The Superiority of a Farmer’s Life versus that of Coal Miner’s as Depicted in John Yount’s Hardcastle
Switch County, Kentucky, is the rural area depicted in John Yount’s novel Hardcastle. Once a peaceful, rural farming community, it was transformed into a coal-mining region during the industrial revolution of the early 1900s. It soon lost its connections to subsistence farming and traded in all its positive elements for the dirty downsides of coal mining. Although Yount honestly explores the difficulty of subsistence farming as opposed to the tempting security coal mining appeared to offer in the 1930s, he concludes that farming was still a better lifestyle. By way of the events and attitudes depicted in Hardcastle, he suggests that the industrial-technological modernity that replaced subsistence farming in Appalachia left its inhabitants lacking in a sufficient quality of life – specifically in joy, pride, and basic safety. By describing life in a coal town in detail and through the eyes of a well-developed character with whom the audience can easily relate, Yount posits anything – especially farming – as a better life than mining.Though it was not easy making a living out of the rocky soil in Appalachia, many families were able to do it. Unfortunately, as the demand for coal rose, so did the demand for that land, thus it became harder and harder to hold on to (Brooks). Subsistence farmers are people who “grow what they eat, build their own houses, and live without regularly making purchases in the marketplace” (Waters). Not unlike coal mining, subsistence farming involves a great deal of manual labor. In Hardcastle, Bill Music attempts to prepare Regus for a life of subsistence farming, listing many things they must accomplish, including building and setting up rabbit gums, configuring a plow, building a hayloft in the barn, re-shingling the north wall, fixing all the fences – and that is just the beginning. When it comes to farming, “if you hope to make decent living from it, you got all kinds of work to do – little and big” (Yount 186). However, Yount casts a much more positive light on subsistence farming, creating a hopeful feeling about manual labor that allows a man to be his own boss, working to directly feed himself and his family.Unlike subsistence farming, the coal mining business is centered on making money. When coal mining began, native farmers were the first to be hired, drastically changing their lifestyles. Later, as the industry continued to grow and more labor was needed, immigrant miners and many black families flooded the towns, ready to work. This led the coal company to take over otherwise peaceful and self-sustaining towns all across Appalachia (Brooks). One system, however, that made the beginnings of coal mining so successful, was the convict lease system. In this, the states literally leased prisoners to work as unpaid miners. This provided an unlimited supply of work due to the laws of the time, which quickly put men in jail even for petty crimes (Jones). Paid miners realized the negative impact this practice had on their wages, and many strikes were organized. Some even made “audacious, nocturnal armed assault[s] on the prison compound[s] with the intent of setting the convicts free” (Jones). However, as in Hardcastle, this striking did not have a lasting effect, and the companies ultimately won. Felons from the convict lease program were even used against the striking miners to break up picket lines. Though it was finally abolished in 1892, the convict lease system allowed the cost of coal to lower considerably, making it easier to mine and allowing the operation to expand (Jones).There were other factors that made coal such a prominent industry – primarily in the South. Firstly, Southern coal was superior to Northern coal, but it was also cheaper. This was accomplished due to “the geologic location of mountain coal which made mining it easier” (Jones). In addition, trains charged less for longer rides, and so the transportation was less expensive. The biggest factor in the rise of coal that allowed the companies to take over much of peaceful farming Appalachia was the ever-rising demand for coal energy, with the increase being most dramatic in the South (Jones).Appalachia was also targeted in the industrial revolution as place in desperate need of cultural and spiritual improvement. Jones discusses the fact that “civilized” outsiders thought Appalachia was a “backward” place, inhabited by behind-the-times people. He states that: Visitors from the North identified the mountain people with other “backward people” whom the leading industrial nations at the time were seeking to develop and to whom the term “natives” was commonly applied.As coal brought attention to Appalachia, the outside world became intent upon culturally improving the mountain people, and bringing them into the Industrial Age. Saving the mountain people was also a driving force in many efforts into Appalachia, as seen in the “massive domestic Protestant missionary movement” of the late 1800s and early 1900s (Jones). In these attempts, however, no consideration was given to the fact that the residents