The New York Times Book Review
Sunday, August 27, 1944
During Reconstruction "Freedmen Discussing Their Political Rights"
A Contemporary Woodcut.
Mr. Fast Surveys the 'Tragic Era'
|FREEDOM ROAD. By Howard Fast
263 pp. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce. $2.75.
By BUCKLIN MOON
IN the eight years which followed the end of the Civil War, the period known as Reconstruction, a great many things of lasting importance occurred. To some people they seemed good, to others bad; tempers flared, demagogues filled the air with platitudes and generalities, the newspapers and journals of the day angled their news even as ours do today, and behind the scenes the men of power manipulated their hidden strings. Today, not quite seventy years later, that period has come down to us with many of its truths and falsehoods obscured by the passage of the years.
TO the historical novelist, bent on informing as well as entertaining, few other periods in our history offer more of a challenge, and it seems to this reviewer that in "Freedom Road," which deals with Reconstruction in South Carolina, Mr. Fast has tackled his most ambitious project. The result is a fine and penetrating novel which differs in most respects from the popular conception of Northern carpetbaggers and Southern scalawags, freed slaves refusing to work until they received forty acres and a mule, and radical legislative bodies rushing toward anarchy and petty revenge for a beaten but still gallant South. Wrought out of the hopes and fears of the freed slave, and told with a simple dignity, it sets out to show that a workable democracy, which functioned for black and white alike, was betrayed by a planter group which would stop at nothing to bring back the autocracy of ante bellum days.
"Freedom Road" opens with the return of Gideon Jackson to Carwell Plantation in South Carolina, black Gideon who had run away to join the Union forces and fight for his freedom, leaving behind a wife and three children. Because of his prowess in battle, the other ex-slaves looked to him as their leader in peacetime, but he was an unlettered man who felt himself unsuited for leadership. Yet knowing that his people wanted and needed him, he was determined to make himself fit into the pattern their hopes had cut out for him. Shortly after his return he was elected a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention at Charleston, which he attended, came home to work out the destiny of his area, and was later sent to Washington as Congressman for the district.
The story is Gideon's, in spite of numerous surrounding characters, and the strength of the novel lies in this man's growing strength. There is an almost Biblical relentlessness in his singleness of purpose; he lets his wife slip away from him because freedom seems more important than family, he stands by while his eldest son sails for Scotland (there was no medical school in America free enough from prejudice to accept him) when he needs him most, and in the end he learns the bitter lesson that you cannot fight force by mere words or good deeds alone.
But Mr. Fast, though writing fiction, is also attempting to recreate history, giving his version of legislative forces building up a democratic process in the South and other forces, after Ruther ford Hayes and his Administration returned the power to the Southern planter, tearing that process down.
WHAT the author is saying, in substance is that the Constitutional Convention worked because, though neither black nor poor white were overly fond of each other, both realized they had a common enemy in a planter group determined to keep both impotent by setting one against the other. And out of their give-and-take came some hard-headed legislation a system of public schools, the abolition of imprisonment for debt, a simple and fair divorce law, a statute making it impossible for a wife's property to be sold in settlement of her husband's debts, and a measure for universal suffrage which, though defeated by a narrow margin, came as close as man had ever come to giving women a break. It was this, Mr. Fast tells us, which, caused a reporter for The New York Herald to write: "Here in Charleston is being enacted the most incredible, hopeful, and yet unbelievable experiment in all the history of mankind."
This portrayal of a period in our history and of a man who learned the true meanlng of freedom and the vigilance necessary to keep it, may not be Howard Fast's best book, and I say this only because of the high caliber of his other works, but it certainly is his most timely novel, for Gideon Jackson is as much a symbol of today and tomorrow as he was of yesterday.