Wednesday, December 29, 2004

High on the Hog: Jesse Stuart's Ohio


“I have never seen a city as original and friendly as my beautiful Portsmouth.” Jesse Stuart (1906-1984)

Jesse Stuart’s feelings about Portsmouth, Ohio, and about his native Kentucky, were much more ambivalent than the Chamber-of-Commerce sounding quotation on the Floodwall mural would ever begin to suggest. He was too passionately honest a writer to ignore or gloss over what he considered to be the hoggishness of human nature, even among those he felt a kinship to, such as the people of eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio.

It is true that when he was writing about the landscape of Kentucky, Jesse Stuart could be reverent and even rapturous, which is what he is mainly remembered for now, but when he wrote about the people who lived on that land, he could be very critical. Some of his novels and stories about Kentuckians focus on hoggishness. Taps for Private Tussie, for example, is a masterful satirical novel about a hoggish, mooching Kentucky clan, the Tussies, which is all the more unusual because it was published in 1943, during the Second World War, when young Americans from every ethnic group and region, including Appalachia, were being depicted in the media as willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country. What Jesse Stuart writes about in Taps, by contrast, is the heavy-drinking, wife-beating Private Kim Tussie and his lazy relatives who squander the money his wife was awarded by the government, which had mistakenly reported he had been killed in action and shipped somebody else’s body home for burial. Only after most of the money is gone does Private Tussie show up, in the flesh, proving that the corpse in the casket, as at least one of his conniving kin probably well knew, was not his.

Not surprisingly, on the basis of books like Taps for Private Tussie, some Kentuckians looked down on Jesse Stuart as “the man who ruined Kentucky.” From what an Ohioan old enough to remember has told me, Jesse Stuart himself was once looked down upon in southern Ohio as the man who had dissed the Buckeye State. As a transplanted Kentuckian points out in the novel The Land Beyond the River (1973), a sequel to Taps for Private Tussie, the buckeye is a completely worthless tree that produces only a “pizenous nut.” The transplanted Kentuckian is not just talking about trees, he is also talking about people; he is not just talking about poisonous buckeyes but some hoggish Buckeyes as well.

In The Land Beyond the River, Stuart did for Ohio what he had done for Kentucky in Taps. Unlike the disreputable Tussies, the Perkinses start out as a poor but proud and resourceful Appalachian family. But three years on a government free-food program in Kentucky had drained them of a lot of their initiative and independence. After listening to his relatives praise Ohio as the Promised Land, “Poppie” Perkins decided it was time for a change, a change not to less government dependency but to more. “I want Social Security or welfare and old-age pensions which are all better in that wonderful state [Ohio],” he says at the beginning of the novel.

The political message of The Land Beyond the River is that as corrupting as government assistance programs were in Kentucky, they were even more so in Ohio, as the pious Free Will Baptist and staunchly Republican Poppie gradually realizes after he moves his family to the river city of Agrilla, the seat of Landsdowne County, in southern Ohio. (Agrilla is Stuart’s fictionalized Portsmouth; Landsdowne is his fictionalized Scioto County.) The Land Beyond the River, published thirty years ago, may help us understand the situation we are in today in Portsmouth, where public monies and governmental assistance are like a drug on which not just the poor and the unemployed but the well-to-do and over-privileged are hooked.

The trail north from Kentucky had been blazed by Poppie’s relatives, like Uncle Dick, who had worked hard and succeeded in Ohio but then had become bitter because the government, in his opinion, overtaxed him to pay for welfare and food stamps for the undeserving poor. “It pays to be poor, especially in Ohio,” is a critical refrain in the novel. “It’s our Government’s fault – making cheats, liars, and lazy people out of good working people,” says Joshua Herbert, the self-made millionaire businessman who had migrated from Kentucky to Ohio. His son Jim tells Poppie’s teen-aged sons, “You’ll understand some day what a joke this welfare is! It’s made liars and cheats of nearly a fourth of this country.” In what strikes me as a foolish and cynical strategy, Uncle Dick and the Herberts decide the only way Uncle Sam can be made to stop robbing the rich to pay for the poor is to bankrupt the government by encouraging everyone to tap into welfare system. If Uncle Sam is so eager to provide handouts, then even the well-to-do should hold out their hand.

