King Coal
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King Coal

Upton Sinclair

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📖 eBook - ePub

King Coal

Upton Sinclair

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About This Book

Upton Sinclair is one of the not too many writers who have consecrated their lives to the agitation for social justice, and who have also enrolled their art in the service of a set purpose. A great and non-temporizing enthusiast, he never flinched from making sacrifices. Now and then he attained great material successes as a writer, but invariably he invested and lost his earnings in enterprises by which he had hoped to ward off injustice and to further human happiness. Though disappointed time after time, he never lost faith nor courage to start again. Upton Sinclair is one of the writers of the present time most deserving of a sympathetic interest. He shows his patriotism as an American, not by joining in hymns to the very conditional kind of liberty peculiar to the United States, but by agitating for infusing it with the elixir of real liberty, the liberty of humanity. He does not limit himself to a dispassionate and entertaining description of things as they are. But in his appeals to the honour and good-fellowship of his compatriots, he opens their eyes to the appalling conditions under which wage-earning slaves are living by the hundreds of thousands. His object is to better these unnatural conditions, to obtain for the very poorest a glimpse of light and happiness, to make even them realise the sensation of cosy well-being and the comfort of knowing that justice is to be found also for them. A young American of the upper class, with great sympathy for the downtrodden and an honest desire to get a first-hand knowledge of their conditions in order to help them, decides to take employment in a mine under a fictitious name and dressed like a working-man. His unusual way of trying to obtain work arouses suspicion. He is believed to be a professional strike-leader sent out to organise the miners against their exploiters, and he is not only refused work, but thrashed mercilessly. When finally he succeeds in getting inside, he discovers with growing indignation the shameless and inhuman way in which those who unearth the black coal are being exploited. These are the fundamental ideas of the book, but they give but a faint notion of the author's poetic attitude. Most beautifully is this shown in Hal's relation to a young Irish girl, Red Mary. She is poor, and her daily life harsh and joyless, but nevertheless her wonderful grace is one of the outstanding features of the book. The last chapters of the book give a description of the miners' revolt against the Company. They insist upon their right to choose a deputy to control the weighing-in of the coal, and upon having the mines sprinkled regularly to prevent explosion. They will also be free to buy their food and utensils wherever they like, even in shops not belonging to the Company. In a postscript Sinclair explains the fundamental facts on which his work of art has been built up.

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Hal was now started upon a new career, more full of excitements than that of stableman or buddy, with perils greater than those of falling rock or the hind feet of mules in the stomach. The inertia which overwork produces had not had time to become a disease with him; youth was on his side, with its zest for more and yet more experience. He found it thrilling to be a conspirator, to carry about with him secrets as dark and mysterious as the passages of the mine in which he worked.
But Jerry Minetti, the first person he told of Tom Olson’s purpose in North Valley, was older in such thrills. The care-free look which Jerry was accustomed to wear vanished abruptly, and fear came into his eyes. “I know it come some day,” he exclaimed—“trouble for me and Rosa!”
“How do you mean?”
“We get into it—get in sure. I say Rosa, ‘Call yourself Socialist—what good that do? No help any. No use to vote here—they don’t count no Socialist vote, only for joke!’ I say, ‘Got to have union. Got to strike!’ But Rosa say, ‘Wait little bit. Save little bit money, let children grow up. Then we help, no care if we no got any home.’”
“But we’re not going to start a union now!” objected Hal. “I have another plan for the present.”
Jerry, however, was not to be put at ease. “No canwait!” he declared. “Men no stand it! I say, ‘It come some day quick—like blow-up in mine! Somebody start fight, everybody fight.’” And Jerry looked at Rosa, who sat with her black eyes fixed anxiously upon her husband. “We get into it,” he said; and Halsaw their eyes turn to the room where Little Jerry and the baby were sleeping.
Hal said nothing—he was beginning to understand the meaning of rebellion to such people. He watched with curiosity and pity the struggle that went on; a struggle as old as the soul of man—between the voice of self-interest, of comfort and prudence, and the call of duty, of the ideal. No trumpet sounded for this conflict, only the still small voice within.
After a while Jerry asked what it was Hal and Olson had planned; and Hal explained that he wanted to make a test of the company’s attitude toward the check-weighman law. Hal thought it a fine scheme; what did Jerry think?
Jerry smiled sadly. “Yes, fine scheme for young feller—no got family!”
“That’s all right,” said Hal, “I’ll take the job—I’ll be the check-weighman.”
“Got to have committee,” said Jerry—“committee go see boss.”
“All right, but we’ll get young fellows for that too—men who have no families. Some of the fellows who live in the chicken-coops in shanty-town. They won’tcare what happens to them.”
But Jerry would not share Hal’s smile. “No got sense ‘nough, them fellers. Take sense to stick together.” He explained that they would need a group of men to stand back of the committee; such a group would have to be organised,to hold meetings in secret—it would be practically the same thing as a union, would be so regarded by the bosses and their spotters. And no organisation of any sort was permitted in the camps. There had been some Serbians who had wanted to belong to a fraternal order back in their home country, but even that had been forbidden. If you wanted to insure your life or your health, the company would attend to it—and get the profit from it. For that matter, you could not even buy a post-office money-order, to send funds back to the old country; the post-office clerk, who was at the same time a clerk in the company-store, would sell you some sort of a store-draft.
So Hal was facing the very difficulties about which Olson had warned him. The first of them was Jerry’s fear. Yet Hal knew that Jerry was no “coward”; if any man had a contempt for Jerry’s attitude, it was because he had never been in Jerry’s place!
“All I’ll ask of you now is advice,” said Hal. “Give me the names of some young fellows who are trustworthy, and I’ll get their help without anybody suspecting you.”
“You my boarder!” was Jerry’s reply to this.
So again Hal was “up against it.” “You mean that would get you into trouble?”
“Sure! They know we talk. They know I talk Socialism, anyhow. They fire mesure!”
“But how about your cousin, the pit-boss in Number One?”
“He no help. May be get fired himself. Say damn fool—board check-weighman!”
“All right,” said Hal. “Then I’ll move away now, before it’s too late. You can say I was a trouble-maker, and youturned me off.”
The Minettis sat gazing at each other—a mournful pair. They hated to lose their boarder, who was such good company, and paid them such good money. As for Hal, he felt nearly as bad, for he liked Jerry and his girl-wife, and Little Jerry—even the black-eyed baby, who made so much noise and interrupted conversation!
“No!” said Jerry. “I no run, away! I do my share!”
“That’s all right,” replied Hal. “You do your share—but not just yet. You stay on in the camp and help Olson after I’m fired. Wedon’t want the best men put out at once.”
So, after further argument, it was decided, and Hal saw little Rosa sink back in her chair and draw a deep breath of relief. The time for martyrdom was put off; her little three-roomed cabin, her furniture and hershining pans and her pretty white lace curtains, might be hers for a few weeks longer!


