Book Review: Tap Roots, by James Street

I read Tap Roots hoping for an American story about the struggle for freedom and also for an always-timely memorial to Southern Unionism. I was partly rewarded by passages like this one:

Never was a stranger assembly gathered…. Scots and Irish, English and Germans, Cajuns and two Negroes — a tiny melting pot that must be tried by fire to prove to mankind that fire and blood can melt all races and blend them into a new being…. The scum of the South was represented. Fire can purify scum. The illiterate, the suspicious — they were there, too. Deserters and draft dodgers, abolitionists and Unionists — five hundred men with nothing in common except a burning fervor for freedom as they understood freedom.

(That last phrase, “as they understood freedom,” is pretty ominous, especially in a story about the Civil War South.)

For the most part, however, author James Street, despite his eagerness to tell the story of Southern Unionists and abolitionists, does so as a Southern and not as an American patriot, and no love of freedom can supersede his hatred for the Yankee. His unwillingness to concede the moral high ground to the Union spoils his narrative of Southern Unionists, whom he might otherwise have portrayed as standing on that same moral high ground. His “Unionists” are really only succeeding from the Confederacy, not remaining loyal to the Union, because, although the South was wrong, the North could not have been right. Therefore, Street’s novel ends up being not all that different from the usual Confederate apologia, brimming with assertions that Lincoln was a mere schemer, that Northern wage slaves were worse off than Southern chattel slaves, and even that Southern abolitionists were better than Northern ones. The latter group garners the vast majority of Street’s ire. Through his characters, he mocks the idea that his protagonists, Southern abolitionists, would have found common cause with their Northern counterparts, over something as obvious as a revulsion toward slavery:

Hoab said, ‘Some of our Tennessee members think we should join forces with the Yankee abolitionists. They say there is strength in union.’ ‘They are loonies,’ Keith said. ‘The Northern abolitionists are fools and we know it. Somebody ought to shoot Sumner. He’s doing our cause more harm than John Brown.’

In fact, nobody comes in for nastier abuse in this book than Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Henry Ward Beecher.

Of course, the ironic thing is that Street could have better vindicated the South by hating the Yankees less and developing his own Southern characters more as Americans with a universal conception of freedom. Alas, the defensive tone prevails. Street’s bitterness is that of the proud man (or child), directed against those who would expose his faults, faults of which he is well aware, which he insists he will address in his own sweet time, but which no outsiders can raise a peep about — especially since they’re just as bad, nyah nyah n’nyah nyah. I am reminded that Indian nationalism only took shape after the British banned the burning of widows in India. For fueling aggrievement, nothing beats being wrong.

Oddly, Street’s peevishness occasionally attains Marxist dimensions, as in:

‘I know and you know that slavery is not the root of this situation. We are going through another phase of our Revolution. Of course, slavery is wrong. It’s stupid. It’s as wrong to own a man as it is to work a child fourteen hours a day as they do in Massachusetts. But that’s not the point. the real clash is between artisans and farmers, the age-old clash of manufacturers and people who build up an agrarian culture, such as the South’s.’

and:

‘Queen Victoria’s antagonism for slavery has nothing to do with it. The English merchants who really rule that land will brush her aside if necessary.’

On reflection, it appears to me that Street’s coincidental Marxism makes sense. The theory of historical materialism is fully in keeping with the spiteful Southerner’s project of removing all morality and idealism from history, a project he takes on because he can claim neither for himself. If he can’t have the moral high ground, then no one else will, dammit. The idea that money makes the world go around is the common coin of all cynical minds.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and a soon to be published novelist.

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