of Appalachia did not see themselves as negatively as the rest of the world saw them, and had no desire to be improved. Throughout all of this expansion, the coal industry continued to rise. Though the market was often unstable and unpredictable, the demand for coal soared in the early 1900s with the industrial revolution. The new railroads that were being built all across Appalachia became the vital factor that led to coal’s expansion. With the railroads making it easy to transport the coal, the only thing left to do was to rip it from the ground as fast as possible. The miners worked under difficult conditions, often being injured or even killed in the mines (Brooks). They also worked for very low wages, as the companies they worked for constantly fought to under-bid one another in sales, with employee wages taking the hit (Yount 161).In addition, as the company owned everything in the coal towns, its workers accepted the poor conditions often without complaint, knowing that unions were forbidden, and “a landless miner and his family became homeless after he left his job” (Jones). Sadly, the farmers that turned to mining never saw the anticipated profit of the new coal industry. Or, as Worth Enloe explained to Bill Music, “Trouble is, fer ever operator come down here to mine coal and get rich, they was a hundred poor sons of bitches throwed down their plows and started diggin it fer him” (Yount 76).Yount considers joy an important aspect of life for the people of Switch County, as the lack of it in his characters – under the oppression of the coal company – is evident. For instance, the mining families are filled with anger at the company, knowing they are being taken advantage of, but unable to stop it. When Music and Regus are bringing around the new mining contract, Merlee Taylor greets them with such anger “that, for a moment, Music was struck dumb” (Yount 72). Her anger can be easily understood when the contents of the contract are considered. For example, Kenton Hardcastle reserves the right to throw a family out of their company housing immediately “for breaking any regulation” – especially for having anything to do with a union. Also, signing it means “wav[ing] any benefit or protection to which [one] might otherwise be entitled by law” (Yount 70). Unfortunately, the poverty-stricken people have no choice but to sign the contract if they wish to be paid or to remain living in their company shacks. The people have no respect for the man they work for, due to instances much like the signing of that contract, and so found no joy in their work.Another prime example of the lack of joy in these miner’s lives is found in how the company treats its men. When a worker is suspected of having anything to do with a union, he is automatically fired and made to leave his home – which the company provided. Not only is he told to move out of his home, but also literally finds his belongings piled onto trucks and taken away before he has a chance to move them himself. The men on the trucks then drive to the edge of the coal company’s property and the family’s possessions are “dumped beside the road” (Yount 211). As in the case of the families abandoned in Regus’s yard, the ex-miner and his wife and children are left to follow in the dust of the pick-up trucks, humiliated and homeless (Yount 212). This situation is surely sufficient to drive any hard-working man to near-insanity or, at the very least, to break his spirit completely.The coal company can break the spirit of its people many ways, some subtler than the scene played out on Regus’s lawn on “Judgment Day” (Yount 211). For example, the Hardcastle coal company does not deal generously with the families of the men that die in its mines. Merlee Taylor is a very young widow who must support her aging aunt and infant child. Kenton Hardcastle does not charge rent on the humble shack he lets them stay in, but he gives them no monetary support, though their only source of income died on his hands. Women like Merlee are left broken, untrusting, and cripplingly angry, never being sure of where they will get their next meal (Yount 72). The security the company offers is meager and easily lost, and thus is not worth the pain that working for it brings.On the other hand, when the families are thrown out of the control of the coal company, the relief and camaraderie they find in being in charge of their own life is celebrated. For example, when Squatterville is established, the men “hold Music and Regus in high regard,” and many even make a point to “apologize for thinking poorly of them in the past” (Yount 216). As the people of Squatterville find respect for those in charge, attitudes improve. Humor is even found as the citizens name their rows of tents like streets, “Easy Street” and “Silk Stocking Row” (Yount 251).Likewise, as Arturo Zigerelli explains the work he has planned for them for the union, they realize they are working for something they believe in for the first time since coal took over their town, and their “faces seem to brighten” (Yount 229). Music watches the “tough and plucky group” head to their picket line every morning and is “astonished” by