Archival Gems

One of the elements that I miss from my doctoral work was the archival and historical research on the progressive era that I did on a regular basis. While I was usually searching for specific information, I regularly stumbled across little gems of information or research tracks that I never had the time to follow up. Lately I’ve found myself looking into some of the larger resources available online like the Library of Congress. I have a couple projects that are driving my work, but I’ve been coming up with enough intriguing snippets that I wanted to start collecting them here.  I hope that this will be the start of a new series of posts here. Sometimes I’ll include commentary. Other times I’ll just post the document, photo, or whatever it is I’ve stumbled across and let it speak for itself. I’ll always cite my sources in case any one else is interested.

First up is a sonnet by Katharine Warren from 1900. Originally published in The Atlantic, There’s a clear religious tone here. After reading so much radical literature during my doctoral work, it was intriguing and fitting to see this note struck in this particular poetic form.


WHERETO our labor and our bitter sweat?
The seed we sow we trample in the dark.
The flame we strike, our own tears quench the spark.
The white that we would purify we set
Our grimy print upon. And we forget
Thy ways and thoughts are not as ours, and hark
Toward what we take to be some heavenly mark,
And find we serve the devil to abet.
Then do Thou blind us, that we may not see
The measure of our own futility,
Lest, seeing, we should cease to work, and die.
Or give us sight, that we may know thereby
How through our labor, whatso end it meet,
We reach toward Thee who knowest no defeat.

Here’s the source and here are some other works by Warren.

Links 6/25/2013

For your consideration:

Verlyn Klinkenborg at the New York Times on the decline of the English major.

Lee Hutchinson at Ars Technica has the story of how NASA rebuilt the F-1 “moon rocket.”

Adam Johnson tells the story of Kim Jong-il’s sushi chef at GQ.

Finally, Atlas Obscura takes a tour of the “Ruins of Super Science.”

A Heavenwide Blast of Light

I’ve been taking in all the news and video about the meteor explosion over Russia this morning. Amazing stuff. It just goes to show just how vulnerable we are as a planet and as a species.

Neither of these videos are “new” or anything. I just wanted to post them here for posterity (and research).

And the tremendous shockwave:


More detailed information from the ever informative Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy.

[The title of this post is from the episode covering the 1908 Tunguska Event in Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day.]

Errant Reader: “The Small Rain” – Thomas Pynchon (1959)

This post marks the restart of an experiment I gave up on ages ago in the midst of graduate school. Back then any attempt at a regular series of posts about what I was reading was a bit of a wasted effort. It was, after all, a continuation of my “day job” and I didn’t see a lot of point in talking about books online when I could do it in real life with my fellow grad students every day. Given that I’m now a bit removed from my usual debating partners about literature, I thought it might be nice to revisit the idea. Oh, and give the series a better title (Textual Detritus…what the hell was I thinking?)

Given that I’m hitting the restart button I should point out some of the ground rules I’ve decided to use: first, I have some overarching goals, but there’s no set list of what I have to read for a given post. I want to keep this fun, spontaneous, and keeping with the “errant” title. I do want to do one post in the series every week. I guarantee that I will eventually miss this goal. So it goes.

What about those overarching goals? Well, this post is the start of goal number 1. For the last few years I’ve wanted to go back and read all of Pynchon’s work from start to finish. My dissertation work focused on his more recent novels and Gravity’s Rainbow. I read his work out of order though and I’ve been dying to go back and revisit everything in order of publication (or as near as I can manage). I’m starting out with the stories in Slow Learner (but crucially I’m not reading Pynchon’s Introduction to the book. I’ll get to that between Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland.) I’ve always been drawn to Pynchon’s work, and I can’t think of a better way to start out this particular series. As they say: Go big or go home.

Continue reading “Errant Reader: “The Small Rain” – Thomas Pynchon (1959)”

More Responses to CNN’s Battle for Blair Mountain

I’m a bit late on this post, but I do have another chapter of the dissertation drafted. As excuses go, that one isn’t too shabby. I wanted to continue for a little longer on CNN’s “Battle for Blair Mountain” special. Specifically I found two compelling responses online that I wanted to share.

First, Matt Wasson at the Front Porch Blog from Appalachian Voices provides a succinct look at the facts that CNN missed in its special. Wasson’s figures hit on the the issue I was struggling with in my response about the argument CNN puts forward about environmentalism versus jobs in the special. Wasson also hits on a very important issue regarding Bill Raney’s correlation/causation claim:

While Raney is technically correct that these studies are based on “correlation and not causation,” it’s a meaningless distinction for nearly every public health study ever conducted. There is no way to ever prove causation in public health studies, which is why researchers have to use statistics to tease apart trends and find evidence for – but never prove – causation. The peer-review process in science is what protects against misuse and abuse of statistics.

