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Jesse Stuart goes digital

Dec. 09, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

ASHLAND -- Jesse Stuart has gone digital.

In his lifetime, famed Kentucky author and teacher Stuart published nearly 60 books -- novels, short story collections, volumes of poetry, autobiographical works, juvenile stories and others. Since his death in 1984, the Jesse Stuart Foundation has worked to keep his legacy alive by republishing his books in new editions.

Now, the foundation has launched a mammoth undertaking that when completed will see all of Stuart's books available in digital format for readers who use Kindle, Nook and Apple's iBook devices. The foundation also publishes other books of Appalachian interest and has embarked on converting them to digital formats as well.

"As I see it, we didn't really have much choice," said James M. Gifford, the foundation's CEO and senior editor. "Digital books are the wave of the future, and for us it was a case of either sink or swim."

Once the foundation decided to take the plunge into e-books, deciding which of Stuart's books to do first was easy, Gifford said.

"Taps for Private Tussie," published in 1943 and chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club as a selection for its many members, is undoubtedly Stuart's best-known book. The novel chronicles the wild spending spree by a mountain clan when young Private Tussie is killed in the war and his family gets the money from his $10,000 government insurance policy. Over the years, it's sold more than two million copies and been translated into a long list of foreign languages.

Although widely praised for its comic passages, Stuart always insisted that he had a much higher purpose in mind in writing about the Tussies -- to illustrate what happens when people are successful at "getting something without working for it."

Stuart credited his friend Raymond Brewster, then the editor of The Herald-Dispatch, with coming up with the novel's title. In Huntington for a visit, Stuart told Brewster about the book. "What do you call it?" Brewster asked. "Inherited Indolence," the author answered. Silence ensued and the conversation moved on to other things. A few days later, Stuart was checking his mail and opened an envelope from Brewster. A single piece of paper fluttered out. On it were written the words "Taps for Private Tussie."

The Stuart Foundation contracted with Mark S. Phillips of Proctorville, who operates Creative Services for Publishing, to design its new e-book edition of "Taps."

"The opportunity to work on such a classic title was affirming to me as a book designer," said Phillips. "My grandfather's original 1943 edition of 'Taps' is still on a bookshelf beside my mom's fireplace. I've worked on books for over 20 years, and this was one of my favorite experiences."

Since publishing "Taps" as an e-book earlier this year, the foundation has issued at least two dozen e-books and will be adding more titles to that list next year. Gifford said.

Gifford noted that people frequently ask him what the foundation does. "My stock response is that 'In brief, we make and sell books.' But our work is much more complicated than that. We are actively involved in cultural tourism, and our bookstore and galleries at the former downtown Ashland Post Office attract visitors from all parts of America. We also sponsor book signings and writing workshops, an annual Jesse Stuart Weekend, tours of Stuart's W-Hollow home place, and workshops for teachers, students, and librarians. But our primary mission is 'preserving the legacy of Jesse Stuart and the Appalachian way of life' by publishing books about our unique history and culture."

Stuart was born in W-Hollow, near Riverton, Ky., in 1906, and lived there his whole life, except for his college years and later when he was traveling abroad. But his visits to Huntington and the Marshall University campus were so frequent that many in the community tended to look on him as one of their own. Each time he published a new book, long lines of fans formed in the book department at the old Anderson-Newcomb Department Store, where he would sign copies.

Graduating from Peabody University in 1929, Stuart went on attend graduate school at Vanderbilt University and Peabody College and became a teacher, before leaving the classroom to work full time as a writer. While still a college student, he began writing stories and poems about the hill people in his section of Kentucky. His poetry collection, "Man With A Bull-Tongue Plow," was published in 1934 and was widely praised, helping launch his prolific and distinguished writing career.

For more information about the Jesse Stuart Foundation's new e-books, its printed books and other activities, call toll-free 855-407-6243 or e-mail jsf@jsfbooks.com.

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.

Jesse Stuart Foundation

For more information, call toll free 855-407-6243 or e-mail jsf@jsfbooks.com.