Hal went back to Reminitsky’s boarding-house; a heavy sacrifice, but not without its compensations, because it gave him more chance to talk with the men.
He and Jerry made up a list of those who could be trusted with the secret: the list beginning with the name of Mike Sikoria. To be put on a committee, and sent to interview a boss, would appeal to Old Mike as the purpose for which he had been put upon earth! Butthey would not tell him about it until the last minute, for fear lest in his excitement he might shout out the announcement the next time he lost one of his cars.
There was a young Bulgarian miner named Wresmak who worked near Hal. The road into this man’s room ran up an incline, and he had hardly been able to push his “empties” up the grade. While he was sweating and straining at the task, Alec Stone had come along, and having a giant’s contempt for physical weakness, began to cuff him. The man raised his arm—whether in offence or to ward off the blow, no one could be sure; but Stone fell upon him and kicked him all the way down the passage, pouring out upon him furious curses. Now the man was in another room, where he had taken out over forty car-loadsof rock, and been allowed only three dollars for it. No one who watched his face when the pit-boss passed would doubt that this man would be ready to take his chances in a movement of protest.
Then there was a man whom Jerry knew, who had just come out ofthe hospital, after contact with the butt-end of the camp-marshal’s revolver. This was a Pole, who unfortunately did not know a word of English; but Olson, the organiser, had got into touch with another Pole, who spoke a little English, and would pass theword on to his fellow-countryman. Also there was a young Italian, Rovetta, whom Jerry knew and whose loyalty he could vouch for.
There was another person Hal thought of—Mary Burke. He had been deliberately avoiding her of late; it seemed the one safe thingto do—although it seemed also a cruel thing, and left his mind ill at ease. He went over and over what had happened. How had the trouble got started? It is a man’s duty in such cases to take the blame upon himself; but a man does not like to take blame upon himself, and he tries to make it as light as possible. Should Hal say that it was because he had been too officious that night in helping Mary where the path was rough? She had not actually needed such help, she was quite as capable on her feet as he! But he had really gone farther than that—he had had a definite sentimental impulse; and he had been a cad—he should have known all along that all this girl’s discontent, all the longing of her starved soul, would become centred upon him, who was so “different,” who had had opportunity, who made her think of the “poetry-books”!
But here suddenly seemed a solution of the difficulty; here was a new interest for Mary, a safe channel in which her emotions could run. A woman could not serve on a miners’ committee,but she would be a good adviser, and her sharp tongue would be a weapon to drive others into line. Being aflame with this enterprise, Hal became impersonal, man-fashion—and so fell into another sentimental trap! He did not stop to think that Mary’s interest in the check-weighman movement might be conditioned in part by a desire to see more of him; still less did it occur to him that he might be glad for a pretext to see Mary.
No, he was picturing her in a new role, an activity more inspiriting than cookingand nursing. His “poetry-book” imagination took fire; he gave her a hope and a purpose, a pathway with a goal at the end. Had there not been women leaders in every great proletarian movement?
He went to call on her, and met her at the door of her cabin. “‘Tis a cheerin’ sight to see ye, Joe Smith!” she said. And she looked him in the eye and smiled.
“The same to you, Mary Burke!” he answered.
