Anthony Wallace’s ethnographic excavation of St. Clair gives the collective biography of one small town’s experience from 1835 to 1880, the heroic years of industry and enterprise surrounding the Civil War. Although Wallace remains close to the town and its environs, St. Clair is on several counts significantly connected to the larger contradictory currents and mythic projects of American development. St. Clair was the chief investment project of Henry Carey, perhaps the leading political economic theorist of American protectionism in these years. Carey advocated the tariff as the final guarantor of American independence under Republican political leadership. St. Clair was also a frequent battlefield in the class war which swirled around the Industrial Revolution. Winning that war between capital and labor was at the center of Franklin Gowen’s elaborate scheme to use a railroad monopoly to extract majestic profits from the anthracite mining districts of southeastern Pennsylvania. Gowen also dramatized the virtue of his project by linking it to his courtroom conquest of the Molly Maguires. The Mollies, whom Gowen portrayed as fiendish Irish conspirators against the American way, met in a St. Clair tavern—as did the Pinkerton “detectives” Gowen infiltrated among them. The consistent absence of evidence linking the Mollies to the union was no difficulty for the larger strategy.
Wallace’s re-creation of these epic times in otherwise homely surroundings has two goals: first, to recover as much of the town’s existence as possible and to report his research objectively in a series of connected thematic analyses; second, to explain the suicidal power the myths of the age held for their creators. Just as St. Clair trembled now and then as gunpowder charges went off in the mineshafts under its houses, taverns, churches, banks, and shops, Wallace shows how his industrializing protagonists’ confident beliefs and claims were also “undermined” by a geology they refused to understand, by well-known safety procedures they willfully disregarded, and by a political economy which failed to conform to their wishful theorizing. Rather than acknowledge their shaky grounds, they constructed a more comforting reality: a terra firma where low tariffs on British iron kept Pennsylvania coal prices low while careless miners and Irish revolutionaries conspired to cause mine disasters and threaten capitalist Protestant dominance.
Wallace carefully resists any temptation to let his readers create new heroes or villains. His anthracite entrepreneurs and mine operators are neither robber barons nor industrial statesmen, and the workers who resisted are neither terrorist fanatics nor models of revolutionary solidarity. Although one senses his preference for John Siney, who was the organizer of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA), St. Clair’s first union, and who later became president of the Miners’ National Association, he sees President Gowen of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the president of the WBA in surprisingly parallel terms. Both were trying to bring order to a chaotic industry. Just as Siney had a mature theory of labor relations, Gowen was a shrewd student of new technologies. That and other evidence of cultivation, along with his comparatively modest life-style, balance Gowen’s ruthless use of railroad rates and legislative clout to pursue monopoly power.
In the same evenhanded fashion, Wallace does not spend much time moralizing about the failure of all the projects undertaken. Investments in the St. Clair area were in the part of the anthracite vicinity most resistant to profitable mining with then-available technology. Protectionism, Carey’s answer to the resultant low rate of profit, failed in theory and practice. Neither the WBA nor the Mollies were capable of organizing effective resistance to the coal operators and railroad magnates. Capitalist enterprise’s victory, however, was also a hollow one. The product of Gowen’s nearly perfected monopoly scheme was a debt load which led his firm into bankruptcy twice. His mining fields shut down, Gowen committed suicide; feeble attempts to blame a remnant of the Mollies for the bullet in his head never convinced many.
Wallace’s aim, instead, is to describe the reasons for the self-defeating obsessions of St. Clair’s colliery operators and landowners. “It is easy,” as he says, “to understand, by way of a calculus of class conflict, the operator’s lack of comradely concern for the miners, but it is not so easy to understand his repeatedly risking the destruction of his own colliery.” Wallace argues that narrowly describing...
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