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Appalachian Spring : CRADLE OF THE COPPERHEADS by Jesse Stuart; edited by Paul Douglass (McGraw Hill: $18.95; 288 pp.)

June 12, 1988|Frank Levering | Levering is a writer and farmer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

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.

A great novel, predictably, it's not. Despite an editor's shaping hand, "Cradle of the Copperheads" retains its share of redundant passages, and no editor could wholly delete the heroic posturing in Stuart's protagonist, or the overblown rhetoric of many of his descriptions of nature--young Stuart's lack of perspective on youthful excess.

Yet there is much of value here. For what it lacks in literary polish, "Cradle of the Copperheads" more than makes up in keen portraits of backwoods, Depression-era Kentuckians. When he writes about them, standing in a bread line or plowing behind a mule, Stuart's rough-hewn prose is an apt correlative to the no-frills mountain people he knew well.

In later works, Stuart matured as a writer, reining in his excesses, learning to economize without sacrificing color and vitality. But he stamps this first novel with the authenticity that marked his career, hearing a neighbor tell him at the supper table: "A big man like you ought to eat. You've not eaten enough to keep a cat alive." Or another neighbor: "Old Shagg, he isn't worth the powder and lead it would take to shoot him." Or another: "He was so crooked they had a time gettin' him into his coffin when he died."

The seed of things to come, "Cradle of the Copperheads" preserves such folk treasures while showing the apprenticeship of a gifted writer. Lucky as we are to have this book, we are luckier that Jesse Stuart kept writing.

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