|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 8 (1991)|
Jesse Stuart has always had a controversial reputation. As William
S. Ward states in his Literary History of Kentucky:
During his lifetime [Stuart] was accustomed to three critical reactions: an uncritical, almost mindless adulation that would make him one of America's great authors; an indifference close to scorn that either ignored him or dismissed him summarily as an undisciplined writer with few ideas and small literary merit; and a more temperate view which had lamented shortcomings while readily citing strengths and offering encouragement and critical advice. (244-45)Today Stuart is probably regarded by the "serious" academic establishment as "merely" a regionalist, a quaint and rapidly outdating "Kentucky" or "Appalachian" writer with a multitude of sins and few graces (although even as recently as 1977 Ruel E. Foster asserted that "Jesse Stuart is emerging as one of the leading short story writers of American literature" ). In this paper I join with those who recognize Stuart's strengths, chiefly the universality of some of his best works. If Stuart mirrors his community -- his particular time and place -- as he surely does, much of his work is likewise a mirror of life.
The cultures and heritages of particular places and peoples are
now more than even seen as creating the themes in the larger tapestry
of American literature. Literary regionalism is perhaps finally
being taken seriously. As novelist Lee Smith replied to Edwin
T. Arnold when asked why her "regional" novel Oral
History had been so widely reviewed:
I think it has something to do with the old thing you always tell your students: the more specific to the particular detail you are then the more universal the story will be. (243)Jesse Stuart is certainly "specific to the particular detail" -- a Kentucky hill country setting, the use of mountain dialect, and Appalachian characters -- in his short story "Dawn of Remembered Spring" which also recreates enduring and universal human situations and conflicts. It is often said of regional literature that it somehow "transcends" its regionalness or "goes beyond" local color; those who say this are supposedly vesting significance in this regional literature but in a backhanded way. The best regional literature does not somehow transcend its particularly but rather find its significance in it.
"Dawn of Remembered Spring" first appeared in Harper's
Bazaar in June 1942 and then was reprinted as the title story
of a Stuart short story collection in 1955. All of the stories
in the collection deal with snakes. "Dawn of Remembered Spring"
is the story of a young boy, Shan (Stuart's alter ego in many
short stories), who goes out against his mother's wishes to battle
the fearsome water moccasins which infest the neighborhood. Snakes
are the great fear of the neighborhood and a real threat: one
has bitten Shan's friend Roy Deer, who lies near death at the
story's beginning. In the first part of the story Shan wades through
the creek, killing water moccasins, until he has astonishingly
The story takes a rather unexpected turn, however, just before
the conclusion. After he has killed the fifty-three water moccasins
and is on his way home, triumphantly wondering, "What will
Mom think when I tell her I've killed fifty-three water moccasins"
(9), Shan comes unexpectedly upon the sight of two copperheads,
as it appears to him, locked in mortal combat -- "snakes
a-fightin'." As Shan describes them: "They were wrapped
around each other. Their lidless eyes looked into each other's
eyes. Their hard lips touched each other's lips. They did not
move. They did not pay any attention to me. They looked at one
another" (9). Shan wants to kill them, "if they don't
kill one another" (9), but just before he does, old Uncle
Alf Skinner comes up and realizes that the snakes are not actually
fighting: "Snakes a-fightin', Shan you are too young to know!
It's snakes in love! Don't kill 'em -- just keep your eye on 'em
until I bring Martha over here! She's never seen snakes in love!"
(9-10). In fact, Uncle Alf rounds up almost the entire neighborhood,
his wife Martha, Shan's mother and father, Art and Sadie Baker,
Tom and Ethel Riggs. The people of the community watch in fascination
and awe as the snakes mate, spotlighted in a glow of sunshine
in the midst of the shadowy hollow. Aunt Martha says, "I'll
declare . . . I've lived all my life and I never saw this. I've wondered
about snakes! (10). And Shan's mother states, "It's the first
time ever I saw anything like this" (11).
