jack Dysard) was always there. After they became friends, Jack
took Did along, who never missed a one.
Stuart omitted one anecdote in his story,
“Sparkie and Did—Still Young”. The experience was an insight into how he
collected material for his stories. After finishing our catfish luncheon, they
took me to Greenup, the county seat of Greenup County, and showed me around.
There was the courthouse built with Works Progress Administration funds during
the 1930s, and the granite shaft erected in 1955 in honor of Stuart for “Jesse
Hilton Stuart Day in Kentucky” on the courthouse’s lawn. Stuart’s favorite
spot, however, was Leslie’s Drug Store, across the street from the courthouse.
22 We walked to the middle of the store where I stood for a moment. Then I
started to move over to the display of his books. I had taken only one step
when Stuart took hold of my arm and said, “Stand right here. Look around.
Absorb what is going on. Don’t be in such a hurry.” So I did.
We returned to his house and finished the
day with a tour of the upstairs and his work space.23 Stuart ends the story of
“Sparkie and Did—Still Young” by expressing his amazement that Preston thought
Hie to the Hunters was the best of his novels and the one that he had enjoyed
the most. “I did not think Hie to the Hunters was my best novel but he did.”
“All the characters in that book for him are alive and breathing.”24
|This was the home of Jesse and Naomi Stuart. The oldest section of the house is where the front door is located. His work area was above the garage.
of the Jesse Stuart Foundation
Stuart’s style of storytelling was not
research based. He did not take a story idea and then do background research on
situations, circumstances, or time periods. His writing was intuitive, impulsive,
and intense, drawing directly from his world as he had observed and experienced
it. He had a dynamic curiosity of people and their environment. Throughout this
story about my interest in Sparkie and Did, he used elements of my background
and of his life and career to frame the story’s principal motif. When I arrived
that day, Stuart had not expected to write a story. When he encountered an
experience or experiences that strongly affected him, he was compelled to write
them down immediately. His whole being was invested in characters living in his
world. He took elements of their lives and brought them to life with timeless
1 Jesse Stuart,
“Sparkie and Did--Still Young,” Forum, XXI, No. 2 (April 1980):42.
2 Ruel E. Foster,
Jesse Stuart (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968), 103; Lisle Brown, Taps for
Private Tussie, Jesse Stuart Collection of First Editions, Special Collections,
Marshall University, [on-line exhibit]; available from
Internet; accessed March 8, 2014.
3 Foster, Jesse
Stuart, pp. 132-38; H. Edward Richardson, Jesse: The Biography of an American
Writer, Jesse Hilton Stuart (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984), p. 338.
4 Jesse Stuart to
Glen Edward Taul, October 22, 1974.
5 Jesse Stuart to
Glen E. Taul, December 17, 1974.
6 Childers Family
Reunion Historical Preservation Committee, Moses Preston and Fanny Arthur
Family of Eastern Kentucky: The History of our Preston Family, 5 vols., (N.p.,
2006), 50, 885.
7 Glen Edward
Taul, Diary of Glen Edward Taul, August 22, 1975.
8 Jesse Stuart to
Glen Edward Taul, March 1, 1976. For anyone interested in reading the story,
the issue of the Forum, which has it, can be accessed at this web link of Ball
State University: http://libx.bsu.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/frm/id/26/rec/71.
The story begins on page 42.
9 Foster, Jesse
Stuart, p. 91.
10 Taul, Diary,
August 22, 1975.
“Sparkie and Did—Still Young,” p. 42.
13 Taul, Diary,
August 22, 1975; H. Edward Richardson, “Stuart Country: The Man-Artist and the
Myth,” in Jesse Stuart: Essays on His Work, J.R. LeMaster and Mary Washington
Clarke, eds. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1977), 5.
“Sparkie and Did—Still Young,” p. 43.
Jesse, pp. 60, 440.
“Sparkie and Did—Still Young,” p. 43.
“Stuart Country,” p. 2.
18 Taul, Diary,
August 22, 1975; Stuart, “Sparkie and Did—Still Young,” p. 45-46.
“Sparkie and Did—Still Young,” p. 44.
20 Idem, Hie to
the Hunters (New York: Whittlesey House, McGraw-Hill, 1950), pp. 76, 142.
“Sparkie and Did—Still Young,” p. 45.
Jesse, pp. 365-66; Taul, Diary, August 22, 1975.
23 Taul, Diary,
August 22, 1975.
“Sparkie and Did—Still Young,” p. 46, 47.