How 9-11 Shaped Writing a Book About King Coal
As for me, I get the “dangerous” part—I encounter it all the time in the simplistic understandings of history that pervade popular culture and everyday discourse. Yet in the course of writing my first book, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War (Harvard, 2008), I’ve also come to understand that present-mindedness is not only inevitable to the writing of history, but also vital to it.
My book uses the tools of environmental and social history to probe the troubling interrelationships of fossil-fuel dependency, inequality, and violence. Killing for Coal is set in the southern Colorado coalfields from the 1870s through the great coalfield war of 1913-1914, the deadliest strike in U. S. history. In ways I never anticipated, though, the book also became something of a meditation on the world in which it was written—on 9/11, the Iraq and Afghan Wars, the oil crisis, the George W. Bush administration, and my own complicated and confused efforts to sort out my commitments amidst these trouble times. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t see how Killing for Coal could have eschewed presentist concerns and still fulfilled my idea of responsible scholarship.
Consider first the timing: On September 10th, 2001, I found myself taking stock after a grim, multi-month slog through thousands of pages of published and archival reports detailing three decades of fatal “accidents” in and around Colorado’s coal mines. Collectively, these documents detailed how well over one thousand men lost their lives in the course of sating the Rocky Mountain West’s prodigious energy hunger. Some mine workers, I learned, were crushed flat like pancakes, others were blasted to bits in massive mine explosions such as the trio of blasts that killed almost 250 workers in the annus horribilis of 1910, and still others were poisoned as carbon monoxide stealthily slipped first into their workrooms, then into their bloodstreams. By nightfall on September 10th, I had already written several sections of a dissertation chapter exploring the mutually-constitutive interactions between nature and labor that shaped what I had begun to call the mine “workscape,” a term I coined to encompass and encapsulate the multitudinous ways in which coal miners and mine environments shaped each other. By the end of the 10th, I had a full outline for my next section, a composite portrait of mine explosions narrated through the heart-rending stories of rescue, recovery, and reckoning that followed every disaster.
I’ll always remember September 11th as a day I rose expecting to have to deal with one kind of tragedy—safely distant, manageably contained within the contours of outline and notes, yet unsettling nonetheless--only to have another, seemingly boundless in its horror, erupt instead. I was living in Denver, and no one I knew well was killed in the attacks. Yet still it took me more than a week to get back to work. When I finally started to write again about coal-mine disasters, I quickly realized that current events were impelling me to write about past explosions in new ways.
The “facts” of these underground disasters had not changed, of course, but their meanings had shifted irrevocably. My outline had cast mine explosions as epitomes of the dangerous, dynamic relationships between mine workers and natural processes that made Colorado’s collieries perhaps the most deadly workscapes in all of industrializing America. But I was still struggling to figure out what the perilous underground world could tell me about the violent strikes that periodically convulsed the surface world above. Taking in the unfolding response to 9/11, however, I began to see a bigger picture. As the Bush administration and a largely compliant Congress declared all-out war against a vaguely defined “terror,” I, like many of my fellow citizens, became convinced that a more fruitful way to understand the causes and consequences of 9/11 necessarily involved reckoning with America’s oil addiction and the political economy of petroleum. In the process, I began to comprehend that the rise of fossil-fuel dependency in the Rocky Mountain West and the quotidian conflicts between mine workers and mine operators over underground workscapes could best explain why Colorado, once a frontier periphery, rapidly became an epicenter of industrial struggle.
Parallels, in short, began to strike me wherever I looked—not easy analogies or facile equations (“this is just the same as that”), but connections and resonances. Most frequently these adopted the form of questions. As I responded to the invasion of Iraq by the U. S.-led “coalition of the willing,” by marching in protests declaring “No War for Oil,” I began to wonder whether fossil-fuel consumers in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era had ever understood themselves to be complicit or responsible for either the workplace fatalities or the labor wars that afflicted Colorado’s coal-mining hinterlands. As current debates about sustainability helped me see the manifold ways in which energy from petroleum had become embedded in the sprawling megalopolis of California’s Southland (where I landed my first tenure-track job after completing my dissertation in 2003), I began to wonder how coal power had suffused earlier urban forms and the class divides these forms mapped onto the landscape of Colorado’s Front Range. And as I witnessed the emergence of a “green economy” which promised deliverance from the sins of industrial modernity via mindful, guilt-free consumerism, I began to notice the links a remarkable Quaker entrepreneur, General William Jackson Palmer, had made 140 years ago between economic growth, social harmony, and the enjoyment of nature.
Such dialogues between past and present helped me finally to accept that we historians can gain nothing better than an obstructed view of our subject. I once held fast to a heroic conception of History—singular, capitalized, glorious in its elegant totality. And though I think this conception pushed me to undertake some worthwhile tasks—bringing together environmental history and labor history, for instance—it ultimately let me down. Paying attention to the ways in which current events changed the questions I asked about the past has helped me to understand just how much our vistas onto the past will always remain bounded by the limits of our sources, the conventions of available narrative forms, the constraints of our imaginations, and, not least, the preoccupations of our changing times.
Someone—I believe it was Wallace Stegner--once compared writing history to running a three-legged race. In his novels, Stegner could range free. In his many historical works, by contrast, this lion of the western literary scene found himself tied on one side to what he could know about the past. For me, all the beauty and power of Stegner’s metaphor is contained in that middle “leg,” that lashed-together lump in which the limbs of past and present can either strain unproductively against each other, or stride ahead in close coordination.
To historians, this race never ends. At some point or other we have no choice but to stop running so that we can bring our projects to some arbitrary finality. In the mean time, the world moves on. The three-legged race shifts course, and we struggle to adjust. That is where I find myself right now--looking back on a nine-year slog that overlapped almost entirely with the Bush-administration, a dark book shaped by dark times, and hoping with no little trepidation that despite spiraling economic inequality, accelerating global climate change, the financial crisis, and all the other challenges facing our nation and our world, that the next four years can nonetheless help us all to craft some brighter histories.
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Bill McWilliams - 1/19/2009
I think we have his answer!
It sounds eerily similar to what passes for
CW (conventional wisdom) about all such government black operations: "the very notion is undeserving of a comment".
Bill McWilliams - 1/15/2009
One wonders what the article's author would have said if he knew and acknowledged that 9/11 was an inside job.