Smile Politely

John Griswold and A Democracy of Ghosts

John Griswold, Senior Lecturer of English at the University of Illinois, published a novel called A Democracy of Ghosts in 2009; I didn’t discover it until recently.  As previously covered in Smile Politely, Griswold also publishes other types of writing on the Internet under the pen name of Oronte Churm, but A Democracy of Ghosts is my focus here. 

A Democracy of GhostsA Democracy of Ghosts is a work of historical fiction about the Herrin Massacre, an event that took place in 1922 in the small city of Herrin in Southern Illinois.  The Herrin Massacre occurred after scab workers were brought downstate from Chicago to work a strip mine where United Mine Workers of America union members were on strike.  On the day of the massacre, union miners, along with area citizensincluding childrenchased, tortured and shot strikebreakers.  Nineteen strikebreakers were murdered.  Afterwards, hundreds of local people showed up to view their bodies.  Some people were respectful, while others spit on the bodies and cursed them.  Trials were held later on, but no one was ever convicted of anything. 

Griswold was in a unique position to write a novel about the massacre since he grew up in Southern Illinois and because he had a relative involved.  Griswold writes on his website, “My maternal grandfather, William J. Sneed, was the model for A Democracy of Ghosts‘ protagonist Bill Sneed, an auto-didact and incomplete genius who rises from child miner to state senator and United Mine Worker district president.  Sneed is, arguably, in charge on the day of the massacre.”

Griswold responded to my questions by email. 

SP: From A Democracy of Ghosts, where a pro labor politician reflectsbefore the massacreon how a violent incident in Southern Illinois might affect the labor movement: “If the Socialists ever regained their power, this event would be moot, just another heroic step along the path, and claiming one’s part in it would be advantageous.  If capital got the upper hand, they’d portray Herrin in the media as a lunatic fringe, and labor would blame Herrin for dashing the hopes of working people forever.”

The Herrin Massacre ended up horrifying much of the nation and President Harding described it as a “shocking crime, barbarity, butchery, rot, and madness.”  How did it ultimately affect the course of the labor movement and the reputation of Southern Illinois?

JG: I’m not a labor scholar or professional historian, so I can’t speak to the event’s direct effect on labor today. But it certainly added to the tensions within the movement at the time and probably deepened the rift within the union between those who wanted to work with capital to make gains for workers and those who did not. That splintering of political will and all the dirty tricks and violence that came with it didn’t help anybody, unless it was corporate mine owners.

There was and still is emotion from the Massacre, even if it’s only in the region. In the 1940s my mom tried to check into a nice hotel in St. Louis and was told they didn’t want those “Bloody Williamson [the county Herrin is in]” types in their establishment; she called her dad, a former senator, who apparently set the manager straight. And in the 1950s, when my Aunt Ruby accidentally drove the wrong way up a highway in St. Louis, and the cars swerved and honked to save her life, she leaned out her window and bellowed, “I’m from Herrin, by God!”

The Herrin Lions Club in 1951 passed a resolution that these historical matters “should be…forgotten by our own press as un-American and undemocratic.” And last year while I was researching my nonfiction book on Herrin, I met a very sweet old woman in the library who, when she discovered what I was doing there, said tartly, “None of that should be dredged up.”

I’ve never met anyone outside the region who knew the story of the Massacre, but there’s always been the sound of whispering about it in my hometown, and a somewhat tragic sense that the sins of the fathers led to the town’s economic downfall. The event possibly led to a boycott of the region’s coal by some northern industries, but it seems to me the bigger problems were a nationwide coal depression the year after the massacre, the global financial crash at the end of the decade, and the subsequent Great Depression, which hit Southern Illinois incredibly hard. In the ’50s Herrin had an economic upturn; several manufacturers came to town after long courting by the chamber of commerce. But as Herrin goes, so goes America: Those factories closed and the jobs went elsewhere. None of that had much to do with the Massacre or the gang wars that came immediately after it.

SP: From A Democracy of Ghosts, where average citizens torment strikebreakers: “The crowd taunted and spit on the six bleeding men until a consensus was reached that they should be forced to crawl down Stotlar Street to the cemetary a mile away as a symbol of something.  They had just crawled fifty feet when the mob got impatient and told them to walk.  Young boys raced around the edges of the crowd and competed to find bigger pebbles to throw, until someone had to tell them to stop because it was pitiful to watch boys get that excited and struggle with rocks they couldn’t even pick up.”

To me at least, the descriptions in your book of how average citizens of Southern Illinois participated in the massacreeven indirectly, by spitting on the bodies of murdered strikebreakers, and so forthare more disturbing than the heartless greed of the mining companies.  Did you intend for the reader to feel the way I did?  Did you expect it?

JG: The absentee mine owner was a fool who was warned against shipping coal during this strike by everybody from his peers to the state National Guard commander. He did it anyway, and the blame for what happened is at least partly his. But it’s harder to portray a sense of horror at a guy taking luncheon at the Great Northern Hotel in Chicago. Disgust, perhaps, but mostly he’s just removed, a mere idea in the mind of the people suffering through the event.

The book is about four fictional couples in Herrin, and most of all I wanted to develop an understanding of them. As a result the novel doesn’t restrict itself to those few hours of the massacre; readers also witness weddings, a longtime marriage, an affair, memories of war, political ambition, hard and dangerous work, ethnic community, good food, a rugged landscape, the love of children, the loss of a child, and more.

What happened after the nonunion men inside the Lester mine lay down their arms and surrendered to the union men and their supporters qualifies as a massacre, no matter how strongly you feel about workers’ rights. I’ve borrowed heavily from historical accounts, and to be coy or squeamish about them would be a kind of immorality in the writing, I believe. As I often tell creative writing students, straightforward showing is often more emotionally powerful than prose that gets hyper-excited in the telling.

