Friday, September 30, 2011

Upton Sinclair, The Coal War (1976)

It occurs to me that out of all the books I've read--okay, let's qualify that: all the published works of fiction--this may well be the single least-read (and in that statement I include my dad's first novel, which at least warranted a paperback edition). The book was posthumously published in 1976, and who, I ask you, in 1976, is going to want to read a newly-published (by an academic press, no less) book about labor disputes from the teens? Hard to imagine much of anyone but Sinclair scholars (a breed that may or may not actually exist) and the odd labor historian (the normal labor historian could not be reached for comment). I only read it for dissertation purposes.

Some background: this is a sequel to Sinclair's 1917 novel King Coal, which was published in a timely fashion. That book is about the son of a coal magnate, Hal Warner, who goes to work incognito as a laborer to see what the coal mines are actually like in practice, for the workers; you will be shocked to discover that the answer is "not so pleasant." He becomes a labor activist. And that's about what happens. The Coal War continues his exploits, leading up to a fictional equivalent of the Ludlow Massacre. Originally, these two were one, but Sinclair's editor asked him to axe the second half on the basis that it wasn't very novelistic or entertaining or anything. So Sinclair reworked King Coal as suggested, making it more novelistic and planning to follow it up with the less novelistic Coal War.

His editor was totally right. The sequel wasn't published in Sinclair's lifetime, partly because interest in such labor disputes, insofar as it ever existed, was waning as the country got involved in the first World War; and partly because, um, it's kinda bad. Not that King Coal is any great shakes either, but there's really no comparison. The earlier book is a Bildungsroman of sorts. Not a great one, but it has an easily-discernible structure, and an actual dramatic arc. Whereas the later book is, indeed, hardly a novel at all: it consists mainly of an interchangeable series of scenes of outrages committed against workers.

Digression: working conditions in coal mines at the time (in Colorado and elsewhere) were truly unbelievable. You would be thrown out for breathing a word about unionization. When there was a strike, strikebreakers who spoke little or no English would be dragooned into the mines and kept as, essentially, slaves. Workers were paid by the weight of coal they mined, and you would be cheated out of a substantial percentage your earnings literally all the time. There was a law that mines had to employ a checkweighman--a guy to monitor loads of coal to make sure everyone was getting paid for what they mined--but this was never done, and miners who requested one would be thrown out. Laws regarding safety regulations were never followed, frequently resulting in horrible mine disasters for which no one was held accountable. You couldn't legally be paid in scrip redeemable at company stores, but you would be, and they would always jack up prices, because they had a complete monopoly. Bosses would regularly rob, beat, and even kill workers, and they would never ever be convicted of anything, because if anyone even went to trial, it would be before a jury hand-picked by the company. Government was entirely in said companies' pocket. In the novel, the governor of Colorado is contemptuously referred to by company operatives as "our little cowboy governor." Surely that's a little bit of artistic license on Sinclair's part, you think. Nope! The lengthy introduction--which chronicles all this stuff with extensive citations, in case you were doubting--includes a letter from a mine operative calling him exactly that. I highly recommend that inhabitants of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, and Texas take up the habit. I thought, when I first encountered it in Against the Day, that the "death special"--an armor-plated car with a mounted machine gun that was used to terrorize miners--was a flight of postmodern fancy. Again, nope! The novel and introduction both confirm it as an actual thing that the company did. I suppose that's one strategy: when your level of evil gets sufficiently cartoonish, fewer people are actually going to believe it of you. And remember, kids: these are the conditions that our brave leaders--often quite explicitly--want to return us to.

Oh, and fuck John D. Rockefeller, who had no problem with any of this, in spite of being fully goddamned aware. Oh, now you want to be a philanthropist? No, fuck you. There were thousands and thousands of people that you could have given dignified lives*. Instead, you crushed, maimed, and killed them, causing untold levels of misery. Because you wanted more more more. If you had a soul, you sold it, and it doesn't make a goddamn bit of difference how many foundations you endow (the same applies to Andrew Carnegie (seriously, I'm embarrassed to have a degree from his school) and all the rest, of course).

*I mean okay it would still have been alienated labor, but, I think it's fair to say, there are degrees.


(But remember, the rich are just naturally better than everyone else. Productive class! Job creators! Sundry other bullshit!)


So anyway, yes, conditions were terrible on an almost unfathomable level, and Sinclair definitely did his research. But the novel's just not good. It is, I regret to say, incredibly monotonous. The miners are constructed as victims and nothing but, which makes the whole thing read somewhat like a long, detailed analysis of how it's BAD BAD BAD to kick orphaned puppies. And not just labrador puppies, either. I'm talking about all kinds of puppies, from corgis to Weimaraners to Egyptian hounds and even Bichons Frises! Also dachshunds, great danes, and akitas. Do you get the picture? I can you some more breeds that it's bad to kick, if you like. No, no--no need! Message received! But there's just precious little real emotional impact. I mean okay okay, it's somewhat shocking when children who have been presences throughout both books are abruptly murdered, but that's a pretty cheap shock right there. If ever there were a novel to validate Georg Lukács' criticism that "naturalistic" writers are unable to create real, rounded characters, this is it. Part of the problem is that, aside from a few of the main ones, all the characters are closely based on real people, and thus Sinclair felt constrained from giving them any real, invented inner lives (not that he's that great at that anyway; even the wholly fictional characters ain't much--and that's kind of odd, because novels that he wrote before and after this both do a substantially better job in that regard).

It's kind of a relief, therefore, when the novel chooses to devote space to other stuff. Ol' Hal has a fiancée, Jessie Arthur, from his own social class, you see. But he meets a fiery Oirish miner's daughter in the camps, Mary Burke, and there are sparks, and oh no what should he do? This is left unresolved in King Coal, but everyone will be glad to know that here it's put to rest. But in a weirdly problematic way: Jessie doesn't know about conditions in mining camps, and she doesn't care to know; Hal's activism drives her crazy. It seems obvious all the way through that this is an extremely bad match, and finally, here, he tells her, hey, this isn't working out. Which it isn't. And she begs him and so on, but he sticks to his guns, although the situation remains slightly open. What can I do? she says. Like Jesus says, he tells her: give away your possessions and follow me. Then, he goes and suggests marriage to Mary. But she ain't so sure about this--she'd thrown herself at him in the earlier novel and been rejected, and she's not totally certain that this inter-class relationship would work. So she tells him to go and think about it for a few days. And in the interim, Jessie comes and tells him, she's done what he said, she's left her family, because she looooooves him so much etc. And then he's done; they get married. Now…leave aside the sexism inherent here--he can do this from higher principles; she can only do it from emotions--there also seems to be something a little on the reactionary side here: Hal's from a class, and he has to stay in it. The author of the introduction (fellow named John Graham, whose name is too common to be findable online) suggests that this is indicative of Hal's ambivalent allegiances; maybe that's the idea, but in practice, there's precious little that's ambivalent about them, and being married to Jessie doesn't appear to temper them in any way--though it's impossible to imagine how, in the real world, this could work out in the long term. It's just this kind of confused, anticlimactic confusion to the whole affair.

So do I recommend this book? Not really, but I do recommend the following passage, which made me laugh pretty darned hard, because I am twelve years old:

The little Welshwoman had nothing to do with the parade, so she claimed. . . . "Move on!" one of the troopers had commanded her, and she replied--somewhat indiscreetly, perhaps--"I don't have to." Whereupon he seized her, twisted her arm behind her back, and beat her with his fist. "Shame! Shame!" cried the spectators; and Mrs. David assailed him with a new and ferocious weapon, her muff. (251)

Oh, Upton.


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