A Vein of Riches by John Knowles

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In A Vein of Riches, told from an omniscient point of view, Knowles again takes as his protagonist a young man whose received views are tested by experience. Knowles sets his novel in Middleburg, West Virginia, the center of a coal boom and the home of oil barons whose castles and manors rival those of their counterparts in railroads and steel. While the story begins in 1909, the pivotal event in the novel occurs on April 1, 1919, when the coal miners strike against the owners of the mines.

Knowles begins A Vein of Riches by delineating the positions of the leading families in Middleburg and by satirizing the captains of industry.

Minnie Catherwood, wife of one of the leading coal mine owners, is somewhat of an anomaly in her set, for she alone seems bored with her meaningless existence. Looking for something more than her opium-laced tonics, she turns to religion and finds salvation through the Reverend Roanoke, an African American itinerant minister who serves the impoverished and exploited coal miners in Bennettown. When she first visits Bennettown, her eyes are opened to the wretched existence of the workers, and she comes to understand that Bennettown is a “sealed world,” one apart from Middleburg. When she attempts to discuss the miners’ plight with Clarkson, her husband, he indulgently treats her like a pet dog and pays the Reverend Roanoke to leave the area.

Her son, Lyle, also has questions about the coal-mining policies, especially the “Yellow Dog” contracts and the forced evictions, and Clarkson suspects that his son is not “fit” to assume control of the mining enterprise. After trouble breaks out in Logan County, Clarkson, Lyle, Virgil Pence, and Uncle George go to Charleston, but only Virgil and Clarkson go on to Logan. Lyle, who is supposed to return home, instead alters his name, poses as a newspaper reporter, goes to Logan, and is almost killed before he is reunited with his father. In the course of his “adventure,” he begins to question his values and identity and the justice of the owners’ actions. The letters of Virgil Pence, one of Clarkson’s trusted assistants, to his wife provide the answers. Virgil, at once a kind of chorus and Knowles’s spokesman, knows that the owners are at fault. Unfortunately, Virgil is accidentally shot to death.

The self-centered Lyle attempts to change and even meets with the providential Reverend Roanoke, but he does not know where he fits in. His mother tells him a story about Pompeii, but he is too blind to see the parallel between the doomed city and Middleburg. He meets Doris Lee, Virgil’s widow, and blames himself for Virgil’s death, but she tells him that “King Coal” was really responsible. He falls in love with her, but she is older than he and they are from different classes. Instead, she moves to Washington, D.C., meets Clarkson, and has an affair with him.

When oil replaces coal as fuel, the mine owners face bankruptcy. Minnie attributes the impending financial failure to greed. Lyle learns of his father’s affair with Doris and considers shooting him, but he bungles the attempt. His wealth all but gone, Clarkson ends the affair with Doris, and Lyle moves to Washington and wins her love. Minnie convinces Clarkson to close up their mansion and build a small home on the farm that she had him purchase for her. According to her, the coal is consumed and gone, but the farm renews itself....

(The entire section is 833 words.)