Before there was Harriette Arnow's "The Dollmaker," before there were "Foxfire" books or Harry Caudill's classic "Night Comes to the Cumberlands," there was Jesse Stuart. Born in 1906 in the Kentucky hill country, Stuart, who died in 1984, stands as the lone giant in the literary forest of rural Appalachia. Author of more than 50 books of fiction, poetry and autobiography, he has long been an inspiration to generations of younger Appalachian writers who, as with Stuart, have struggled against poverty, provincialism and the colonization of Appalachia by corporate America.
Published now for the first time, "Cradle of the Copperheads" is Stuart's first novel, written feverishly in the summer of 1933 in a Nashville YMCA. Editor Paul Douglass tells us the original manuscript was "well over nine hundred pages." In Douglass, a professor at Atlanta's Mercer University, Stuart has found--as has Thomas Wolfe--his Maxwell Perkins. Taking a story "organized neither chronologically nor thematically," Douglass has carved out a flawed but vigorous novel a third the length of Stuart's manuscript.
Set in northeastern Kentucky in 1932 and '33, "Cradle of the Copperheads" recounts the year that young Stuart, here called Shan Stringer, served as superintendent of schools in his native Greenup County. Like the poisonous snakes of the novel's title, former Superintendent Ace Ruggles and his cronies have inspired fear and loathing throughout the county, seizing power and taxpayers' money through deception and intimidation. Slowly a red-blooded story unfolds: Rallying his fellow citizens, Shan Stringer battles corruption, at the same time overcoming his parents' opposition to his dream of becoming a writer. In the end, as with Thomas Wolfe, Stringer leaves home to write his autobiographical novel.