Tuesday, October 7, 2014
October 7, 2014: AmericanStudying Appalachia: Miner Texts
[I’ve already apologized to West Virginia in this space, but this week I’ll go further: AmericanStudying Appalachia through five compelling sets of cultural texts; and leading up to a special weekend post highlighting a few wonderful resources for further Appalachian analyses.]
On three different types of cultural representations of mining communities.
There’s not much point in trying to figure out which American experiences are the most difficult or destructive, so I’ll simply start this way: the life and world of our mining communities are fraught with hardships and dangers. In response to those harsh realities, some of the most prominent cultural portrayals of miners have focused on children who found a way out of those communities and into other (and, implicitly or explicitly, better) situations: country superstar Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek) in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980); NASA engineer Homer Hickam Jr. (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the film October Sky (1999; based on Hickam’s 1998 memoir Rocket Boys). Both films portray the protagonists’ miner fathers (Levon Helm in Daughter, Chris Cooper in October) with sensitivity and nuance, but nonetheless make clear that their children have escaped to a better life.
While some of the difficulties of the mining life as simply inherent to that job and world, others, it’s important to note, have been amplified by the mistreatment and exploitation practiced by many of the mining companies. Those histories came to a head in one of America’s most forgotten conflicts, the multiple West Virginia Mine Wars of the early 20th century. John Sayles’ historical film Matewan (1987), about which I wrote at length in this post, provides an impressive introduction to the mine wars, if one overtly and thoroughly sympathetic to the miners’ side and perspective. I share those sympathies, but of course whatever we think about their cause the mining company operators and their hired soldiers were all complex people in their own right, and so it’s worth complementing Sayles’ film with Diane Gillam Fisher’s poetry collection Kettle Bottom (2004), which constructs with wonderful nuance and humanity the first-person perspectives of multiple sides and stories from the mine wars.
I wholeheartedly recommend all of the aforementioned cultural texts, but they are all focused on extreme, or at least unusual, aspects of the mining life and communities. There’s also something to be said for a representation of more everyday experiences and realities, that is, and providing such a representation is Steve Earle and the Del McCourty Band’s wonderful song “The Mountain.” Drawn from the 1999 album of the same name, Earle’s song creates the first-person perspective of a representative miner, one who has seen the century’s historical and social conflicts and changes, as well as the effects of the mining life on his own identity, but whose mountain home and community remain what they have always been. That community is as present in America as it’s ever been, and Earle’s song, coupled with all these texts, helps us consider that presence as well as our past.
Next Appalachian text tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?