That is the advice of the hoggish businessmen in the novel, advice that some businessmen in Portsmouth appear to have been following for at least the last thirty years. If it pays to be poor in southern Ohio, it pays more, much more per capita, to be rich. God helps those few who help themselves, but for everyone else in Portsmouth, especially the rich, there is the federal, state, county, and city government, and the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership, the Marting Foundation, and the Chamber of Commerce. Forget the traditional Republican goals of competition and profit; the Portsmouth economy is based heavily on collusion and pork.

It would not be unusual if a conservative Republican writer, which is what Jesse Stuart was, thought that the chief casualties of President Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s were the poor themselves, because they became trapped in the welfare cycle, growing more dependent on the government from one generation to the next. What is unusual about The Land Beyond the River is that it points out that good Republicans, traditionally associated with rugged individualism and strive-and-succeed, were also being turned into cheats, liars, and lazy people, and not by food stamps and welfare checks but by other forms of assistance from federal, state, county, and city government. The over-privileged of Portsmouth have been subsidized, granted, abated, bailed out, and “porked” in the last thirty years to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Jesse Stuart suggests in The Land Beyond the River that rich Republicans of southern Ohio are no better, and in some respects are worse, than poor Democrats. For one thing, rich Republicans are becoming barren. Unlike the poor, who reproduce like rabbits, rich Republicans bear few children. Instead of character being the measure by which they judge a person, they come to believe fashionable clothes make the man and the woman. They also become decadent. The over-privileged rich stray far from their fiercely independent teetotaling Kentucky Free Will Baptist roots and into the arms not of only of the welfare state but also into the genteel denomination Stuart hints is best suited to hypocritical, scotch-drinking Republicans – namely Presbyterianism.

The decadent trend among well-heeled Republicans in The Land Beyond the River is most evident in the childless rich businessman-turned-gentleman-farmer Mr. Koniker, who devotes himself to his fashionably old-fashioned unprofitable farm, the losses on which he is able to write off on his income taxes. Koniker is a character who, in real life, with his effete antiquarianism and carnal knowledge of tax write-offs, would not be out of place on the board of the Marting Foundation. His unprofitable and obsolete farm is the Marting building of its day – yes, the Marting building, a remnant of Portsmouth’s good old downtown days, hanging on as a window-dressed basket-case that the City Council is determined to put on the publicly funded life-support system the sponging Marting Foundation has devised for it. Transfusions of municipal money and municipal employees will keep the Marting building breathing, if only in a comatose state, for as long as there are public funds to pay for it.

The Land Beyond the River offers insights into the behavior of Portsmouth’s over-privileged and perhaps into human nature itself. In one scene on the Ohio farm on which they are living rent free, Poppie’s family watches a half dozen pigs feeding on the corn that has just been thrown in the pen. Poppie’s oldest son, the narrator of the novel, says, “We stood a minute watching them pushing and shoving over the corn when there was plenty on the ground for them. ‘You see how some people are hoggish and want it all,’ Mommie said. ‘Right in this pen is the example.’”

The name Jesse Stuart gave to the Ohio river city Poppie’s family lived near was Agrilla, but he might more appropriately have called it “Porksmouth.” As Poppie’s family throws corn to the pigs, the federal, state, county and city governments throw pork to the over-privileged of Portsmouth, further accentuating the political divisions in the city, and exacerbating the long-standing bitterness between classes. If, along with everything else, the hoggish did not pose as philanthropists, perhaps they wouldn’t be quite so hard to take. Stuart expressed his revulsion with such selfish businessmen in lines in the next to the last sonnet in “Man with a Bull-Tongue Plow,” lines that the Chamber of Commerce would not allow on the Floodwall in a million years:

. . . I found some merchant men
Like hogs for corn, lived for profit and gain.
They were like white maggots in a rotted hen
And tramp them in the mud they’d rise again.