She was game, he saw; she was going to be a “good sport.” But he noticed that she was paler than when he had seen her last. Could it be that these gorgeous Irish complexions ever faded? He thought that she was thinner too; the old blue calico seemed less tight upon her.
Hal plunged into his theme. “Mary, I had a vision of you to-day!”
“Of me, lad? What’s that?”
He laughed. “I saw you with a glory in your face, and your hair shining like a crown of gold. You were mounted on a snow-white horse, and wore a robe of white, soft and lustrous—like Joan of Arc, or a leader in a suffrage parade. You were riding at the head of ahost—I’ve still got the music in my ears, Mary!”
“Go on with ye, lad—what’s all this about?”
“Come in and I’ll tell you,” he said.
So they went into the bare kitchen, and sat in bare wooden chairs—Mary folding her hands in her lap like a child who has beenpromised a fairy-story. “Now hurry,” said she. “I want to know about this new dress ye’re givin’ me. Are ye tired of me old calico?”
He joined in her smile. “This is a dress you will weave for yourself, Mary, out of the finest threads of your own nature—out of courage and devotion and self-sacrifice.”
“Sure, ‘tis the poetry-book again! But what is it ye’re really meanin’?”
He looked about him. “Is anybody here?”
But instinctively he lowered his voice as he told his story. There was an organiser of the “big union” in the camp, and he was going to rouse the slaves to protest.
The laughter went out of Mary’s face. “Oh! It’s that!” she said, in a flat tone. The vision of the snow-white horse and the soft and lustrous robe was gone. “Ye can never do anything of that sort here!”
“Why not?”
“‘Tis the men in this place. Don’t ye remember what I told ye at Mr. Rafferty’s? They’re cowards!”
“Ah, Mary, it’s easy to say that. But it’s not so pleasant being turned out of your home—”
“Do ye have to tell methat?” she cried, with sudden passion. “Haven’t I seen that?”
“Yes, Mary; but I want todosomething—”
“Yes, and haven’t I wanted to do something? Sure, I’ve wanted to bite off the noses of the bosses!”
“Well,” he laughed, “we’ll make that a part of our programme.” But Mary was not to be lured into cheerfulness; her mood was so full of pain and bewilderment that he had an impulse to reach out and take her hand again. But he checked that; he had come to divert her energies into a safe channel!
“We must wakenthese men to resistance, Mary!”
“Ye can’t do it, Joe—not the English-speakin’ men. The Greeks and the Bulgars, maybe—they’re fightin’ at home, and they might fight here. But the Irish never—never! Them thathad any backbone went out long ago. Them that stayed has been made into boot-licks. I know them, every man of them. They grumble, and curse the boss, but then they think of the blacklist, and they go back and cringe at his feet.”
“What such men want—”
“‘Tis booze they want, and carousin’ with the rottenwomen in the coal-towns, and sittin’ up all night winnin’ each other’s money with a greasy pack of cards! They take their pleasure where they find it, and ‘tis nothin’ better they want.”
“Then, Mary, if that’s so, don’t you see it’s all the more reason for trying to teach them? If not for their own sakes, for the sake of their children! The children, mustn’t grow up like that! They are learning English, at least—”
Mary gave a scornful laugh. “Have ye been up to that school?”
He answered no; and she told him there were a hundred and twenty children packed in one room, three in a seat, and solid all round the wall. She went on, with swift anger—the school was supposed to be paid for out of taxes, but as nobody owned any property but the company, it was all inthe company’s hands. The school-board consisted of Mr. Cartwright, the mine-superintendent, and Jake Predovich, a clerk in the store, and the preacher, the Reverend Spraggs. Old Spraggs would bump his nose on the floor if the “super” told him to.
“Now, now!” said Hal, laughing. “You’re down on him because his grandfather was an Orangeman!”


