Technology and Culture 42.4 (2001) 789-790
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Caverns of Night: Coal Mines in Art, Literature, and Film
Caverns of Night: Coal Mines in Art, Literature, and Film. Edited by William B. Thesing. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xxii+281. $39.95.
William Thesing's anthology of nineteen critical essays on representations of British and American coal mining brings home just how extensively this industry has been portrayed in painting, poetry, song, film, and fiction. The contributors, who are critics trained in English departments, treat works ranging from Loretta Lynn's hit song "Coal Miner's Daughter" to E´mile Zola's epic novel Germinal, from John Sayle's film Matewan to poems by W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The essays as a group touch upon a familiar but remarkably large number of works of art that take coal mining as their subject. For historians of the industry itself, these offer a generous overview of the wider cultural context in which the coal-mining industry has existed. For example, Martin A. Danahay elucidates how coal fires stand for the fires of hell in Victorian poetry. Such cultural framing both reflects and affects conditions in the coalfields, and these essays have something to offer the student of real-life coal mining. The range of critical approaches represented here should stimulate new lines of inquiry. A weakness is the tendency of some of these literary scholars to oversimplify the historical past based on a reading of very few secondary sources. Their strength is in analyzing particular texts in depth.
The abundance of critical approaches can be suggested by noting two of them in particular. Thomas E. Mussio analyzes Zola's use in Germinal of "free indirect discourse" (roughly, a layering of the narrator's voice with that of a character, as in "she hardly mourned Pierron's little girl, that little hussy" [p. 77]) as an instrument of irony. Patrick K. Dooley uses the philosophic lenses of John Dewey and William James, among others, to reflect on Stephen Crane's edits of his 1894 McClure's article on the Pennsylvania coal mines.
Some of the artworks considered were created by artists who emerged from the coalfields, others by outsiders. Either way, these fictional works contribute to our historical sensibility, sometimes through implied autobiography. Thesing explores the background of Sidney Sime, a Victorian illustrator of macabre scenes--ghouls conducting a wagonload of babies into a coal mine, for example. Sime, Thesing argues, was profoundly influenced by his traumatic years of child labor in a Yorkshire colliery. Alessandro Portelli deftly delineates the tension between Loretta Lynn's life as both coal miner's daughter and country music star imbibing not coal dust but wealth and public attention.
The construction of identity--gender, ethnic, class--is a main theme. Marsha Bryant illuminates how Auden constructed coal miners (and not poets) as Real Men. Clarence Wolfshohl elucidates novelist Denise Giardina's [End Page 789] use of five narrators (of both sexes and varying ethnicities) to represent a shifting panorama of Selves and Others caught within the class structure imposed by the coal firms of southern West Virginia in 1920.
Here and there, identity politics slip into essentialism, which is inherently ahistorical and tends to obscure class distinctions. Ina Rae Hark remembers with interest that poor people can be white. She insightfully analyzes how Matewan constructs a past that reflects filmmaker Sayle's liberal values rather than the actual 1920 West Virginia mine wars. But she distorts when she states that historically "the miners made violence a linchpin of their campaign to unionize" (p. 261). Violence among coal miners has been debated in historical literature that Hark does not cite.
Fiction and historical scholarship become radically confused in the case of the Molly Maguires, a supposed secret society of terrorist union miners in the Pennsylvania coalfields. In the 1870s, twenty union miners, allegedly members of the Molly Maguires, were hanged for murder. In separate essays, Robert E. Morsberger and Maurice Collins scrutinize portrayals of the Mollies in various...