"THEY really brought men to justice back in them days when they had to have someone to hang every Sunday after church." This is a throwaway sentence buried in the middle of a paragraph about halfway through a story with the straightforward title: "Sunday Afternoon Hanging." Yet there is in this sentence the deviousness of a poet. It jars the mind from bend to bend like Donne's, "A bracelet of bright hair about the bone." But Jesse Stuart's prose has so much poetry in it that he often seems to throw away great lines. It is a trait of mountain people not to suspect that their ordinary speech rolls with the rhythm of the Psalms and lights up with bursts of Shakespearean imagery. But Jesse Stuart, although he has lived nearly all his life in the Kentucky hills, is not an unlettered Appalachian. He knows what he's doing.
In "Sunday Afternoon Hanging," a mountaineer is telling his grandson about the good old days before baseball games and the "hot seat," when, on a Sunday "people came for forty miles to see a hanging." There follows a marvelous, terrible Brueghelian scene gone round the bend with the uniformed band playing "My Old Kentucky Home," screaming babies being forced to nurse by mothers intent on hearing the last words of the condemned, boys hired to fling water on fighting dogs or beautiful fainting girls, men chewing tobacco while chatting about "crops and the cattle and the doings of the Lord to the wicked people for their sins." Madame Defarge, eat your heart out.
It is this powerful, often comedic, moral irony of Stuart's tales which makes me wonder why the editor chose to call this collection, "The Best-Loved Short Stories . . ." Such a title leads the first-time Stuart reader to expect an Edgar Guest telling tales from his porch rocker as he gazes, tear on cheek, over the lavender hills. How can you "best love" a story that gruesomely, albeit hilariously, details in sequence five public hangings? Or love a painful account of adultery and murder in two generations like "A Land Beyond the River," even if the title does belong to a beloved old country hymn? Moreover, by choosing a mere 34 out of Stuart's nearly 500 published stories, you're bound to invoke grumblings from Stuart admirers that their particular favorites have been left out, as indeed Robert Penn Warren seems to be doing in his introduction to this book.
Well, no matter. It is a good collection and well balanced. The violence of stories like those already mentioned is intermingled with tender stories of married love and aggravation like "The Storm," macabre tales like "Word and the Flesh" which gives Poe a run for his money, and high comedy like "Nest Egg," the tale of a Don Giovanni of the hen-yard who kills every fighting rooster in the district and seduces all the female fowls in the hollow, only to be brought low by "a little screech owl no bigger than (Pa's) fist."
Jesse Stuart is often referred to as a "regional writer." And certainly he devoted his life as a writer to poetry and tales of the Kentucky mountain people he knew so well. "I write of what has actually happened," he once said to a Princeton University audience, "and in the only way I can -- the way that comes naturally to me." But Stuart's natural way of writing is the way of the artist, the selection of revelatory detail. He achieves what Conrad indicated was the task of the writer of fiction -- "by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel . . . to make you see."
Stuart makes us see his world. Most of his stories are more extended picture than formal plot. Usually this doesn't matter, the pictures are so vivid that they can live without more formal construction. Occasionally, however, this becomes a weakness, as in in the story, "Eustacia," which begins strongly but winds down to a platitude. On the other hand, there is the last story in the book, "This Is the Place," in which an old man wants all his relatives buried in the same plot of mountain soil, so that on judgment day they will all rise together. This piece has far less story line than "Eustacia," yet somehow manages to rise above platitude and sentimentality on the back of lyrical language.
" 'And what do we do while we are waiting -- while our dust is sleeping the long night,' I say to Uncle Mel, 'in the narrow confines of our small world -- in the village of this silent city of Powderjays and Sheltons with our in-laws plus that have come to sleep beside their wives.' 'My son,' says Uncle Mel, 'we shall go on living in the same way we lived here -- only we'll be light as the wind. We shall be as we have been -- have the same color of hair, shapes of noses, the same voice -- we shall run with our old company -- I expect to have my farm here and do the things as I have always done. How can that which is the real Mel Shelton die? It can't die. You can't take a hammer and beat it to death even if you beat my head off. The real Mel Shelton will be here. You can't kill it. It was not born to die -- only the husk that encloses it was born to die. We are going to bring all these husks right here and crib them.' "
A particular favorite of mine is another story about life and death. "Uncle Fonse Laughed" describes the friendship of two hill farmers who built good fences between their lands and then shared food and worries and practical jokes and good-natured arguments about religion. When Fonse predicts his own death, Mick, the narrator's father, assumes that Fonse is joking again. But he is mistaken.
" 'Fonse is dead as a piece of dirt,' said Pa. 'He died last night sometime. I was there just a few minutes ago. I took the mole along to slip in his pocket. But he was dead. The family is all crying and going on something awful. I didn't stay. I couldn't stay. Fonse, there so quiet -- not laughing! W'y he laughed when he was going to have the James boys to make his coffin. I thought he was joking. He didn't care to die. He laughed quietly into the arms of Death. I've always thought God would want a man that could laugh no matter what church he belonged to . . . Fonse there so quiet, so silent. He didn't speak to me. I couldn't stand it.' "
I think one reason I like this particular story so much is that I have heard it read aloud. Jesse Stuart's pictures are meant to be heard as well as seen. They are full of music.