James M. Cain and the West Virginia Mine Wars

A man is born into wealth and privilege, and he parlays that wealth and privilege into becoming a popular spectacle. He’s an associate professor at CSU Channel Islands. He focuses more on numbers: how much coal was being dug, who was making the money, and how much. He reaches superstardom on a television show in which his main actions are to sit behind the desk as The Boss and harangue his employees. In a sense, this man would be a rewriting of Veda from Cain’s Mildred Pierce. Veda can only destroy Mildred if she’s disgusted by her. Coal operators would employ them to harass, brutalize, and sometimes murder any miner who even thought about joining a union. But his West Virginia days convinced him that he should try something bigger than articles for his local paper. They are dirty even when they’re clean. Justice isn’t what we expect. So, if the Baldwin-Felts thugs weren’t murdering women and children in West Virginia, it was only because their bombs and bullets missed. Coal companies also had near-complete control over miners’ religion, education, and access to outside media. The power of these coal companies is hard to overstate. It was (and is) the largest armed conflict on American soil since the Civil War. In 1946, Cain took this stereotype as far as he could with The Butterfly, which is set in West Virginia. After covering the Blizzard treason trial, Cain sold the two aforementioned articles to the Atlantic and the Nation. This agreement allowed miners to bargain collectively, to work eight-hour days, and to make sure that the standards for weighing coal (because miners were paid by the weight of the coal they dug) were uniform and accurate. She describes her rich husband as “somebody that’s greasy and makes you sick at the stomach when he touches you.” But she also doesn’t want her lover to be a working stiff. Lively, the murderer, was never charged. And, should any miner complain about these conditions, a Baldwin-Felts thug was nearby to crack his skull. Two men who the state militia arrested and actually charged and put on trial were the pro-union sheriff of Matewan, West Virginia, Sid Hatfield, and his deputy, Ed Chambers. She tells him, “I’d cry if I saw you in a smock, Frank.” So Cora and Frank are stuck between, on the one hand, being disgusted by Cora’s husband’s wealth and the control it gives him over their lives, and on the other hand, the disgust they’ve learned to feel toward someone of their own socioeconomic background. Frank learned it by falling in love with Cora and seeing himself through her eyes. To use a coal metaphor, it’s a rich, virgin seam for scholars to mine. Suddenly, operators of nonunion mines could undercut their competition by paying their workers next to nothing. E. He returned to Baltimore. Baldwin-Felts were, at times, really detectives. SEPTEMBER 25, 2018

IN 1922, James M. Strangely for Cain, he does not linger long on the violence, the cruelty, or the weaknesses and passions that allow for these conditions to perpetuate. He’d discovered that the miners were not only not Bolsheviks; they didn’t know what Bolsheviks were. In his Atlantic article, Cain says that West Virginians “had interbred and lived to themselves so much that there had come into being an atrophied race, a weaker strain of American stock.” He doubles down on this characterization in his Nation article, saying that the Appalachian man settled in West Virginia “while his more energetic brethren pushed on to the Ohio River and the West.” This lazy Appalachian man lived on hogs and hominy, and, Cain says, “As time went on he and his kind interbred, the strain grew weaker and weaker, and he developed unusual ideas and customs.”
