Friday, February 26, 2010

Kentucky People: Jesse Stuart

The first few posts on this blog have been pretty dry, mainly because I've been trying not to editorialize too much. That, of course, makes for a pretty lame blog. Thankfully my topic for this post is something I feel pretty strongly about. You need to read you some Jesse Stuart. Stuart was a schoolteacher in Greenup County, who become a well-respected author and poet in the 1930s. The son of a sharecropper, he studied under Robert Penn Warren (another Kentuckian we don't hear enough about) at Vanderbilt before returning to his native soil of "W-Hollow" to write about traditional Appalachian life, and eventually its struggles with post-war modernization. Anyway, at one time Stuart was mentioned in the same breath with Faulkner and Flannery O'Conner, won a Guggenheim fellowship and went to New York for signings and everything, but now he's kind of forgotten. When my mother was a kid in Elizabethtown Stuart was a household name and Kentuckians read a lot of his work in school (she was born in 1935). I don't really remember reading him much in school (I was born in 1971), and I don't know anyone my age or younger who has really heard of him. It's a pity.

Stuart really did an excellent job of humanizing the mountaineer; all of the hillbilly stereotypes are there (you got your moonshiners, folks married to kin, some toothless and barefoot- the whole nine yards, mainly because they are rooted in truth) but they are presented as neither tragic nor as a joke. Most are honest, hardworking people trying to get by the best they can, although some are pretty low and common. Just like anywhere else, but with better dialects. Although I've lived my whole life in Central Kentucky, my dad was born in an Appalachian coal town and I've spent quite a bit of time in Eastern Kentucky over the years, including Greenup County, and I recognize a lot of people in his characters. I guess what hits close to home for me is thinking about how at least some of my ancestors lived lives like some of these folks, which makes you really stop and think about how easy you have it by comparison.

If Stuart is read at all now, it's mainly his most famous novel Taps for Private Tussie , which is pretty much a comedy, or one of his accounts of teaching like The Thread That Runs So True, neither of which are his best as far as I'm concerned. If you really want to get a taste of the good stuff, pick up a copy of one of his short story collections and read "Men of the Mountains" or "The Sunday Afternoon Hanging". The coolest thing about Stuart is that he loved his land so much he saved up and bought all of the land his family worked on as sharecroppers in W-Hollow, over 700 acres, and donated them to the state as the "Jesse Stuart State Nature Preserve," so after reading his short stories you can actually go and hike around the sites he talks about. If you really get into it, I suggest going to Greenbo Lake State Park for their annual "Jesse Stuart Weekend" in the fall (ask for Paul Verespy when you call, he knows his stuff). If you are a real Kentuckian you owe it to yourself to take a little time off from Facebook and read you some Jesse Stuart!

By the by, if you don't check them out from the library, I also encourage you to buy his books from local sources, like the University Press of Kentucky or the Jesse Stuart Foundation.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Kentucky Places: Carter Caves State Park

Carter Caves State Park near Olive Hill is often overshadowed by its more famous cousin to the West, Mammoth Cave, but it is well worth the visit. Like Mammoth, it is swamped with tourists in the summer, but since they are mostly there for cave tours or at the campground or lodge (neither of which are anything special), you'll pretty much have the trail system all to yourself. If you are really outdoorsy, you need to float Tygart's Creek from Olive Hill down to the park, but you'll have to do it in the winter unless you want to drag your canoe the whole way. It's about a 15 mile trip or so, but the clifflines are fantastic. Winter is the best time to see the cliffs while hiking, too. I suggest checking out the 4Cs trail for a view of some of the rugged backcountry of the park. If you want to go underground but avoid the tourists, they actually do have cave tours all winter, as well. Check out Cascade Caverns which is a pretty nice "tourist cave" with lights, big rooms, and no crawling. The days of crawling tours might be coming to an end anyway because of "White Nose Syndrome", a disease which is wiping out the nation's bat population and is probably spread by people visiting caves (as well as bats flying around, of course).

On your way from I-64 to the park you'll pass a bunch of touristy stuff like "rock shops", where you can buy rocks if you are so inclinded. There's also a little tavern (since Carter County is dry I guess that's not the right word) which usually features the musical stylings of the Git-R-Done Band, which is pretty good. If it's open when you go, there is a little trailer with BBQ and ice cream in the front yard of an old house a couple of miles before the park entrace which has the best food I've found around there.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Kentucky in Print: Simon Bolivar Buckner, Boderland Knight by Arndt M. Stickles

A reprint of a biography first published in 1940, Boderland Knight is a solid (though fairly uncritical) look at one of most important figures of 19th Century Kentucky. Hart County's Simon Bolivar Buckner was a pretty remarkable man, one who all Kentuckians should know about but few do. At the eve of the War Between the States he commanded the Kentucky State Guard, which was the equivalent of today's Kentucky National Guard. At the war's outbreak he was offered a commission with the Union but instead became a Confederate General. He was blamed by some for the disaster at Fort Donelson, which essential gave Western Kentucky and Tennessee to the Union (although most point the finger to his superior officers). At Donelson he was forced to surrender to his old Mexican War compatriot US Grant, but later their friendship warmed enough for Buckner to serve as one of President Grant's pall-bearers. That kind of puts into perspective the bitterness of the war, or lack thereof, felt by the men at the top - I wonder how many folks realize that the head of all Union armed forces and President of the United States actually requested a Confederate General as pall-bearer (two, actually, General Joseph Johnston being the second). The fols who want get hysterical about Confederate monuments and whatnot should think about that. But I digress...

After the war Buckner became an influential newspaperman before he was elected Governor of Kentucky and spearheaded the adoption of a new state constitution, which is actually the Commonwealth's current state constitution. He really played a pivitol role in Kentucky's history for a half-century, but I've met very few who've even heard his name, which is more than a pity. Buckner really was the epitome of old-time Kentucky, he even looked the part! All things considered, Boderland Knight isn't exactly a page-turner, but until someone writes a new bio it'll have to do.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

What's this all about...

This blog is about Kentucky, not about me, but since I'm writing it you should know a little about the source. "Consider the source," as my grandma always used to say. I'm a proud son of Ol' Kentucky, and a student of her to the point of obsession. The sixth generation born in Hardin County, and although I've lived in the Lexington area for 20 years or so, I’ve never called any place else home. My life and family is pretty much as traditional “Kentucky” as you can get. To make a 200-year old story short, my ancestors were here when Kentucky was still a county in Virginia. My forefathers were divided by the War Between the States; some fought for the Confederacy as part of the "Orphan Brigade" in the 6th Mounted Infantry, CS, others rode with Morgan's Raiders in the 8th Kentucky Cavalry, CS, while others fought for the Union and chased Morgan’s Raiders all over the state as part of the 9th Cavalry, US. My family tree has coal miners and politicians, priests and bootleggers. I have degrees in both History and Biology from the University of Kentucky, and my job takes me all over the Commonwealth to work in some of the most beautiful natural areas we have left, in some of the most remote places. Along the way I try and see some of the local color, check out the historic sites and eat in the mom-and-pop diners. My goal is to share some of these trips and stories with you, and encourage you to see them first-hand before they are all paved over. And if you aren’t in Kentucky yourself, I encourage you to enjoy these posts with a tall glass of bourbon in your hand. It’s the next best thing to being here.