Photo courtesy of the Jesse Stuart Foundation
As the author of several notable autobiographical and fictional works about education and life in rural northeastern Kentucky, and the youngest school superintendent to ever serve in the state (at the ripe age of 26), Jesse Stuart and his life and writings have always been treasured and inspirational stories of teaching and country living in the foothills of Appalachia.
Nobody could keep a pen out of his hand—along with several hundred published short stories, poems and novels, Stuart’s correspondence included tens of thousands of letters—or his irrepressible personality out of a school. Even after Stuart had achieved national and international acclaim in his prolific literary career—for books such as The Thread That Runs So True, an account of the author’s early teaching experiences in his native Greenup County; Taps for Private Tussie, a fictional dark comedy about an extended family that helps a widow spend the insurance money she receives after her husband is killed in World War II; and Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow, a collection of poetry which, along with early published short stories, garnered the author a Guggenheim Fellowship—he took a position as principal at McKell High School in Greenup County for the 1956-57 school year when he was 49—a position he previously had held from 1933 to 1937.
While Stuart will forever be associated with his lifelong home in W-Hollow and the students he influenced, these images don’t capture the wanderlust with which the author was afflicted, says James Gifford, the CEO and senior editor at the Jesse Stuart Foundation and co-author of the biography Jesse Stuart: An Extraordinary Life, which was culled from more than 20,000 letters written to or by Stuart that Gifford keeps in a walk-in vault adjacent to his office at the foundation.
Stuart was as much at home on the road traveling to foreign lands, which included stops in more than 70 countries and every state in the continental United States, as he was in the classroom or entertaining a seemingly ceaseless supply of unexpected fans at his Greenup County home. His travels stand in stark contrast to his rural persona.
“Like all of us, we’re all bundles of contradictions. We’re all not what we appear to be, and Stuart’s image as a country guy isn’t necessarily a correct image, but it’s the one that he tried to sell,” Gifford said. “His image as a sort of Paul Bunyan-like character, a larger-than-life teacher of America—that helped him sell books. And I know a lot of teachers in the ’40, ’50s and ’60s read those books and took them as the gospel truth. He became a kind of heroic figure that stood behind a lot of teachers in the classroom.”
Stuart first got bitten by the travel bug when he became a Guggenheim fellow in 1937 and was afforded the luxury to study and write in Scotland for 14 months. From that vantage point, the young author visited nearly every European country and had countless adventures, including being a guest of Lord and Lady Astor.
In late 1941, Stuart and his wife, Deane, and another couple drove across the country to California, returning to Kentucky through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. During a detour into Mexico, the couples were in a serious automobile accident in which Deane sustained a broken back and was bedridden for several months. Stuart pulled his unconscious wife from the wreckage. In the summer of 1949, Stuart and Deane, along with the same couple from the trip out West, traveled to Europe aboard the Queen Elizabeth, and this voyage had a much more favorable ending than the couples’ previous excursion.
Later that winter, The Thread That Runs So True was released, marking one of the high points in Stuart’s publishing career. It also opened the doors to another adventure, one that included two of the author’s passions, traveling and teaching, more than a decade later.
That’s when Stuart was solicited by Dr. Raymond McLain, president of the American University at Cairo, to teach at the institution in Egypt, thousands of miles geographically, and even further culturally, from W-Hollow. Stuart couldn’t say no, especially when McLain appealed to the author’s professional celebrity.
“He knew Stuart by reputation, because when he contacted him, the first thing he said was, ‘Can we get the man who wrote The Thread That Runs So True to come to teach for us at the American University?’ ” Gifford said. “Although he didn’t realize it, he was playing to Stuart’s vanity, and that really appealed to Stuart. He liked the idea that somebody came to him because they thought he was famous.”
Stuart, Deane and their daughter, Jane, a recent high school graduate, embarked for Alexandria, by way of Rome and Naples, in the summer of 1960. They landed in an Egypt that wasn’t even 10 years removed from a revolution that had overthrown King Farouk and the country’s constitutional monarchy, and also ended British occupation, which dated back to 1882. Spurred by the war with Israel, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and other countries in the region were experiencing strong nationalistic sentiments and protests against Western—particularly American—influence in the region. Although Nasser is credited by sympathizers with instigating many economic, social and cultural boons for the country, others view him as a dictator who administratively suppressed opposition through imprisonment or other human rights violations.
In other words, Cairo in 1960 probably wasn’t the safest place for an American writer with a history of standing up to authority and corruption to be teaching and influencing Egyptian students. (In 1938, an editorial Stuart wrote lampooning the congressman representing Greenup County, Joe Bates, and a politically motivated Greenup County superintendent resulted in the author being blackjacked in an Argillite drug store; the incident became a national sensation in the press.)
Still, even against this backdrop, Stuart opted to move his family out of the on-campus housing in a locked compound that the university had provided and relocate to Gezira Island in the Nile River, west of downtown Cairo, “to be immersed in the culture,” Gifford writes in Stuart’s biography.
At the American University in Cairo (AUC), Stuart taught courses he was familiar with: education, composition and creative writing. Fortuitously, Jane Stuart spent her first year of college at AUC and even had her father as an instructor in a creative writing course.
Looking over the letters he used when writing the chapter in the biography about Stuart’s time in Cairo, Gifford says it is abundantly clear that Stuart and his family enjoyed their time in Egypt and felt a connection with its people, so much so, Gifford went on to write, that Jesse “easily convinced himself that the Muslims would have made good Republicans.”
“Stuart liked to think everybody would have made a good Republican,” Gifford said with a laugh. “Stuart was one of the most determined Republicans the world has ever produced.”
