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Constance Alexander: Beloved Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart will open your eyes; just read one of his books

In 1954, beloved Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart made a presentation to a full house of teachers in Lovett Auditorium on the Murray State College campus. Afterward, as people lined to meet him and praise his works, he didn’t have time for pleasantries. He was in a hurry. His career was just starting to take off big-time, and a chartered plane was waiting to take him to another gig in Southern Illinois.

Suddenly, “with a shoestring tackle prettier than any ever made on a football field,” he crashed, head over tea kettle, murmuring, “I will not die. I will not die.”  

Jesse Stuart

Stuart’s memoir, “The Year of My Rebirth,” begins in Murray, goes on to his recovery in the local hospital, and then chronicles readjustment to a sedentary life at home where he heals from a serious heart attack.

“There is a possibility, a very good one,” he wrote, “that I shall not live through this year.

This reality didn’t bother him. “The process of dying is s natural as that of being born,” he claimed. “I shall not be alone.”

By January of 1955, he decided to focus on the life that surrounded him by keeping a journal. Each day began simply. In winter, sometimes he awakened to frost on the windows. Other days he thrilled to the feel of wind, “beautiful and bright as polished silver.”

Occasionally, he mused about philosophy and the finer things of life. “Man,” he advised, “should listen to a piece of fine music each day, he should read a good poem, story or novel.” Spending a little time with the Bible – Old or New Testament – seemed like a good idea too.

As that year of recovery moved from winter to spring and into summertime, Stuart admired the birds and the smooth rocks that lay at the creek bottom. He made note of visits from relatives and friends, who celebrated the beauty of simple things – a field of goldenrod, the golden glow of fireflies, the unexpected joys of nature.

“I had merely stepped off my porch,” he marveled.

As July slipped gracefully into August, he had thoughts of his beloved father. He was “an earth poet who loved the land and everything in it,” Stuart explained in “The Year of My Rebirth.”

He remembered his dad in every season, particularly his appreciation of nature.

“Many people thought my father was just a one-horse farmer who never got much out of life. They saw only a little man, dressed in clean, patched overalls, with calloused and brier-scratched hands,” Jesse Stuart wrote.

He went on to describe how the elder Stuart would go off and stand in a field, just looking at his surroundings. “People thought he was looking into space, he was looking at a flower or a mushroom or a new bug he’d discovered for the first time.”

“And when he looked up into a tree, he wasn’t searching for a hornet’s nest to burn or a birds nest to rob…He was just looking closely at the beauty in one of a million trees. And among the millions, he always found one different enough to excite him.”

Jesse Stuart is one Kentucky writer whose works, in their own quiet way, are enough to open the eyes of most any reader. As a new school year begins, “The Year of My Rebirth” would be a great book to read.

At the end of the memoir, it is Christmas time, and he thinks back to his collapse at Murray State and his long journey back to health and strength.

Before he was stricken, he’d been right on the edge of the “big time,” as he called it. His speaking fees were getting larger, and he was in the midst of writing a novel in his head. He’d already written seventy-five pages and, if fate had not intervened, he figured it would have been finished by that December when he was just getting back on his feet.

“My heart doesn’t feel so bad about the book I failed to finish,” he remarked, but he also confessed that he’d never encountered a medical crisis before, had never laid flat on his back, contemplating his encounter with mortality. 

Books by Jesse Stuart are available at public and school libraries throughout Kentucky and on amazon.com.  Pogue Library at Murray State University also has a collection of Jesse Stuart papers, covering 1930 – 1982. The Jesse Stuart Collection was first placed in the care of the University in 1960, on a long-term loan basis, by Jesse Stuart. Through the years, additional materials have been placed in the collection, the most recent addition being made in 1976. In 1977, Mr. Stuart converted the loan arrangement to a permanent gift.  

More information about the life and works of Stuart is available through the Jesse Stuart Foundation.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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