Jesse Stuart was born on August 8, 1906, in northeastern Kentucky's Greenup County, where his parents, Mitchell and Martha (Hilton) Stuart, were impoverished tenant farmers. From his father, Stuart learned to love and respect the land. He later became a far-sighted conservationist -- donating over 700 acres of his land in W-Hollow to the Kentucky Nature Preserves System in 1980.
Mitchell Stuart could neither read nor write, and Martha had only a second-grade education, but they taught their two sons and three daughters to value education. Jesse graduated from Greenup High School in 1926 and from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, in 1929. He then returned to Greenup County to teach.
By the end of the 1930s, Stuart had served as a teacher in Greenup County's one-room schools and as high school principal and county school superintendent. These experiences served as the basis for his autobiographical book, The Thread That Runs So True (1949), hailed by the president of the National Education Association as the finest book on education in fifty years. The book became a road map for educational reform in Kentucky. By the time it appeared, Stuart had left the classroom to devote his time to lecturing and writing. He returned to public education as a high school principal in 1956-57, a story told in Mr. Gallion's School (1967). He later taught at the University of Nevada in Reno in the 1958 summer term and served on the faculty of the American University of Cairo in 1960-61.
Stuart began writing stories and poems about Appalachia in high school. During a year of graduate study at Vanderbilt University in 1931-32, Donald Davidson, one of his professors, encouraged him to continue writing. Following the private publication of Stuart's poetry collection Harvest of Youth in 1930, Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow appeared in 1934 and was widely praised. Mark Van Doren, for instance, likened Stuart to Robert Burns as a poet "who captured the heart and soul of his people."
Stuart began his autobiographical, Beyond Dark Hills, while he was at Vanderbilt. Published in 1938, it inspired readers to follow Stuart's example of overcoming great obstacles to obtain an education. His first novel, Trees of Heaven, appeared in 1940, followed by short story collections Head o' W-Hollow (1936) and Men of the Mountains (1941). More than a dozen other short story collections were published in Stuart's lifetime.
He was also a widely-read novelist, and critics such as J. Donald Adams ranked Stuart as a first-class local colorist. His first novel, Trees of Heaven appeared in 1940, followed by Taps for Private Tussie (1943), an award-winning satire on New Deal relief and its effect on Appalachia's self-reliance. Stuart was also a successful poet. His ten volumes of verse include Album of Destiny (1944) and Kentucky Is My Land (1952). He was designated as the Poet Laureate of Kentucky in 1954 and was made a fellow of the Academy of American Poets in 1961. Stuart also wrote a number of books for children that are still highly regarded and much in use in today's classroom.
Stuart suffered a major heart attack in 1954. During his convalescence, he wrote daily journals that were the basis for The Year of My Rebirth (1956), a book recording his rediscovery of the joy of life. He later became an active spokesman for the American Heart Association.
Throughout his adult life, Stuart received numerous honors as a writer and educator. In 1944, the University of Kentucky awarded him his first of many honorary doctorates. October 15, 1955 was proclaimed "Jesse Stuart Day" by the Governor of Kentucky and a bust of Stuart, which is still standing, was unveiled on the Greenup County Courthouse lawn. In 1958, he was featured on This Is Your Life, a popular television show. In 1972, the lodge at Greenbo Lake State Resort Park was named the Jesse Stuart Lodge. In 1981, he received Kentucky's Distinguished Service Medallion.