This stereotype of the incestuous hillbilly is far from unique to Cain. Fans of the show celebrate every time he destroys his employees’ livelihoods with his catchphrase: “You’re fired!” The disgust he shows for his employees makes him so popular that it catapults him to the presidency of the nation. The Battle of Blair Mountain erupted. The Butterfly is standard Cain fare. The walls of the canvas tents, of course, were no match for bullets. Cain knew better. This agreement probably would have brought peace to the coal fields, but, shortly afterward, massive virgin coal seams were discovered in West Virginia. Cain was a young, ambitious journalist working for the Baltimore Sun. Cain was familiar with this history. Cain was so shaky about moving the novel to West Virginia that he felt he needed a preface to explain why he did that. The passions in the novel required more explanation, too. He makes light of their brutal conditions in his 1923 Nation article “West Virginia: A Mine-Field Melodrama.” He characterizes the mine wars as “a silly hodge-podge of two-gun heroes, find-the-papers villains, and sweaty mysteries.” He downplays just how brutal their working and living conditions were. He dismisses the aggression of the Baldwin-Felts agents, describing them as taking a page from the Appalachian hillbilly playbook rather than being a mercenary army dispatched by the wealthy to oppress the poor. The fact that hundreds of union miners were in jail with no charges pending and Lively was allowed to get away with murder was too much. And since this mentality is part of what propelled a television personality to a presidency, since it seems to be the prevailing emotional drive of the Republican Party, and since it’s also the underlying force behind so many privileged liberal think pieces about “Trump country” and “the white working class,” there’s probably never been a better time to go back to Cain and read his explorations into class-based disgust. His West Virginia days also struck a chord that resonated through all of his books. The next morning, his fellow miners made it clear that they thought he was a traitor and, if he went into the mine that day, he probably wouldn’t come back out. They inspired him to raise his profile as a writer, to sell his journalism to national publications, and to try his hand as a novelist. Mildred goes from waitress to proprietor of several successful restaurants. The Butterfly is about incest. hired them to attack striking coal miners in his employ. A man marries his daughter. In some regards, every major work and many minor works of Cain struggle with the class conflicts he witnessed in the coal fields. The 29-year-old Cain wouldn’t even attempt to write a novel for another year or two. Baldwin-Felts agents had an armored train car called the Bull Moose Special. Mostly, though, Baldwin-Felts agents were hired thugs. After a brutal 19th century of labor battles in coal fields in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and coal operators established the Central Competitive Field in 1898. For another, they opened fire regularly into tent communities full of women and children in West Virginia. In both his Nation and Atlantic articles, Cain refers to a line in a striking miners’ anthem: “They’re a-murderin’ the women an’ children.” In both articles, he clarifies that the coal operators had not murdered any women and children. Veda lives off this wealth, but develops a disgust for the workers who created the wealth. Tensions erupted over three days in an event known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. A complicated class disgust drives several Cain novels. On August 1, 1921, when Hatfield and Chambers showed up at the courthouse unarmed for their trial, they were brutally murdered in broad daylight by Baldwin-Felts thugs. They’re trash even when they’re useful. True to American stereotypes, the man and his daughter are moonshiners living in the Appalachian mountains. This mentality, Cain shows again and again in his novels, is the catalyst for murder. They didn’t know who Karl Marx was. I was excited to visit a tiny, unincorporated town called Carswell (which is my last name). In Cain’s eyes, it was a total failure. Or, if they are people, they’re a weaker race, a bunch of inbred hillbillies. If ever you’ve doubted the power of disgust in our class constructions, imagine this scenario. Most had never even heard of the Soviet Union. Their lives fall apart. For Cain, West Virginians were vile because they were an “atrophied race.” For many of the wealthy living in a society of drastic wealth inequality, the working classes are born vile. What separates this novel is the setting and the nature of the characters’ passions. Over the next year, he wrote four drafts of a novel about a radical union organizer in the coal fields who is part of the Battle of Blair Mountain. Twenty years later, he commented that writing about labor “is really dead seed for a novelist.” But his time in West Virginia introduced him to the key emotion dividing socioeconomic classes in the United States: disgust. They must feel, to borrow from Sara Ahmed’s description of disgust in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, that workers are not just “bad objects that we are afraid to incorporate, but the very designation of ‘badness’ as a quality we assume is inherent.” In other words, what makes objects or people disgusting is something innate. There’s a murder or two. The scrip would serve to pay miners’ rent in company housing and purchases at the company