Still, while Stuart wrote favorably to numerous individuals about Egypt and Cairo and the university that employed him, the author and educator was very much aware of his precarious situation as a foreigner, and an American at that, in Nasser’s police state. And though this awareness didn’t keep Stuart from holding his tongue or pen when corresponding about the social or political strife he witnessed in Cairo—sometimes in the form of book burnings right outside the university compound—he was cognizant enough to ask recipients to be discreet.
“[Stuart] was a very candid person. He wrote a lot of unpleasant things he probably shouldn’t have written, but they were personal letters, and he didn’t feel any cautionary needs,” Gifford said. “When he was in Egypt, he would write letters to people, and he would always say, ‘For goodness sake, don’t show this to anybody, because they’ll get it in the papers, and it’ll get back to Egyptian officials, and it’ll really cause problems for me.’ Or maybe even threaten his safety and security.”
Kentucky author, documentarian and former state poet laureate Lee Pennington was one of the people with whom Stuart wrote frequently through the years, sometimes as many as eight to 10 letters a week. Pennington was a student at McKell High School in Greenup County when Stuart returned as principal in 1957 and was enrolled in Berea College when he received letters Stuart had written from Cairo.
In one letter, Stuart enclosed some published pieces that his students had produced, and Pennington was immediately aware that the young writers were suppressing their creativity.
“I sensed that there had been some censorship involved and commented to Jesse that I was surprised that the students didn’t have more freedom,” Pennington said, “and Jesse in no uncertain terms told me what it was like in Egypt … Self-censorship, it was necessary. Without doing that, nothing would ever have gotten published.”
Pennington, who donated his extensive collection of Stuart books and personal letters to the Special Collections Department at the University of Louisville in late 2012, knows Stuart was fond of Egypt—he accompanied Stuart on a return trip in the early ’70s, which included a visit to the university where Stuart taught.
“Jesse absolutely loved his time there,” Pennington said. “For everybody thinking he was sort of a local homebody, Jesse was an international figure of major proportion. His time in Cairo—not only did he love it, but students that Jesse had [while at AUC] followed and kept up with Jesse.”
Pennington remembers a time when he was teaching alongside Stuart at a creative writing workshop at Murray State University in 1977, and one of Stuart’s former AUC students in Cairo, by then a stockbroker in New York City, came to Kentucky to attend the workshop.
But the students weren’t the only ones Stuart had impressed during his tenure in Egypt. John Slocum, an official with the United States Information Service, a division of the United States Department of State based in Cairo, took note of Stuart’s rapport with the Egyptian students and thought Stuart would be an ideal candidate for a world lecture tour, with a particular focus on the near and far East, under the umbrella of the USIS.
The Stuart family returned from Egypt to W-Hollow in July 1961, and in September 1962, Stuart and Deane left Greenup County for a five-month tour. The trip, which included nearly 400 speaking engagements, would take the Stuarts through Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, back to Egypt, Afghanistan, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), India, Thailand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea.
During the hundreds of lectures, Stuart would talk about the things he held dear—teaching and writing—while also engaging the audience as often as he could.
“I remember Jesse telling me about being in Korea and speaking to an audience. One of the questions the audience had for Jesse was, ‘Why is America so focused on sex?’ ” Pennington recalled. “I wondered, how in the world does a man answer a question like that? And Jesse looked at him and said, ‘Well, we’re a young country.’ The audience, Jesse said, went in hysterics laughing.”
Aside from speaking with foreign audiences about education and writing, Stuart’s global tour had a more specific purpose: putting America’s best face forward in parts of the world where the country’s influence and stature had lost—or was beginning to lose—its luster.
To this effect, Stuart was one of the best PR people the State Department could put up on the world stage. Patriotic (Stuart, in his late 30s, enlisted in the Navy in 1944 during World War II but never saw combat), genuine, and with a tireless work ethic, Stuart was a flesh-and-blood emblem of the American Dream speaking at the podium.
“Stuart had a way of diluting anti-American spirit when he would tell stories about his impoverished childhood and having worked his way up to the point he was in life and that sort of thing,” Gifford said. “I think those stories, for the people who heard them and could understand them, created a different image of America—that all Americans weren’t rich and powerful and capitalists. Stuart’s rural life, his hard work—which was genuine—all those things made him, I think, a lot more acceptable kind of writer.”
Stuart returned to W-Hollow in February 1963 as a man of the country and Kentucky and a man of the world, two vastly different personas that only a character like Stuart could portray with unflappable confidence.
The following years saw Stuart enter a mode of furious productivity, writing thousands of letters, producing an impressive collection of books and other publications, and always traveling to the next attentive audience.
“One time somebody asked me,” Gifford recalled with a chuckle, “if I thought Jesse had ever worked for the CIA because of all his traveling, and I said, ‘Well, if he did, I’m sure they didn’t tell him any secrets because Jesse couldn’t keep any secrets. Everything he knew he told and retold and exaggerated.’
“Now the CIA, if they wanted to, they could have given him some misinformation, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t have any covert ties to the government.”
Learn more about the Jesse Stuart Foundation HERE
The Jesse Stuart Nature Preserve includes more 700 acres of land that Stuart donated through a gift-purchase agreement with the state in an effort to honor the W-Hollow area, which is featured throughout Stuart’s works.
The preserve includes a gently meandering 3.3-mile trail, accessible from the parking lot, which offers picturesque vistas of the town of Greenup as well as the Ohio and Little Sandy River Valleys.
From U.S. 23, head south on Route 1 at Greenup for three miles and turn right on W-Hollow Road. Follow W-Hollow Road for 1.5 miles, and the parking area is on the right. Be sure to pack Stuart’s Head o’ W-Hollow in your day bag. The trail is open from dawn to dusk all year long.