King Coal (1917) by Upton Sinclair
No one should be surprised that Plutocrat-in-Chief Donald Trump has hitched his political snake oil caboose to the shameful pit-railway of the American coal mining industry, whose long string of labor abuses, hazardous working conditions, and corporate corruption led to some of the most intense labor disputes and violent strikes in American history. In the Gilded Age and beyond, the coal industry, in conjunction with the railroads, was the epitome of greed and the exploitation of America’s most vulnerable citizens — the poor, immigrants, and minorities. Considering that coal was the primary fuel source of America’s industrial age for over seventy years, the miners who risked their lives and their health to keep the fires of industry burning were perhaps the most unfortunate wage slaves of any profession, getting minimal in return (besides black lung and early death) for the maximum profits of their corporate masters.
In the 21st century, the coal industry is dying a slow death as our energy needs (and environmental realities) have shifted; but old King Coal still manages to stagger along with the help of political lobbying that relies on the rhetoric of misdirection — a keystone of President Trump’s administration — that promises what it can never deliver by claiming to support the very vulnerable workers it exploits. King Coal’s serfs have been conditioned to accept the terms of their own subjugation, supporting the very industry that keeps them in wage slavery by mining a product that is increasingly irrelevant. Instead of helping the 50,000-or-so coal workers in the United States find better jobs in cleaner, greener energy markets, Trump props up the dying industry of his corporate cronies by claiming he’s saving the dead-end jobs of the workers whose labor fills the coffers of the 1%. The coal workers see Trump as a hero for “saving” their jobs, when in reality he is preventing any advancement in generating better jobs in more sustainable industries to meet the new energy needs of a 21st century economy. But they can’t be blamed for being kept in the dark about their own futures. As Sinclair was fond of saying in his speeches: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” That’s even more true regarding the corporate caste of the coal industry.
In 2017, the coal industry no longer has to employ the corrupt tactics of turn-of-the-century union-busting thugs or engage in electoral chicanery at the local level: King Coal’s very own court jester is enthroned in the Oval Office. When Upton Sinclair published King Coal in 1917, the agents of the coal industry were not so lucky. They had to do their dirty work in secret, within the mining towns where law and the judiciary were controlled from the bottom-up. Sinclair’s novel utilizes his famous muckraking style to lay bare the abuses of the coal industry in much the same way he did for the meatpacking industry of Chicago in The Jungle in 1906.
After reading only a few opening pages, it’s hard to believe King Coal is 100 years old. Sinclair’s prose has the stirring ring of universal truth — a vibrancy and immediacy that casts his novel not as the document of past historical events or the portrait of an out-dated industrial period in American life, but as an ever-present social and political reality that continues to shape American life as it has done throughout our nation’s history. The corruption and autocracy of big business, the exploitation of the working class, the willful obliviousness of the upper classes, the rigged political machinations that keep corporations in power, the impossibility of the judicial system to effectively secure the rights of citizens…it’s all still playing out in the United States today, even as industry has been forced to improve the working conditions of laborers to the point where at least they are not dying so openly and quickly. But the stranglehold on democracy by the corporate caste system remains as true today as it was in 1917.
Sinclair’s gripping novel relates the story of Hal, a college kid of privilege who decides he wants to slum it one summer to see first-hand what it’s like to work in a coal mine in the United States. He enters the realm of King Coal as a serf named “Joe Smith,” and quickly discovers that all he had learned in school about the wheels of industry and glory of American capitalism is a sham, a rigged system built upon the broken backs of men and women — largely immigrants — who are cheated and exploited by an industry that values profit over those who risk their health and lives to pad the pockets (and warm the fires) of the elite. Even worse: the local and state political and judicial systems are run by the very coal industry henchmen who operate the mining town. There is no need to gerrymander districts to keep the graft flowing or to ensure that elected officials don’t enforce labor laws: the coal henchmen are the political leaders. And the workers vote as they are told, for fear of being shipped out of town on the next train. (In his postscript, Sinclair provides documents from the actual Colorado Supreme Court ruling from 1914 that inspired the novel, lest the reader think these are exaggerations on the part of the novelist.)
We soon discover that there is more to Hal’s backstory than meets the eye. Hal, for his part, learns that “agitators” are not evil anarchists who desire to destroy good old-fashioned American ingenuity, but are instead average men and women — courageous and selfless — who often sacrifice themselves for the greater cause of preserving the basic human rights and dignity which they are denied on a daily basis.
All through the previous year at college Hal had listened to lectures upon political economy, filled with the praises of a thing called “Private Ownership.” This Private Ownership developed initiative and economy; it kept the wheels of industry a-roll, it kept fat the payrolls of college faculties; it accorded itself with the sacred laws of supply and demand, it was the basis of progress and prosperity wherewith America had been blessed. And here suddenly Hal found himself face to face with the reality of it; he saw its wolfish eyes glaring into his own, he saw its gleaming fangs and claw-like fingers dripping with the blood of men and women and children. Private Ownership of coal-mines! Private Ownership of sealed-up entrances and non-existent escape-ways! Private Ownership of fans which did not start, of sprinklers which did not sprinkle. Private Ownership of clubs and revolvers, and of thugs and ex-convicts to use them, driving away rescuers and shutting up agonized widows and orphans in their homes! Oh, the serene and well-fed priests of Private Ownership, chanting in academic halls the praises of the bloody Demon!
— Upton Sinclair
With King Coal, Sinclair is unabashedly writing a pro-union novel that draws upon his strong Socialist political convictions as a call for reform, in the belief that literature can be an active agent of change in social and political movements. Sinclair felt that most artists indirectly supported the wealthy and the ruling classes by not using their art as a direct means of addressing social inequality. King Coal, like his entire oeuvre, is a work of purposeful propaganda that challenges the perspectives of readers and even indicts them as upholding the prevailing status quo by not taking direct action.
Not only is Sinclair writing in the tradition of Jack London, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ernest Poole, and others, but he would also truly become the last living American socialist writer by the time of his death in 1968. Considering his Lanny Budd novels were still twenty-five years away in 1917, Sinclair was not even halfway through his writing career as when he penned King Coal. Although not as famous or as popular as The Jungle, King Coal is, in many ways, a much better novel. Sinclair’s narrative is fast-moving and is clearly based on real people and events (which he confirms in the postscript) without the trappings of a “muckraking exposé” that The Jungle often displayed in chapters that were factually interesting but interrupted the narrative flow. King Coal is a tighter, more mature work of fiction from a writer just hitting his stride as a novelist.
But more importantly, the novel also teaches us certain truths about the uneasy and ever-present marriage of industry and politics in the United States that remain cast in stark relief one-hundred years later as Donald Trump blatantly upholds his own international business interests while wielding the power of the office of the president. Even as he claimed to step down from the day-to-day operations of his business, he continues to appoint corporate cronies and craft legislation with the primary goal of advancing the interests of the wealthy elite. The agents of Big Business have control of the government on perhaps an even grander scale than during the Harding Administration and in the days of King Coal. The Demon may not be as “bloody” as it was in 1917, but it still exists, devouring the labor and the earnings of those whom it claims to support while ensuring its own perpetual existence through the same plutocratic backroom deals and machinations as in the days of old King Coal.