Edward Watts discusses a newly discovered novel of nineteenth-century West Virginia

Based mostly on his own experiences, Theophile Maher’s local color novel Cannel Coal Oil Days challenges many popular ideas about antebellum Appalachia, bringing it more fully into the broader story of the United States. Written in 1887, discovered in 2018, and published now for the first time, it offers a narrative of life between 1859 and 1861 in what was then western Virginia as it became West Virginia. The novel’s protagonist, a mining engineer, works closely with a Black family to organize the local abolitionist mountain folk into a Union militia to aid in secession from Virginia.

We talked with Edward Watts, editor of WVU Press’s edition of the novel, which will be published on August 1.

Tell me about how you discovered the manuscript, and about your personal connection to it.

The 390-page manuscript for my great-great-grandfather’s novel Cannel Coal Oil Days, handwritten on a series of steno pads in 1887, was given to my mother by members of another branch of the Maher family. I found it among her papers after her death in 2018. I read it and decided to pursue editing and publishing it, not only as a means of preserving family history, but also because, as a literary historian, I saw its value in the traditions of realism, Appalachian fiction, abolitionist and Civil War narrative, and mining history. My family still owns the Michigan land that Theophile bought, and stay in his daughter’s cottage there.

When people hear “coal” and “West Virginia,” they immediately have certain ideas.  But what’s cannel coal?

Cannel coal is a soft malleable coal found throughout the Ohio River Valley. While its only current use is hand-molded sculpture in arts and crafts, in the middle of the nineteenth century its distilled oil was developed as a replacement for whale oil in lighting American homes. Over-fishing had made whale oil scarce and Victorian-era homes had been fitted with oil burning lamps and chemical and mining engineers such as Theophile set to work on producing safe, clean, inexpensive, and non-odorous oil for that market. As with other elements of the extraction industries, problems with the environment, labor, and transportation plagued the cannel coal industry, especially in antebellum West Virginia. Eventually, other oils proved more convenient but even those became irrelevant after Edison developed incandescent lighting. Cannel Coal Oil Days depicts the development and improvement of mining and distilling techniques in the era but does so in service to a more compelling narrative of a community’s emergence.

What do you think today’s readers interested in Appalachia might take away from this book written over a hundred years ago?

That their region has an interesting and diverse history, an image too often left out of the history books which favor images of ignorant white mountain folk living in squalor. Maher’s semi-autobiographical account attests to literate and informed settlers, education and religious organization, Black and white cohabitation and collaboration, and a consistent awareness of the need to preserve the natural beauty of the region. Appalachian women—enslaved, middle-class, or struggling—contribute to family and community decisions. Finally, I hope readers will take away something from the novel’s account of how Charleston and the Elk River region resisted and finally rejected Richmond’s politics to become part of West Virginia, its own free state. Maher’s depiction of the mountain folks’ rallying to abolitionist and Union causes reminds us of the complex legacy of an American region.

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