Green (History/Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston; Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America, 2006, etc.) mines the historically dark seams of the sanguinary Mountain State coal wars that raged in the early decades of the 20th century.
The author begins with the discovery of coal in the region in 1750 and then proceeds to the quick “development” of the area by mine owners, who did all they could—legally and otherwise—to keep wages low, working conditions precarious and workers in a virtual enslavement. (The volume’s subtitle reveals the author’s point of view.) Numerous notable names appear throughout, beginning with James M. Cain (before his novels), who wrote about the region in the 1920s, and including familiar names (Mother Jones, the Hatfields, John L. Lewis) and those whose roles many readers new to the subject may find remarkable—Louis Brandeis, Billy Sunday (he was on the owners’ payroll), Edmund Wilson and Felix Frankfurter (pre–Supreme Court) among them. The very names of some of the encampments and confrontations are resonant—e.g., Paint Creek, Matewan and Blair Mountain. Green proceeds through the decades, describing the actions (violent and otherwise) in calm detail, telling us about the principals on both sides and providing many useful maps and photographs. We see the rise and fall and rise of union activity in the region—activity that was often bathed in blood and terror—and the fecklessness and cowardice of politicians at all levels, from local officials to President Herbert Hoover. We witness the extreme deprivations of the miners and their families, their astonishing willingness—even eagerness—to suffer so that future generations would not. It is obvious throughout that these issues of capital vs. labor have remained with us and, in some ways, worsened.
Green opens our eyes with his assiduous research and steady storytelling.