May Justus: Tennessee’s Mountain Jewel

Posted by | October 1, 2013

On the top of the Cumberland plateau in the middle Tennessee community of Summerfield lives a small, energetic, gray-haired woman who is a great favorite with her next door neighbors. These neighbors are the school children of the community, for the Little Brown House in which she lives is next to the school where she taught for twenty-five years.

May Justus reading to Charis and Thorsten Horton, children of Myles and Zilphia Horton, at Highlander Folk School. Image ID: WHi-52775 / Wisconsin Historical Society

May Justus reading to Charis and Thorsten Horton, children of Myles and Zilphia Horton, at Highlander Folk School. Image ID: WHi-52775 / Wisconsin Historical Society

Friday is her visiting day at the school. On that day Miss May Justus, who has thrilled thousands of boys and girls throughout the country with her numerous juvenile books, entertains these pupils by telling stories or reading from her latest book. She often picks up her guitar and sings old mountain folk ballads to accompany her storytelling’s.

Miss Justus’s first book, Peter Pocket, was written in 1925. Many others have followed in rapid succession, almost every year seeing the publication of one or more of her books. She has written stories for every age level from nursery school to junior high school.

May Justus writes about the folk in the Tennessee mountains—people she knows and loves. Most of the glad and sad adventures  of her ‘book children’ are rooted in her own experiences as a little girl. For example, her childhood home was a cabin very much like Matt’s and Glory’s in The Cabin on Kettle Creek. “I don’t do research for my books. I write from memory, about things my parents and my grandparents told me,” Miss Justus once told a reporter.

Her books have lasting value as real Americana. They are regional literature in the best sense of the word. The old customs, the folk speech, the ballads, the fiddle tunes, the play-party singing games, the herb lore, the weather signs, the nonsense rhymes, the tall tales, even the riddles—they are all to be found in the books she has written.

Illustration from 'Use Your Head Hildy' (1956).

Illustration from ‘Use Your Head Hildy’ (1956).

Miss Justus does not think the southern mountaineer is unfortunate—as some “outlanders” might. She happily sings the wild tales of the hills to the plaintive music of fiddle and dulcimer. She tells of the superstitions of Elizabethan days. The dialect of her ‘book people’ antedates Chaucer. Miss Justus kindly reminds folks that Chaucer, the first great English poet, used hit for it and spoke of ‘bird nestes’; Shakespeare in MacBeth used afeared for afraid; Lord Bacon, Sir Philip Sidney, and Spenser commonly used expressions such as ‘yander,’ ‘holp,’ ‘hopen,’ and ‘clumb.’

“Social changes have come,” says Miss Justus. “Under the influences, the folklore so long preserved has disintegrated. The juke box tunes are taking the place of the old-time fiddle music. Play parties have given place to amusements in the honky-tonk. As time goes on much mountain folklore which has distinct value will be lost forever unless it is set down in literary form. It is of more value, or so it seems to me, than Hepplewhite furniture or Haviland china. It is true Americana—a precious jewel to be treasured for posterity.

“If my own stories and books have a lasting value,” she continues, “it is, I hope, in the field of regional literature. For in this field may be preserved the history of a people to whom I belong, with whom I am glad to claim kin as a Tennessee Mountaineer.”

Miss Justus has had little change of feeling about writing for children through the years. She does “seem to be writing for younger children” as she grows older! She feels that the attitudes and interests of children are basically the same as when she began writing. Children’s wider scope of knowledge because of radio and television has not particularly affected her writing since she writes of fundamental values which do not change.

from 'Smoky Mountain Sampler' (1962)

from ‘Smoky Mountain Sampler’ (1962)

A study of the characters in her books reveals some of these fundamental values. The children in her stories learn from experience the necessity for hard work. They learn the value of education. They are proud and self-reliant. From their elders they learn honesty and fairness, cooperation, generosity, neighborliness, and hospitality to strangers. Though their material possessions are few, they know the meaning of real happiness. They know how to play as well as to work. However, they are not so extremely good as to seem unreal; they can be mischievous, too.

Children all over the world write to Miss Justus and she answers each and every letter personally. If you were to visit at her home, you shouldn’t be surprised to find her busy with her favorite recreation, making a garden—raising gourds in particular.

Introducing to the reader other beloved Tennessee mountaineers, Miss Justus, in Smoky Mountain Sampler (1962) says: “The outlander must linger with us awhile…if he will stay and make himself at home with us under the roof of our cabin, eating our sallet and corn pone or ash cake, maybe—if he will play with our young ‘uns and brag on our hound dogs—why we’ll forget to be tongue-tied and in the middle of a churning or half-way down a furrow we may head into a song.”

Thus, Miss Justus brings to life in realistic stories a homespun picture of a unique people living in the quiet atmosphere of an isolated, charming region set apart from the hustle-bustle world.

 

Adapted from May Justus: Tennessee’s Mountain Jewel, by Paul C. Burns and Ruth Hines, Elementary English, Vol. 41, No. 6 (October, 1964), pp. 589-593

Special thanks to Cindy B. Cady for her input on this article.

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