What Wasson points to here was something that troubled me while watching the special, but which I don’t think I did as good a job as I could have articulating why. The quote here articulates what I was trying to get at a bit better.

Wasson’s entire post is well worth a read through for these interested in the special or more importantly the important numbers the special misses.

Second, Joe Atkins provides a compelling take on the special. What I’m particularly drawn to in Atkins’ discussion is his focus on the framing of the special. Atkins here articulates something that I was troubled by in the special’s focus on the Dials. I continue to stand by my original claim that the Dials are in the right for the wrong reasons, but Atkins teases out the problems associated with the reasoning the Dials put forward. Atkins’ call for more passionate reporting rather than “balance” is intriguing and, again, the whole post is well worth a read.

Briefly, some notes for my own work: Atkins also provides two facts that had been nagging me, but that I had not found the opportunity to double check. Arch Coal was the company focused on in “Battle for Blair Mountain” but Massey Energy was also interested in mtr at Blair. This was something that I had vaguely recalled being the case.

I was also pleased to see Atkins point to Diane Sawyer’s “A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” as an example of another special that fails to focus on industrial influence in the region’s poverty. This plays into my own analysis of “A Hidden America” in my dissertation work.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that I came across both of these sources via Ken Ward Jr. at Coal Tatoo.

Says Joe

Every so often I talk back to the book I’m reading. It’s fairly similar to the movie goer who calls out to the next victim in a zombie movie. Obviously that door doesn’t lead to safety! It’s where your zombified neighbor happens to be waiting patiently (if a bit peckish). Usually my outbursts come due to glaring mistakes. The misattributed quote, the obvious attempts to convey familiarity with a geographic location the author’s never visited, the horribly misspelled name, and the incredibly wrong date (particularly when it’s an easy date to look up) have all triggered a muttered outburst of “Turn back you fool!” (More accurately a simple “Wait…what? That’s not right!”)

Everybody makes mistakes and I’m certainly no exception. This means that I hold myself to a high standard when it comes to my own work. In fact, when I do mess up I tend to feel like the zombie victim: not only am I embarrassed to be caught in the gnashing embrace of Fred T. Zombie, but I’m mortified to realize that the audience was probably rooting for the zombie since I was being dumb.

This is all a long way of getting to the real reason for my post. Today’s infraction was of the wrong date variety regarding the song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” I’m sure the zombie victim in question considered it a throwaway comment. The song was originally written by Alfred Hayes in 1925 and turned into a song by Earl Robinson in 1936. It was not performed, as the author erroneously asserts, at Hill’s funeral in 1915. It is more romantic to think that it was 1915 though. Admittedly, the book I found it in is not likely to be the first, second, or to be honest, eighteenth source anyone wanting to find out about the song would ever look up. I may have declared vigorously that the author was wrong and went straight to some books and the internet to prove it to myself, but it certainly doesn’t count as a serious infraction.

Whatever the case, I’m grateful for the mistake in the end. Besides fodder for a post here it also prompted me to listen to the song again and gain a new appreciation for the numerous versions there are of it online.

Joan Baez at Woodstock


Luke Kelly


Pete Seeger’s banjo and accompanying singers are particularly powerful given the focus of solidarity in the song. I’m also fond of the way Seeger’s version picks up tempo in the middle.


Paul Robeson’s performance of the song is in some ways my favorite. Robeson’s voice is simply incredible and I have to say that I prefer the subdued piano accompaniment here. It seems more fitting for the mournful visit from a ghost.

1913 Wheatland Hop Riot

IMG_0007 by Errant Ventures
IMG_0007, a photo by Errant Ventures on Flickr.

On August 3rd 1913 the small community of Wheatland California was transformed from a quiet farming community to the host of the largest uprising of agricultural workers that the state had seen up until that point in history. Under the ostensible leadership of the IWW the riot occurred on the third day of agitation by workers for improved working and living conditions. The riot wasn’t an unwarranted act of labor violence. The conditions leading up to the riot were part and parcel the result of truly deplorable conditions in the Durst Ranch in Wheatland. Durst was the largest employer of agricultural labor in California and in 1913 he advertised for 3,000 workers for the hop harvest. The large number of workers who heeded Durst’s advertisements found that Durst actually wanted to employ about half of the number he advertised. Aside from the poor pay the workers received, the large number of people, both those with jobs and those without, resulted in dire conditions in the camp. There was little clean water and only eight toilets to share between the thousands of workers. Disease was quickly becoming rampant among the families inhabiting the camp prior to the riot.