When his father tells him to "hurry to the house" and
cut his stove wood, Shan still says, "I'd like to kill these
copperheads" (11). But everyone standing around watching
the snakes laughs at Shan. They appear to be very happy rather
than appalled by the snakes, and their fascination and good humor
are a mystery to Shan:
Uncle Alf and Aunt Martha laughed as I walked down the path carrying my club. It was something -- I didn't know what; all the crowd watching the snakes were smiling. Their faces were made over new. The snakes had done something to them. Their wrinkled faces were as bright as the spring sunlight on the bluff; their eyes were shiny as the creek was in the noonday sunlight. And they laughed and talked to one another. I heard their laughter grow fainter as I walked down the path toward the house. Their laughter was louder than the wild honeybees I had heard swarming over the shoemake, alderberry, and wild phlox blossoms along the creek. (11)Thus, the story ends with Shan's mystification and wonder at the adults' reaction to the snakes "in love."
The external conflict between Shan and the snakes, and in a larger
context between the community and the snakes, is the major conflict
in the story. This is the universal struggle between civilization
and nature. There is, in one dimension, an archetypal confrontation
between good and evil -- between the hero and the monster. Snakes
are archetypally feared and associated with evil, while the innocent
and courageous protector is associated with good. Shan is in some
ways comparable to the mythic or cultural hero, to Beowulf, St.
George, or the Biblical David, who fights against the dragon/monster/"worm"
in order to defend his community and achieve personal renown.
Shan is the folk hero who bravely challenges the unknown. Just
as David met Goliath armed only with a slingshot and five smooth
stones, Shan goes forth to challenge the snakes with only a wild-plum
sprout with a knot of roots at the end as his club -- "It
would be good to hit water moccasins with," he understates
(4). The conflict between hero and monster is a part of the classical
western literary tradition, particularly of the folk and oral
literature that formed a great part of Stuart's tradition. It
is, of course, ironic that in the latter part of the story the
snakes become symbolic of the life-affirming procreative instinct
rather than remaining the archetypal enemy, but the dramatic shift
in their symbolic value in the second half of the story forms
part of Stuart's artistry, his reliance on indirection.
A second dimension of the conflict between Shan and the snakes
is the conflict between man and nature, the forces of nature represented
by the snakes. The struggle between man and nature has been continuous
and continues, particularly in rural areas where man must constantly
try to wrest civilization from nature by clearing and cultivating
land. Shan's conflict with nature is indeed prodigious -- he succeeds
in killing fifty-three snakes -- but he is doomed to ultimate
failure. The reader knows that no matter how many snakes Shan
kills, he can never kill them all. At the very beginning of the
story, when Shan says to his mother, "All water moccasins
ought to be killed, hadn't they, Mom?" her reply is: "Yes,
they're pizen things, but you can't kill them. . . . They're in all
these creeks around here. There's so many of them we can't kill
'em all" (3). Shan's Pa has "mown the weeds along the
path with a scythe" (4), but the snakes are constantly taking
back what man has taken from them. As Shan's Pa says: "It's
because these woods haven't been burnt out in years. . . . Back when
I's a boy the old people burnt the woods out every spring to kill
the snakes. Got so anymore there isn't enough good timber for
a board tree and people have quit burning up the good timber.
Snakes are about to take the woods again" (7). There will
always be more snakes, and the ironic spectacle of the snakes'
mating at the end of the story suggests that man and nature will
always be in opposition. The point is that man must learn to live
with nature, that in fact the enemy is not nature but man's irrational
misunderstanding of nature and his role in it.
These external conflicts of the story -- Shan versus the snakes
and man versus nature -- are intricately bound to one of the story's
major themes, the theme of initiation, also taking in the universal
conflicts between youth and age and life and death. Shan sets
out to become a man: "It was my day of freedom, too, when
Mom and Pa were gone and I was left alone. I would like to be
a man now, I thought; I'd love to plow the mules, run a farm,
and kill snakes" (4-5). Shan disobeys his mother -- "Everybody
gone, I thought. I am left alone. I'll do as I please. A water
moccasin bit Roy Deer but a water moccasin will never bite me.
