Wise Blood, and Killing for Coal Dust

Paul Harvey

You Flannery O'Connor fans unite and get on those Netflix accounts -- John Huston's excellent 1980 film adaptation of Wise Blood, based of course on the short O'Connor novel, is now out on DVD. I saw this twenty years ago or so, can't wait to see it again, as I recall it well capturing the astringent O'Connor at her best.

The same summer I saw Wise Blood, I viewed a number of short documentaries about religion and laboring lives in the extractive industries. Religion and labor remains a subject in need of much more exploration. I was pondering this most recently while reading this year's Bancroft prize winner in History, Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War, a work ostensibly about the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 but, in reality, about the transformational power of coal in Colorado and western history. Coal, the author Thomas Andrews argues, induced a worldwide migration that left the more fabled gold and silver migrations in the dust, literally and figuratively.

Coal was a God which made its presence felt on the environment, in people's lives and lungs, and in the bitterness of a class society which belied the aspirations and ideals of the Quaker founder of the idealistic colony of Colorado Springs, General William Palmer. Coal was essential to his vision, and coal destroyed his vision.

Thomas Andrews has written an astonishingly powerful book. In his synthesis of environmental and labor history, coal is a powerful god-like force, and the relationship of the colliers to their environment was one of respectful fear and awe (best seen in how the colliers used the mice they befriended as their own canaries in the coal mine; when the mice scampered away unexpectedly, the men know something was amiss).

I was hoping for a bit more in Killing for Coal about religion and the multiethnic labor force that descended on the southern Colorado coal fields -- not a criticism of the book, just something I missed. I'm therefore doubly grateful for Richard Callahan's new book Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields: Subject to Dust, which is featured as the book of the week at Books and Culture (review courtesy of our own K. Lofton).

Here's an excerpt from the review, which shows the promise of combining the forces of religious and labor history in a way that Thomas Andrews accomplishes with his synthesis of environmental and labor history:

Callahan offers a lively picture of everyday life in coal towns populated by a microcosm of early 20th century American demography, including Hungarians, Italians, Slavs, Poles, Mexicans, Russians, Syrians, and Romanians. Within this multicultural panorama a rough peace abided. For instance, according to one miner, "The Jews were very much hated people." Yet Jews managed many of the stores that defined the incoming modernism of that era. "Along with the commodification of labor and the ready availability of consumer items," Callahan writes, "coal towns also introduced new patterns of leisure time that larger company towns tried to structure through organized, often commodified, forms of entertainment." At the same moment when modernism and fundamentalism were embattled elsewhere, southern Appalachian religious leaders sought to civilize their flocks through increased domestic consumption and ritual diminishment. One modernist Baptist pastor, for example, discouraged the ritual of foot-washing. "Doing away with [foot washing]," Callahan explains, "was a sign of the distancing of modern Baptists from closely heeding to their physical body, and the bodies of others in the community, as rich sources of religious experience."

Perhaps in reply to these modernist incursions, Holiness and Pentecostal movements enjoyed rampant success among the mining communities. Chapter 5 of Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields supplies a "synthetic and speculative" discussion about Holiness religion's emergence and popularity in the coal fields. Due to the limited documentary material, Callahan relies upon Raymond Williams' cultural theory, along with studies of the Holiness movement where the record was stronger, to explain why Holiness found such a strong footing amidst the horizontal mines of eastern Kentucky. This is a moving chapter, especially in its explanatory reading of healing as a popular ritual among miners. "When I can feel him coming into my body," one southern Appalachian believer said, "I know God is real." The somatic repeatedly appears in Callahan's study as he seeks to recover the palpable and the felt aspects of religious lives. "The event of healing," he writes, "made the power of the Holy Ghost concrete and present to witnesses and the person healed." This was a "somatic form of knowledge of the material reality of divine power and its ability to transform the world physically." In short, the laboring affect may have been particularly conducive to Holiness effects.


Art said…
Oh that Hazel Motes! “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” If I just had a good car...

Pardon the potential shameless plug, but Pamela Demory's article in the Journal of Southern Religion has some great insights on the film. Like many others, I had read the novel first, and wasn't totally impressed by the film. Demory helped me rethink this, and recognize that a film and a novel are very different modes of communication. "John Huston's Wise Blood may not offer its audience the hope of eternal salvation that O'Connor's novel does, but the reader who also sees Huston's film may come away with a greater appreciation for the significance of faith in O'Connor's novel."

Great stuff on the rest of the post too. I think that Lofton is correct in predicting that more studies on coal religion are on their way. The time is right and the topic has great potential, as Callahan's outstanding book shows.
rjc said…
Thanks for the plug, Paul, and for the kind comment, Art. I do think, and hope, that there will be more interest in the intersections of religion and labor in the future, and I get hints that there is some interesting work being done in this area by grad students right now. It is truly a vast subject, and one that is central to American history (and modernity more generally), but, for whatever reason, overwhelmingly neglected (especially by American religious historians). And the issue is broader than just organized labor or formations of class -- "work" and "labor" are important problematics for the study of religion and religious history, I think.