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  • Jesse Stuart: An Extraordinary Life
  • Sylvia Lynch (bio)
James M. Gifford and Erin R. Kazee. Jesse Stuart: An Extraordinary Life. Ashland, Ky.: The Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2010. 479 pages. Trade hardback, $30.00.

Jesse Stuart packed more into his seventy-six years of life than most could achieve in three lifetimes. His writing, his career as an educator, and his stormy foray into politics all touched millions. More than a quarter century after his death, an international following and an ever-growing body of work about the life and career of Stuart stand as testimony to his enduring legacy. Definitive information about this prolific Appalachian writer, however, still eludes those who seek the truth about him. In their new biography of Stuart, James Gifford and Erin Kazee have achieved an honest portrayal of the complicated man who, as the authors say, "wrote furiously, like a man killing snakes." The authors have made it clear that Jesse Stuart approached every aspect of his life with the same fervor he devoted to his literary pursuits.

The book is a comprehensive, well-documented look at Stuart's remarkable life, much of which rivals the plot of any reality show offered in modern entertainment. Gifford and Kazee say their intent was not to compile a "true biography," but to bring to light the true character of this driven, passionate man and the role he played in creating his own persona. They propose that it was Jesse Stuart himself who invented Jesse Stuart the celebrity. The book chronicles Stuart's long and illustrious career in education, his second most famous role. He served as a teacher, a principal, and superintendent in his beloved Kentucky and taught in schools and universities in Ohio, Nevada, and Cairo, Egypt.

Stuart never backed away from controversy, and credited his willingness to stand and fight to his strong-willed father and his mountain upbringing. His stint as editor of the local paper, the Greenup News, was a position he took solely to facilitate his verbal war with local political adversaries. His outspoken involvement in local politics culminated in a bloody encounter in a local drug store in 1938. The authors report that Stuart's response to injuries he sustained in the melee, published as a scathing editorial in the Greenup News, declared that he would "write 10,000 words" for every drop of blood he shed. The attack on Stuart and the resulting trial made national news, including a two-page article in Time magazine.

Stuart was a sought-after speaker, traveling all over the world to talk about his work and his life in the hills of Kentucky. In 1962, a United [End Page 90] States Department of State official was so taken with Stuart's captivating presence that he recommended Stuart for a World Lecture Tour sponsored by the State Department with 372 appearances in 13 countries.

Relying largely on Stuart's own words, gleaned from collections of previously unpublished correspondence material from the people who lived and worked with Stuart, Gifford and Kazee do not attempt to lionize their subject or hide his faults. They are as straightforward in presenting his flaws as they are in chronicling his lifetime of impressive achievements. The result is the portrait of a real person. Stuart was a man of extremes, a gifted, passionate, obsessive individual who was perfectly capable of being less than honest or of using the people around him if it served his purposes. The reader gets a rare glimpse of Jesse Stuart through the eyes of the people who knew him best—family, teachers, lovers, friends, and fellow writers. They discuss Stuart's exasperating self-promotion, his temper and stubborn bent, and yet acknowledge that the motivation for his less-than-stellar qualities was rooted in his overwhelming desire to write and to be recognized for his accomplishments.

Readers expecting a traditional chronologically arranged biography might find the book in part difficult to follow. Gifford and Kazee have chosen to present their vast research in a kind of scrapbook format. A comprehensive chronology at the end of the book, however, serves to help the reader keep the events in order. While the first section, making...