I'll get me a club from this wild-plum thicket and I'll wade up
the creek killing water moccasins" (4). Confrontation with
parental authority is certainly a situation with which most readers
can empathize. In fact, confronting parental authority if a part
of the maturation experience.
Likewise initiation often involves conflict between youth and
age, innocence and experience. In this story that conflict is
enacted by Shan and the older members of the community. Shan's
immature perceptions are different from those of his elders. Whereas
Shan sees the copperheads as "a fightin'," the elders,
those specifically identified being married couples, perceive
the snakes as "in love." Shan must eventually confront
the difference between his perception of the snakes and the perception
of the other members of the community. The older members of the
community can see something that Shan cannot.
Shan's gaining of wisdom and his movement toward manhood in the
story appear to pass through several stages. At first, he is simply
the hero challenging the monster, David slaying Goliath. He gets
simple satisfaction from his success at killing so many of the
snakes. But he must learn the maturer wisdom -- that there is
more to life than killing, that is, confronting and subduing nature,
for the killing of the snakes is a never-ending task. And Shan
must also learn that his idea of manhood -- plowing, farming,
killing -- must be tempered. Stuart presents the sight of the
mating copperheads, a symbol of love, intimacy, and sexuality,
so that Shan can grow beyond the deeply rooted -- but immature
-- masculine instinct for conquest and conquering. While everyone
stands around watching the snakes mate, fears are dissipated,
and the snakes are not the dreaded enemy. As Ruel E. Foster states,
"the old people momentarily change and grow with wonder and
delight -- a kind of metamorphosis. In classical mythology the
sight of serpents could frequently work a metamorphosis"
Shan's experience of seeing the people's reactions to the snakes
"in love" is actually the beginning of his awakening,
his initiation (metamorphosis) -- the "dawning" of his
perception of the adult world, death and life -- when he witnesses
the joy of the community people as they are literally transfixed
(and transformed) by witnessing the life-affirmative mating snakes.
The experience makes them laugh, happy to recognize the procreative
instinct in a form which many of them have never seen before,
and yet obviously know -- the remembered spring when they were
too young. In addition there is the careful juxtaposition at this
point of Roy Deer's death with Shan's moment of insight. Thus,
the somewhat enigmatic title of the story, "Dawn of Remembered
Spring" (how can something be remembered and dawning at the
same time?) may be understood in this way: it contains two words
denoting beginning, rebirth, awakening -- "dawn" and
"spring." And "remembered" suggests something
deeply imbedded in the psyche of those participating in the story.
A new awareness is dawning for Shan of both the mythic beginnings
of mankind and the psychic beginnings of maturity and initiation
into adulthood. As the old people remember their own spring, Shan's
is just beginning. This, too, is a universal situation: all of
us, no matter who or where, at some time confront ourselves, our
world, our relationships with others, as we mature and are initiated
into the fellowship and knowledge of humanity.
We are currently experiencing in American life and in American
literature a pluralism which finds significance in the regional
and ethnic experience. One no longer has to feel ashamed of one's
ethnic heritage, and indeed the new pluralistic spirit in America
is making us all prouder of who we are. But the greatest asset
of the best local and regional literature is still its universality,
the quality which makes it applicable to and significant for all
people. As Flannery O'Connor said: "The best American fiction
has always been regional. . . . It is a great blessing, perhaps the
greatest blessing a writer can have, to find at home what others
have to go elsewhere seeking" (54).
Arnold, Edwin T. "An Interview with Lee Smith." Appalachian
Journal 11.3 (1984): 240-54.
Foster, Ruel E. "The Short Stories of Jesse Stuart."
Jesse Stuart: Essays on His Work. Ed. J. R. LeMaster and Mary
Washington Clarke. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1977. 40-53.
O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and
Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1957.
Stuart, Jesse. "Dawn of Remembered Spring." Dawn
of Remembered Spring. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company,
Ward, William S. A Literary History of Kentucky. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1988.
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