When the workers began to organize and make their demands known, Durst panicked. He immediately went to the nearby county seat of Yuba City and gathered up a posse of law enforcement and quickly deputized citizens and returned with them to the. As the posse arrived the workers were at a mass organizing meeting and singing Joe Hill’s “Mr. Block.” The Yuba County sheriff and district attorney, siding with Durst, ordered the workers to disperse. One member of the posse fired his gun into the air “to sober them” as he later put it in court.

What happened next is lost to history. Four men were killed in the resulting violence: two workers, the Yuba County district attorney, and a deputy. Numerous people were injured and immediately workers fled Wheatland in fear of more violence. When Jack London rushed north from San Francisco to write about the riot he claimed that the workers fleeing from Wheatland looked like the refugees of a natural disaster. The subsequent criminal trial found two IWW organizers guilty of murder, though no one had witnessed that they had taken part in any violence or even that they had been seen with weapons of any sort. They were sent to Folsom prison until their release in the early 1920s. While the IWW was mostly blamed for instigating the violence, a later investigation by the state found Durst’s negligence as an employer to have created a situation ripe for violence and for law enforcement to have acted recklessly. As Carleton H. Parker, the state’s investigator, put it in regards to the action of the posse, “Any romance which the far west had thrown around a sheriff’s posse was rudely stripped from the institution.”

All of this is preamble to the picture I’ve posted above and to the real impetus behind this post. The Wheatland Hop Riot figures briefly in my research and on a recent trip down to California I took the opportunity to stop in Wheatland and take a look at the historical marker for the riot in person. Who knows how many (or more likely how few) visitors come to the marker in a year or even a decade. After all, there doesn’t seem to be much to see. The idea to stop there mostly came about from the thought that it would be a nice photo to include in my dissertation. Upon reflection (and the always thoughtful insights of my wife) I’ve found that the marker and the area surrounding it to be particularly fitting for such a mostly ignored yet unforgettable episode.

When it was placed the marker looked out on an open field, or at least that’s what I can tell from old photos I found online. More recently the land immediately adjacent to the marker has been developed into an electrical substation. The marker’s is now nestled in a small alcove in the substation’s chain link fence, which has been rerouted around the marker. It’s a feature you can actually see on Google map’s satellite view. (I can’t help but note that the Google street view of the marker finds it neighbored by two portable toilets. Considering how significant poor sanitation was to the strike the picture is both fitting and a humorous sign of the marker’s insignificance.) What strikes me is the way that the marker is more prominent for its juxtaposition with the electrical substation. In the midst of electricity, that constant symbol of progress that feeds all of society’s technological wonders, sits a small stone reminder of labor, exploitation and violence. The marker disrupts the clean lines of the substation’s boundaries. It jabs into the side of the substation and metaphorically into the side of progress/industry/the community’s development.

Maybe I’m too invested in this particular historical event to keep from overemphasizing the symbolism at work here. There were far reaching ramifications from the riot for California, agricultural laborers and the IWW (and unionism in general). That history is fought over in texts with all the problems inherent to historiography in full display (indeed the marker itself since the nuance of the strike is overshadowed by the emphasis on the riot itself). Despite the problems with history, I prefer to have the past and events as inexplicable as the riot to stick out and frankly worry us through its prominence like this marker does. If nothing else, the marker’s presence now raises questions: What happened? Why here? (and even the inevitable) Who cares? Even when, like with the riot, the answers to these questions may never fully be answered (who killed whom for instance) they deserve to be asked and pondered over.


Elliot D. Woods has an intriguing piece up at the Virginia Quarterly Review about the mineral wealth and mining practices in Afghanistan. The piece is an excellent essay looking at the current situation and the potential of Afghanistan. I think what it misses is the larger ramifications of nearly all mining practices no matter what the social or economic climate of the region being mined. To note that Afghanistan doesn’t meet international safety standards seems to me to fall flat when compared to the mining disasters occurring in far more stable regions. Where the strength lies in Woods’ work is in his overall descriptions of the condition of the industry in Afghanistan and the response to the Pentagon’s report about mineral resources that he cites early in the essay. His piece is well worth a thorough read.

Links 2/22: Wisconsin & Related Labor Issues

New York Times reports on reactions in Wisconsin.

TPM reports on Walker’s “fireside chat.”

Here’s the video:

Huffington Post reports on a similar situation in Indiana where Democratic State Senators fled the state. TPM reports on Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels  pulling back on the anti-union legislation later in the day.

Rachel Maddow makes a case for how the dots connect in Wisconsin and nationally.

USA Today / Gallup poll shows that Americans oppose weaker unions.

Nate Silver writes about the issue of leading questions in a Rasmussen Poll showing support for Walker.

NPR on the state of the Ohio bill to limit labor unions.

Sam Stein at Huffington Post on the money Wisconsin could lose due to Walker’s proposition.