The literature of a region can play a large role in forming an area’s culture and how outsiders perceive it. It provides a written record for the present and the future.
In Ashland, Kentucky, one bookstore carries the torch of regional literature on its own. The Jesse Stuart Foundation Bookstore was established in 1979 to preserve the eponymous writer’s literary legacy. It has expanded beyond a focus on Stuart to publishing other regional writers, past and present, such as Harry Caudill, Allan Eckert, and Billy C. Clark.
Stuart (1906-1984) was born in Greenup County, Kentucky and grew up on the Kentucky/Ohio border. After earning a degree from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, he returned home and worked as a teacher, then principal, then superintendent in the local school system. After marrying in 1939, he left education to make a career from writing and public speaking. He found success in writing short stories, poems, novels, and children’s books; his works appeared in national magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly and Esquire, and he was named the poet laureate of Kentucky in 1954.
“He basically wrote about himself, his family, and the world around him there in this little valley in eastern Kentucky,” said Jim Gifford, CEO of the Jesse Stuart Foundation. “Stuart knew about the hill culture of eastern Kentucky. He knew about people who eked a living out of poor dirt farms. He knew about people who mined coal and people who worked in the timber industry. And people who worked tirelessly to feed their families from the produce of their farms and fields.”
Stuart gave attention to the drama and passions of an area usually ignored in literary life. Public interest in his writings has waxed and waned since the Foundation began its work.
When Gifford joined the Foundation 33 years ago,they had “brisk,” consistent sales to schools and libraries, teaching children in Kentucky about their state’s history and culture. But that has declined in the last 10 years, Gifford said. School budgets for local writers have been trimmed, and book fairs in other states are less interested in Kentucky-focused literature. Home school programs in western states such as Utah, though, have found a connection to Stuart.
Gifford said the connection comes from an overlap in western ranch life and Kentucky farm life. “People around the country still find a satisfaction in these books that describe people who were subsistence farmers, who made a living from their farms and fields, hunting and fishing. People who didn’t have to buy everything they ate at the grocery store,” he said.
That interest hints at a divided audience. Stuart’s books for children still sell, but interest for his other books skip a generation—or two.
“I think what appeals to a lot of readers today,” Gifford said, “is the fact that many people who buy our books and are interested in this are older people who still remember the life that Stuart wrote about, and it may not be about their life, exactly, but it was about their father’s life, their grandfather’s life.”
The Foundation’s work, then, provides a crucial link to history. It helps readers understand where they came from and the circumstances of their family. But it’s lonely work. “We’re the only press that produces [Appalachian regional literature] exclusively,” Gifford said. The University of Kentucky “got on the bandwagon for a while,” he noted, but publishes less now. Other university presses, such as Ohio University and the Universities of Tennessee and Illinois, publish Appalachian literature, but this is a small fraction of their catalog.
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The poet Jim Wayne Miller argued in a 1993 essay that “Like American literature and southern literature, of which it is a part, Appalachian literature has been recognized late and often grudgingly.” Into the 1950s, Miller noted, students struggled to find an English department that would approve a dissertation about Appalachian literature. Appalachian studies departments (or Appalachian-focused professors) now have a decades-long history at many American universities, but in popular culture it remains a niche interest.
Appalachian literature seems to have a popular breakthrough once every decade or so, as in Homer Hickam’s Rocket Boys (and its film adaptation, October Sky), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (also made into a film), or J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. But they tend to be memoirs rather than novels (like Rocket Boys and Hillbilly Elegy). The personal experiences of writers from the region can find national success, but so far, Appalachian writers typically remain a niche interest. That doesn’t mean Appalachian non-fiction and fiction can’t find an audience, though.
One powerful pull for readers is nostalgia and remembering life before a period of rapid change. “A lot of our regional authors help people remember a way of life that is rapidly disappearing,” Gifford said. “In a way, our books are a way of tying people to the simplicity and the hard work and the solid values of an agrarian past.”
Whether the children and grandchildren of current readers will sustain their interest remains an open question. But some signs give hope. Millennials read more than older Americans, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center, and college graduates read more than non-graduates. Additionally, more authors reach The New York Times’ bestseller list each year than in the past, and they stay on it for shorter periods. What these changes mean is that the reading landscape could be more decentralized and varied if trends continue. Even if Appalachian literature can’t grab national interest, older readers and bookstores like the Jesse Stuart Foundation could pass along their passion for regional literature and keep it alive.
Another bright sign of change is internet sales. Online orders help the Foundation reach a national audience. “Our e-commerce is the lifeblood of our revenue stream,” Gifford said.
The Foundation and other regional booksellers, then, have a chance to persuade would-be readers about the value of a book that focuses on life in their own backyard. And for readers already interested in regional literature, the Jesse Stuart Foundation gives them a local hero and a long reading list.
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Anthony Hennen is a co-founder of expatalachians and editor/writer at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.