What happened that day in 1922 was a mistake. I wanted readers to feel it was a mistake, even to feel sick regret, shame, and guilty defensiveness, as the characters do. I hope there’s a strong enough connection that when the “we” narrator pulls a little postmodern trick and implicates readers in the violence simply because they read of ita kind of complicit voyeurismreaders feel something then.

Coal MinerSP: From A Democracy of Ghosts, where a character reflects on what a politician is saying in a speech: “He moved into the ‘equitable society’ idea that Bully thought was fading and talked of unity in the face of absentee owners who would use machinery to double production and halve the workforce, the same heartless efficiency of the Great War, which many of those present had witnessed in all its carnage.”

The Herrin Masssacre came just a few years after World War I and some of the striking Southern Illinois miners had served in the war as soldiers.  It’s also worth noting that the coal industry was booming during the war, but was not as strong afterwards.  What connections, if any, can be made between World War I and the Herrin Massacre?

JG: The epigraph for the novel is extracted from D.H. Lawrence’s “Erinnyes,” which appeared in Some Imagist Poets, a 1916 anthology:

“So many ghosts among us,
Invisible, yet strong,
Between me and thee, so many ghosts of the slain.”

Lawrence has in mind the goddesses of retribution against murder and perjury, subjects that apply to my novel. He’s concerned with how the quick and the deadespecially those killed in angerwill ever reconcile once they’re back together. What’s needed for atonement?

I had this idea of war abroad coming home to haunt us long before I found the poem. It must be a common theme in history, sociology, and anthropology. How could it be otherwise? Maimed vets walking the streets in their hometowns, the dead and their remembrances in the media: It’s as true now as it was when I was a kid during Vietnam, or for those after World War I.

And surely violence on that scale cannot be simply shut off like a tap. People are trained in destruction, and the populace inured to its effects. We don’t often add that to our calculations for war but should.

SP: From A Democracy of Ghosts, where a xenophobic Chicago strikebreaker reflects on the largely domestic affiliations of both labor and corporate during the conflict in Southern Illinois: “What really got O’Rourke was that these were Americans on both sides of this thing.  In Chicago the constant waves of newcomers made it hard to tell who belonged sometimes, but he was pretty sure it was foreigners causing most of the trouble.”

Strikebreakers who were murdered were imported to Southern Illinois from Chicago.  Moreover, in Southern Illinois, many felt that the northern part of the state didn’t care as much as they should about the southern.  Can an argument be made that the Herrin Massacre rose from tensions between Northern and Southern Illinois, or was it pretty much a universal labor versus management type of thing?

JG: All history is local, a popular saying goes. Of course north and south had something to do with it. Southern Illinois was the first part of the state settled, and for a while, the richest. But in a way that mirrors the national north-south divide, Chicago grew into an industrial powerhouse while the rest of the state continued to take its identity from farming or mining. The economic and therefore the political power shifted northward in the nineteenth century and has resided there ever since. Even now there’s a Facebook group for Southern Illinoisans who want to break away and create their own state. But as much as it was north-south, it was a class war.

SP: From A Democracy of Ghosts, where a strikebreaker from Chicago is imagining how he could sell Southern Illinois to a romantic interest: “Sandstone formations in whimsical shapesa camel, the Sphinx, Woodrow Wilson’s facesilhouetted against the sky on bluffs in the heavily-wooded hills.  The natives called that area Garden of the Gods.  They also had a place they called Giant City, streetlike paths among naturally-square sandstone boulders the size of houses, where Civil War deserters had hidden and scratched their names over ancient Indian drawings in the rock.”

You’re from Southern Illinois, and I’m guessing you miss the natural beauty of the region now that you live in Central Illinois.  What else, if anything, do you miss?

JG: Everything I miss stems from the landscape. In Southern Illinois, or anywhere else there’s contour and variety, I get a sense of shelter and comfort, like a fox with somewhere to hide. My family spends a lot of time at Meadowbrook Park because the trees, prairie grasses, and creeks offer some of the same feeling. But there aren’t many places like Meadowbrook around.

There’s a prose sketch by Melville called “John Marr” that’s about a sailor from the East Coast moving to what I take to be Central Illinois. He compares the landscape to the desolation of the sea, except it’s frozen in its motion and therefore more isolating. Southern Illinois is different not only for its limestone hills and great forests; it’s also called “The Land Between the Rivers,” and when I was a kid I always understood that those two great rivers, which come together an hour south of Herrin, flowed out to the sea, so the rest of the world was within reach. Just perceptions, but you asked.

On the plus side, the accents in East-Central Illinois aren’t too different from those of my childhood, and the people are equally warm. And I can still get biscuits and gravy, so it often seems like home.

SP: From A Democracy of Ghosts, where a strikebreaker, who was also a combat soldier in World War I, reflects on the nature of war in general (at least I think that’s what he’s reflecting on): “A war eats everything, like some monster brat.  But life goes on anyway, so whatever it ate up wasn’t worth much to begin with. Not in any sense that matters.”

Viewed from the perspective of 2010, how does the Herrin Massacre “matter”?

JG: That vet, Prochnow, likes to “dope off,” a habit he picked up in the war. Being high probably makes him more stoic about loss than I suspect he usually is. As far as the labor conflict goes, he’s from Southern Illinois, has worked hard all his life, and expresses genuine sympathy for the plight of the miners even as he prepares to battle them. He knows both sides have enormous stakes in the outcome, and he fully understands that these things matter to the death.

As do I. All things will pass away, as the good book and George Harrison say, but only if you take the cosmic view. If we’re alive, then human rights, dignity, and the means to self-determination always matter, past, present, and future. The Herrin Massacre is a good lesson in that.

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