Mary Burke had been suckled upon despair, and the poison of it was deep in her blood. Hal began to realise that it would be as hard to give her a hope as to rouse the workers whom she despised. She was brave enough, no doubt, but how could he persuade her to be brave for men who had no courage for themselves?
“Mary,” he said, “in your heart you don’t really hate these people. You know how they suffer, you pitythem for it. You give their children your last cent when they need it—”
“Ah, lad!” she cried, and he saw tears suddenly spring into her eyes. “‘Tis because I love them so that I hate them! Sometimes ‘tis the bosses I would murder, sometimes ‘tis the men. What is it ye’re wantin’ me to do?”
And then, even before he could answer, she began to run over the list of her acquaintances in the camp. Yes, there was one man Hal ought to talk to; he would be too old to join them, but his advice would be invaluable,and they could be sure he would never betray them. That was old John Edstrom, a Swede from Minnesota, who had worked in this district from the time the mines had first started up. He had been active in the great strike eight years ago, and had been black-listed, his four sons with him. The sons were scattered now to the four parts of the world, but the father had stayed nearby, working as a ranch-hand and railroad labourer, until a couple of years ago, during a rush season, he had got a chance to come backinto the mines.
He was old, old, declared Mary—must be sixty. And when Hal remarked that that did not sound so frightfully aged, she answered that one seldom heard of a man being able to workin a coal-mine at that age; in fact, there were not many who managed to live to that age. Edstrom’s wife was dying now, and he was having a hard time.
“‘Twould not be fair to let such an old gentleman lose his job,” said Mary. “But at least he could give ye good advice.”
So that evening the two of them went to call onJohn Edstrom, in a tiny unpainted cabin in “shanty-town,” with a bare earth floor, and a half partition of rough boards to hide his dying wife from his callers. The woman’s trouble was cancer, and this made calling a trying matter, for there was a fearfulodour in the place. For some time it was impossible for Hal to force himself to think about anything else; but finally he overcame this weakness, telling himself that this was a war, and that a man must be ready for the hospital as well as for the parade-ground.
He looked about, and saw that the cracks of Edstrom’s cabin were stopped with rags, and the broken windowpanes mended with brown paper. The old man had evidently made an effort to keep the place neat, and Hal noticed a row of books on a shelf. Because it was cold in these mountain regions at night, even in September, the old man had a fire in the little cast-iron stove, and sat huddled by it. There were only a few hairs left on his head, and his scrubby beard was as white as anything could be in a coal-camp. The first impression of his face was of its pallor, and then of the benevolence in the faded dark eyes; also his voice was gentle, like a caress. He rose to greet his visitors, and put out to Hal a trembling hand, which resembled the paw of some animal, horny and misshapen. He made a move to draw up a bench, and apologised for his unskillful house-keeping. It occurred to Hal that a man might be able to work in a coal-mine at sixty, and not be able to work in it at sixty-one.
Hal had requested Maryto say nothing about his purpose, until after he had a chance to judge for himself. So now the girl inquired about Mrs. Edstrom. There was no news, the man answered; she was lying in a stupor, as usual. Dr. Barrett had come again, but all he could do was to give her morphine. No one could do any more, the doctor declared.
“Sure, he’d not know it if they could!” sniffed Mary.
“He’s not such a bad one, when he’s sober,” said Edstrom, patiently.
“And how often is that?” sniffed Mary again. She added, by way ofexplanation to Hal, “He’s a cousin of the super.”
Things were better here than in some places, said Edstrom. At Harvey’s Run, where he had worked, a man had got his eye hurt, and had lost it through the doctor’s instrument slipping; broken arms and legs had been set wrong, and either the men had to go through life as cripples, or go elsewhere and have the bones re-broken and reset, It was like everything else—the doctor was a part of the company machine, and if you had too much to say about him, it was down the canyon with you. You not only had a dollar a month taken out of your pay, but if you were injured, and he came to attend you, he would charge whatever extra he pleased.
“And you have to pay?” asked Hal.
“They take it off your account,” said the old man.
“Sometimes they take it when he’s done nothin’ at all,” added Mary. “They charged Mrs. Zamboni twenty-five dollars for her last baby—and Dr. Barrett ne...

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APA 6 Citation
Sinclair, U. (2017). King Coal ([edition unavailable]). Youcanprint. Retrieved from (Original work published 2017)
Chicago Citation
Sinclair, Upton. (2017) 2017. King Coal. [Edition unavailable]. Youcanprint.
Harvard Citation
Sinclair, U. (2017) King Coal. [edition unavailable]. Youcanprint. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Sinclair, Upton. King Coal. [edition unavailable]. Youcanprint, 2017. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.