Tuesday, September 20, 2022

King Coal by Upton Sinclair

Rich kid slumming in the mines
King Coal
, a novel by Upton Sinclair, was published in 1917. The story takes place in an unspecified location in the Rocky Mountains, amid fictional towns and cities, but it is pretty clearly based on the Colorado coal strikes of 1913 and 1914. As America’s preeminent literary muckraker, Sinclair exposes the horrible working conditions of coal miners, depicting them as wage slaves or indentured servants to the corrupt, authoritarian coal corporations that employ them.

The hero of the novel, Hal Warner, is a wealthy college-educated young man. As a sociological experiment, he decides to work as a coal miner to see how the other half lives. After being turned away from one mine where he is suspected of being a union organizer, Hal finds employment in North Valley, a mine of the General Fuel Company owned by coal king Pete Harrigan, who happens to be the benefactor of Hal’s alma mater, Harrigan College. Hal befriends many of the miners while working and living among them. He witnesses firsthand the terrible conditions under which they work and live, and the corruption and violence by which the coal company strips the miners of their rights. Hoping to better their condition and save lives, Hal leads the workers in organizing a union, but the mine management will use every means necessary to thwart his efforts. As one might expect, the story is told through Sinclair’s socialist perspective and in a very didactic fashion. It is difficult for the reader to care about the characters when much of the plot of the book consists of a string of examples of the coal company’s corrupt activities related as if Sinclair were presenting evidence at a trial.

Sinclair rose to fame after the publication of The Jungle, his unflinching look at immigrant laborers in the Chicago stockyards. In that superb book, the workers are at the center of the story. Somewhere along the line, however, Sinclair got the idea that he needed to mediate his labor narratives through upper-class protagonists, perhaps to broaden his audience. Sometimes this strategy works, as in his Lanny Budd series. Sometimes it fails miserably, however, as in Boston, his novel about a wealthy widow’s experience of the Sacco and Vanzetti trials. King Coal is not that bad of a failure, but a failure nonetheless. Not only does the plot proceed at a glacial pace, but while workers’ families are starving and miners are trapped underground, the reader is asked to waste time worrying about what Hal’s snooty brother or shallow fiancée think of him. Knowing that Hal can walk away at any time and resume his life of leisure makes the stakes here feel very low. If you want to read a novel about coal miners and the harsh realities of their lives, one that puts the workers front and center, read Emile Zola’s Germinal, perhaps the best labor novel ever written. Sinclair no doubt read Zola’s work, but King Coal doesn’t hold a candle to it.

Sinclair closes King Coal with a nonfiction afterword that details real-life measures taken by the Republican Party and coal companies in Colorado to disenfranchise working-class voters. Sinclair expects readers to be shocked by this crime against democracy, but to those who have lived through the Trump administration it seems like small potatoes. The Colorado Coalfield War of 1913 to 1914, which includes the Ludlow Massacre, is an important episode in American history that deserves a better novel than this. King Coal does have a sequel, The Coal War, published in 1976 after Sinclair’s death. Perhaps that book takes a more compelling look at these events, but if Hal Warner is still involved, probably not.

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