Edmund Wilson: Letters to John Dos Passos

June 24, 1931
[no address]

Dear Dos:

I found Sherwood Anderson all full of Communism. He doesn’t know much about it, but the idea has given him a powerful afflatus. He has a new girl, a radical Y.W.C.A. secretary, who took him around to the mills. He is writing a novel with a Communist hero and I have never seen him so much aroused.

I spent five days in West Virginia. The situation in the coal fields is probably the most exciting anywhere on the industrial scene. The Communists are raising hell in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and in Harlan County, Kentucky, the operators have brought in the militia and are only holding the lid on by means of a reign of terror. Between the two, in the Kanawha Valley, secessionists from the Lewis organization have organized what seems to be a pretty strong independent union. [A.J.] Muste has sent them some Brookwoodites—the Brookwoodites are quite unlike Communists and superficially rather like Red Cross workers or young radical professors, but, without being particularly militant, they seem to have a lot of backbone—it takes a good deal of courage to go into that country, where shootings frequently occur and where just at present the atmosphere is full of uncertainty and suspicion, what with the authorities, the Communists, and the A.F. of L. Lately, the neighborhood of Charleston has been infested with phony miners who try to get the Musteites to supply them with Communist literature—greatly to the latter’s disgust. This West Virginia Miners’ Union is apparently about to call a strike and it will be worth watching as a 100 percent American non-A.F.of L. radical venture.

The three leaders of the union—the former miners and union organizers, not the Musteites—struck me as very sound types. They are genuine native leaders, were born there and command confidence and enthusiasm—Frank Keeney, the president, was the district head at the time of the 1920 armed march—and are old socialists, who got discouraged when Debs was jailed during the war but who still hang on to their fundamental radical convictions. The Lewis organization apparently let the Kentucky miners down, were partly responsible for bringing in the militia and handing the miners over to the operators bound hand and foot. And they are now active in West Virginia, where they have just made an agreement with some of the Northern operators for wages way below non-union rates. I attended a meeting called by the Lewis people at which half the audience were Keeney adherents and at which the different elements were so much preoccupied with watching each other and searching each other for weapons that the speakers hardly got any attention.

My next stop was Chattanooga, what with the niggers and the mills one of the most squalid towns I have ever been in. The Scottsboro case has set the town agog, insofar as Southerners of that kind can be …

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Letters

Forward with Muste March 31, 1977