William Trent Pancoast and his Triptych for the Working Class

 – A Review by Nick Gardner

When reading about work, and by work I mean hard manual labor, and by this I mean hacking in the coal mines, servicing cars, running a factory press, and by this I mean coming home dirty, sore, and growing older only to find that the work has left lasting damage, a permanent stoop or carpal tunnel, arthritis — when reading about this type of work, and especially the near feudal system of industrial economics, I often cringe and scowl. But I can’t give up reading.

William Trent Pancoast tells real stories of real work. They are grungy, wild, and often violent. They are something anyone can relate to, with love and hate and characters who live and breath… but these stories can also be relentless. They sucker-punch you, knock you to the ground, and kick you till you can’t feel the kicks anymore, till the pain is finally replaced by outrage.

I decided to read William Trent Pancoast’s oeuvre in a week. I had read Wildcat before and much of his short fiction so I knew they would be quick reads, all but Crashing taking only a 4-5 hour stint. I moved through the books in the order that Pancoast presented them to me over the last couple years: Wildcat, Crashing, and most recently, The Road To Matewan. I wanted to see if there was something deeper that tied these varied stories together. What emerged was a new understanding of this subject of work.wildcat

First, I reread Wildcat, a story featuring a General Motors stamping plant as its protagonist. It is set in fictional Cranston, Ohio and proceeds as a series of short biographies and vignettes about the characters that work at the plant. As the reader learns the history of the factory through the lives of the workers, through PTSD, amputations, alcoholism, and the general alienation and disassociation of industrialization, there is also a sense of the factory as a whole, the people being only members of the factory body. If the machines are muscle, the laborers are the vital organs, performing specific functions to urge the factory on. The union serves as ligaments holding the workers together with the management, and the building houses them all. Through this series of symbiotic beings, the factory struggles, overworked by its general managers, CEOs, and the capitalistic structure in general to always produce more, to win a race with no definite finish line. Finally the workers give up and the factory topples. In GM’s death throes, the owners survive, jeering at an empty cement slab. Continue reading

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​William Trent Pancoast: an excerpt from the novel The Road to Matewan

A note from the editor:   William Trent Pancoast will give a reading from his newly published novel The Road to Matewan at Main Street Books in Mansfield, Ohio on Friday, April 7th, 6-8pm. The novel can be purchased at Main Street Books.


 

In late May 1920, the news spread quickly of the gun battle in Matewan in which Sid Hatfield and several other men had taken on the Baldwin-Felts detectives. It was a victory for the miners. Hatfield was the police chief of Matewan. The Baldwin-Felts men were from a Bluefield detective agency that supplied some of the strike-breakers and guns-for-hire for the coalfields. The detectives had just finished evicting a group of miners from their camp homes, a task that Hatfield refused to undertake. Few men could fight the operators on their own terms. Fewer still could stand up to Sid Hatfield, who shot coins out of the air with his forty-five. How it all started remained a mystery, but seven of the feared Baldwin-Felts men were dead, five with bullet holes in their foreheads, and the Matewan Massacre became a story to be told and retold in the tent colonies that sprang up in the mountains.

Richard was on the first train through after the battle. “Folks were quiet but you could see their pride that someone had finally stood up to the Baldwin-Felts men,” he told Thomas during a June visit after he was laid off from the railroad. “I’ve never seen a war up close, but that’s what this is.”

The tent colonies housed the striking miners, who had, with the help and money of the United Mine Workers, in April struck all of the southern coalfields to settle their grievances once and for all. It made no sense to the southern West Virginia coal miners that they were the only ones in the country not to have the benefits that the union could bring them; they were finished living under the feudal system dictated by the companies. Southern West Virginia had become a battlefield. Continue reading