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. Read More »
Praised by Kirkus for its “impassioned and hard-fought sense of self and place,” Joanna Eleftheriou’s This Way Back—a highly anticipated memoir-in-essays from West Virginia’s series In Place—will be published October 1.
If you live, as I do, in a world where an overabundance of food is more a plague than hunger, you might be given to scrutinizing ingredient lists, and so have seen the words carob bean gum before tearing the plastic wrapper from, say, an ice cream sandwich, or the foil from a tub of cream cheese. Small quantities of carob bean gum do the trick, and so this natural stabilizer appears at the ingredient list’s end, the part that even serious health food nuts expect to find uninterpretable (for me, it’s a list of plants I can’t quite place, and words I remember from high school chemistry). Carob bean gum sounds harmless, natural, salubrious, even—beans healthier than meat, carobs healthier than sweets—and, indeed, harmless the carob bean is. Such harmlessness is all most of us want to ascertain when we venture into the ingredient list’s largely chemical tail. I have never made the effort to learn what lecithin is, though I often see the word—ditto for guar gum, potassium sorbate, xanthan, and xylitol. There is a limit to how much thought we can devote to the origin of our foods, to their ingredients’ history.Read More »
J. L. Anderson’s Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in American History is on its way to bookstores and available now from our website and online retailers. A contribution to WVU’s publishing program in environment, agriculture, and food politics, the book is—according to Mark Essig, author of Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig—“the story of how pigs made America, and how America remade the pig.” In this piece drawn from his research for the book, Anderson looks at how consumer preferences and waste practices have intersected with health concerns about pork over the course of US history.
Fifteen or so years ago a waiter at a fashionable restaurant asked how I would like my pork loin cooked. “I beg your pardon?” I replied. The server clarified that I could have it prepared rare, medium, or well-done. Of course I knew about the different temperatures for preparing and serving meat. The problem was that for me, born in the 1960s, the very question was absurd. Pork was cooked until done or it wasn’t. People who grew up in my era knew that consuming rare pork was a health risk.Read More »
When did the 1980s begin? One of the arguments The Argument about Things in the 1980s makes is that such a simple question is quite hard to answer. If it’s worthwhile—as I think it is—to frame the 1980s as part of a longer “age of neoliberalism,” it’s tricky to pinpoint the exact origins of that era.
But something certainly happened in the 1970s, and Carter’s famous speech is an example of it: the intensification of a centuries-old argument about things in American life, in which Americans debate the proper place of material things in their existence. It’s as old as the Puritans—older, in fact—and Carter’s speech is a great illustration of what one tradition within it can look and sound like.Read More »