Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

Jesse Stuart, who came into sudden fame with his book of Kentucky poems, MAN WITH A BULL-TONGUE PLOW, continued to use this familiar background in the series of novels and short stories that followed. Stuart displays a great understanding for the people about whom he writes in TAPS FOR...

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Jesse Stuart, who came into sudden fame with his book of Kentucky poems, MAN WITH A BULL-TONGUE PLOW, continued to use this familiar background in the series of novels and short stories that followed. Stuart displays a great understanding for the people about whom he writes in TAPS FOR PRIVATE TUSSIE. In this novel of the Kentucky mountain people, the plot is unimportant; the characters are the story. Stuart’s treatment of this region grows out of his deep familiarity with the place and its people.

Although it may seem on the surface no more than the comic tale of the determination of the shiftless Tussie family to survive without work, TAPS FOR PRIVATE TUSSIE, on subtler levels, encompasses serious literary and social dimensions which justify its reputation as Stuart’s best novel. Like Mark Twain and William Faulkner, with whom he shares a number of qualities, Stuart wrote in the tradition of the frontier humorists of the past century, employing the vernacular style and episodic form to record the unique characteristics and folk customs of a dying culture. Also, as in the works of Twain and Faulkner, death and violence are just below the comic surface in Stuart’s novels, mitigating his comic vision with a sense of the tragic in life.

Shiftless and lazy though they are, the Tussies are more victims than victimizers, and the reader’s sympathy for them is based on this fact. On one level, their determination not to work parodies the traditional independence of the mountaineer who called no man master. Yet, the tragic cost of this false freedom has been their traditional integrity and heritage—the loss of which is implicit in the Tussies’ support of the county Democrats in return for welfare groceries. As they become increasingly dependent upon a destructive welfare system (and increasingly shiftless), only Grandpa Tussie, the benign old patriarch who holds the clan together, keeps alive the mountaineer’s traditional love of the land.

Ironically, when Grandpa Tussie finally achieves his dream of owning a farm, the clan is much worse off than before, as they lose their welfare benefits but can no longer resume the life of independence and dignity the farm once offered. As Twain saw romanticism destroying the South, and as Faulkner linked its fall to the “curse” of slavery, Stuart seems to have prophesied in 1943 the threat modern welfare systems would become to the traditional world of his Southern Appalachians.

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