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New International, October 1935


Gerry Allard

An American Germinal

From New International, Vol.2 No.6, October 1935, p.208.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Horse Shoe Bottoms
by Tom Tippet
297 pp. New York. Harper and Bros. $2.So.

Tom Tippett’s third fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation enabled him to write his first novel about the people he knows well – the American coal miners. Zola’s Germinal, which stirred France and became a propaganda weapon for the early French trade union movement, is no longer in a class by itself; Horse Shoe Bottoms bids well to equal its distinction.

Both books were written about the coal miners of two different countries in the same era. Tippett hopes, however, to complete a trilogy on the life of the miners of this country, leading the story to more recent developments in the coal industry.

Horse Shoe Bottoms is the story of English immigrants, who settled in northern Illinois in the early ’70’s, and manned the first coal mines in that section. The struggle of the mine workers for existence, how they fought and died for an association, is powerfully and authentically recited.

John and Ellen Stafford are the central characters of the moving drama. John works from the early hours of the morning until late at night exhausting his steelly young muscles in the new slope mine. At night the couple plan and dream. One of the young mother’s aspirations is to buy a sewing machine – a dream never realized. The Stafford’s children grow up; their daddy seldom sees them happily engaged in normal childish activities.

John’s employer, Old Bill, a rough and ready Englishman, knows little about business. The newly-made coal operator confides his hopes and misfortunes to the miners, building the future of his coal mine with the welfare of the miners sincerely at heart. Then comes the steady increase in mine operations. Old Bill sells a share of his mine to absentee capital. Young, vigorous American capitalism is penetrating the Middle West. It is just a question of time when the slope ceases to be a paternal institution. Old Bill is squeezed out; the conditions of the miners grow daily worse; the hopes of the English miners in free America soon wanes. The social forces at work in the old country are at work in the newer country.

From the Ohio coal fields come tramp coal diggers to Horse Shoe Bottoms. Many of them were victimized and blacklisted for their initial efforts at unionism. As they roam the country, these tramp coal diggers perform the early ideological work of unionism. They spread the discontent of the miners and inform the men on their way of the new movement of the American coal miners – the Miners’ National Association.

Amidst the growing difficulties at the Horse Shoe Bottoms pits comes Sam Haywood of Ohio, one of the blacklisted union pioneers, who gets a job at the slope. In a short time, he has a nucleus of a union established – one of the first converts being John Stafford.

John is sent as a delegate to the Youngstown convention of the Miners’ Association. There he meets Siney and James, early mine leaders. The deliberations of the convention do to John what many miners’ gatherings have done to hundreds of coal diggers. Unionism is now deeply rooted in his blood; he returns a convinced unionist – a leader in his community.

The author, undoubtedly, has been in a mine explosion. His description of Stafford caught in a mine blast, where 39 of his fellow workers are killed, could not have been written except by one who had undergone the terrible experience of a mine explosion. Tippett in this scene reaches his greatest literary power.

The reactions of little George Dodds’ first days in the pit, after his dad gets killed, is a splendid piece of realism. Tippett is greater when he writes about the inside of a mine than when he describes a landscape. You get the feeling that you are down in a mine, swallowed in cadaverous surroundings. The peculiar smell of a shaft, the flickers of tiny oil lamps, that impenetrable darkness – you feel it all as you read the narrative.

What the bourgeois writers see as valor and honor in Knights of the Round Table and the king’s musketeers, Tippett sees in his coal diggers and their women with their uncompromising struggle for their ideal, their union; their self-sacrificing spirit, giving their lives almost consciously for the cause. Eliza Evans, midwife and all around Samaritan of the coal camp, is realistically described.

Perhaps Tippett’s greatest gift as a writer is his ability to put down, black on white, how people feel – that thing we call emotions. His power, in this instance, is to describe the emotions of human beings tossed in the turbulent waters of the class war. Throughout all the blackness of the coal mine struggles the writer sees beauty and he compares the zeal and devotion of his workers with the scenery of a northern Illinois hillside in the Spring.

The coal operators, in their lust for profits, are not spared. Their stupidity and cupidity, their barbarism against the coal miner and his family, are exposed in no uncertain terms. Tippett hates the coal operators and hates the system that breeds their kind.

Even in death Tippett’s characters have courage. John Stafford and many of his kind died directly or indirectly, victims of the struggle or the industry. But in the cause for which they gave their single lives there still lives the union and what it basically stands for.

Horse Shoe Bottoms is a powerful book. I am happy that one of our coal diggers has developed the talent to record our people’s indictment of the savage capitalist system.

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