their “new spirit” (Yount 251). Times are not easy, but joy has returned after leaving the coal company and now fighting against it, and that makes all the difference for these men. Even Music with his doubts about the union admits it is “hard not to feel blessed” (Yount 254).Doing the job he was well paid for, Regus is troubled, and it is clear that he “didn’t want to be a company goon” (Yount 144). Then, after quitting his job, losing his financial security, winding up with a farm full of “squatters,” and signing up for a dangerous drive to pick up supplies, his description is much more positive. As he speaks to the men about their current situation, “his face seem[s] to brighten and his vision to snap clear. ‘But me and Bill is supposed to bring back a whole truckload of grub and tucker tomorrow” (Yount 222). Now that he is working for something he believes in – though things are even harder than before – everything about him is brighter and more filled with joy. This is further proof of the soul-killing negative effect the coal industry had on Appalachia as Yount sees it. Not only is the old life of subsistence farming far better than a coal-mining life, any new life is.Though joy is considered necessary for a good quality of life, one of the most important values lost to the coal companies in Switch County is pride. Music hates being a mine guard – or, as he calls it, a “company goon” (Yount 67). He is ashamed and he knows he cannot be proud of his work. When he quits, he “[leaves] the badge, shoulder holster, and the Walker Colt on the barrel top in his room, hoping to never put them on again” (Yount 142). Yet, as Music goes out to milk the cow, Yount’s words are indicative of a comfortable peace. He talks sweetly to the cow as his mood improves while he recognizes that Ella and Regus can make it on their farm “better than any of the miners in Elkin” (Yount 143). This situation demonstrates the peace a man can have when he is cultivating the land and helping it grow, rather than tearing it apart and ruining it for a profit.There is no pride in being unable to do your job well, but that is what the farmers experience in transitioning from work they know well to working for an industry, about which they have no idea. As Gay Dickerson explains it, the farmers and black men are the ones who “mostly get killed…cause they don’t know how to mine coal” (Yount 76). Thus, not only does this switch from farming to coal mining hurt these men’s pride; it is also a major threat to their safety.The life of the families in Switch County is filthy and frightening, where they cannot even be confident in their basic safety. One seemingly insignificant threat is their poor living conditions. When Music and Regus go door-to-door with the contract, Music observes that “even the cleanest houses smell like a fart in a paper sack from the coal,” and that the coal smell is mixed with “the stink of dirty bodies…[and] the profound odor of poverty” (Yount 71). Coal dust is now known as very dangerous to breathe in, and these people were covered in it constantly.Another, more obvious threat to the people was the fear of gunfire. Many men walk around carrying guns, and especially as tension rises between the strikers and miners, “some knuckle-head [is] bound to go too far, and everyone [will] be drawn into what follow[s]” (Yount 253). When the shooting does start, the people of Switch County find they cannot even rely on their own law enforcement for protection. When the Tucker’s boy is murdered and the men go to seek justice, the Sheriff has no pity and declares: I can’t look after no red, Russia-loving troublemakers…and I wouldn’t if I could. (Yount 259)Even in the time before the union tension was a significant factor, fear of gun-toting mine guards was very real. Merlee Taylor’s husband was killed for attempting to steal a handkerchief for his wife, as Hardcastle’s wages were too meager to pay for even the smallest luxuries. As Regus explains to Music, “the son-of-a-bitchin mine guard shot him down on the spot….without further word ner caution.” No questions were asked before the shooting, and no consequences were given to the guard until another man shot and killed him (Yount 73). The shooting was on both sides, and the senselessness of it is obvious throughout the book, but this is a picture of what a town can become when the law is made by the coal companies.Although Yount does not seem to support the idea that unions can make real change, as the National Miners Union soon broke up, and its people “vanished like smoke,” he seems to say that anything which brings hope for an end to the ruthless coal empire can be used for good (Yount 284). Yes, people were killed because of the union, but if they had not come together in support of the NMU, their lives were worthless anyway, because they had a horrible quality of life. Beyond that, the best situation would be one where there was no need for the union. In such a situation, the industrial-technological revolution would have never attempted to modernize Appalachia, and its people could have continued happily in their peaceful, respectable life of subsistence farming.