store. James M. Most of the men arrested were not charged with any crime. In the cases where a local government existed, it was typically a facade built to serve the mine bosses. In the novel, Veda is born into her mother Mildred’s wealth. At one point during the Battle of Blair Mountain, coal operators even brought in four warplanes from World War I and tried to drop bombs on the miners’ camps. In 1920, the governor of West Virginia declared martial law in the coal fields. West Virginia coal operators responded by employing the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. He left his job at the Sun and worked for a few months as a union coal miner in West Virginia. This mentality, Cain learned in the coal fields of West Virginia, is also the catalyst for war. Most specifically, she’s disgusted by Mildred. Should the miners ever demand a raise, the company could simply adjust rent and store prices to make the money back. Likewise, coal operators like Quinn Morton — who commissioned the Bull Moose Special on February 2, 1913, to attack striking miners, killing one — could only spray their employees with machine gun fire and gleefully demand to do it again if he feels that the people he’s killing aren’t people. Toward the end of his article, he argues that there is only one solution for the ongoing coal wars: “This is to put the whole country on a union basis.” When Cain wrote these sentences, much of the nation was convinced that the miners were Bolsheviks trying to enact a Soviet-style revolution in the coal fields. In August and September 1921, striking coal miners raised an army 10,000 strong to take on the several-thousand-strong army that the coal companies had already raised to subjugate the miners. The Postman Always Rings Twice is launched by Cora’s disgust for her husband. It was envisioned as a retelling of the Samson and Delilah story. At its core, there’s the acknowledgment that, in order for real wealth inequality to exist, the wealthy socioeconomic class must feel something other than hatred for less wealthy classes. The tensions between, on one side, the union and the miners and, on the other side, the coal companies and their hired thugs led to several armed conflicts over the decades. Almost all of Cain’s novels feature some examination of this disgust. He’d spoken personally with the miners and discussed politics. The events that brought Cain to West Virginia are largely unknown to most Americans today. He outlines much of it in his 1922 article for The Atlantic. He enlisted the Baldwin-Felts guys as militia men, and they arrested and jailed anyone they could find with union ties. For one thing, Baldwin-Felts agents absolutely murdered women and children in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914 when John D. Everyone I told about Carswell Hollow made some version of the same joke: did you marry a cousin while you were there? And so Cain, an idealistic young journalist who prided himself in not being for sale, bucked public opinion and spoke truth as he saw it. The UMWA made it a priority to unionize West Virginia. But to understand Veda, we have to ask hard questions about class divisions. Because the balance between what miners made and what they owed the company was so slim, miners frequently had no opportunity to save enough money (which they didn’t have anyway; they had scrip) to leave town. The conditions that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain were a couple of decades in the making. The conflict between Veda’s class-specific disgust and Mildred’s love for her daughter propel the novel. His working days were cut short after he had dinner with a mine supervisor one night. Most damning from Cain, though, was his characterization of West Virginians. Understanding the novel from Mildred’s perspective depends on exploring parental love. But the truth is, Cain could not have known this with any certainty. This doesn’t suggest, however, that Cain was entirely on the side of the miners. His time as a best-selling novelist, a Hollywood screenwriter, and a giant of American noir was still yet to come. Cora learned her self-disgust during a Hollywood screen test in which she was pretty enough, alright, but once she opened her mouth, her accent marked her as working class. Cain traveled to the coal fields of southern West Virginia to cover the treason trial of union organizer Bill Blizzard. Recently, I traveled to West Virginia coal country. Uncontrollable passions lead men and women to compromising themselves. Coal companies owned not only the mines and mining operations, they also owned all of the land around the mine, the town itself, including all of the houses, churches, schools, and stores in town. ¤
Sean Carswell is the author of eight books including the crime novel Dead Extra, which will be released by Prospect Park Books in May 2019. They used it to ride past tent communities and fire machine guns at the striking workers. We have to understand that the hoarding of wealth at the expense of others is made possible by nurturing a sense of disgust toward those whose lives are ruined by your wealth. In most cases, there was no government outside of the coal companies’ rules and no law except the Baldwin-Felts enforcers. They paid miners in company scrip instead of US currency. This was actually Cain’s second West Virginia novel. The UMWA spent much of the first two decades of the 20th century trying to unionize these coal fields. Though there were dozens of witnesses, C. Occasionally, they’d be hired to solve a crime. Rockefeller Jr.