Owing Our Souls to the New Company Store

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, that I find myself recalling as I survey the moral soot that has descended and thickened upon the land of my birth.

The patriarch of the family, Gwilym Morgan, has come home from a day in the coal mines with his five grown sons. Usually, the stripping and washing and scrubbing with strong lye soap is a merry time, but the men are not light of heart today. Their wages have been cut. The eldest son declares that he knows why. An iron mill in the next county has shut down, and the men who worked there are desperate and are willing to work for less pay than the men in Cwm Rhondda.

“Why should the owners pay us our wages,” says the son, “when they can get the same work for less?”

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The father turns to his son with a stern look. “Because the owners are not savages,” he says. “They are men, as we are. A good workman will always earn his wage.”

But the son will not let matters go. “They are men,” he says, “but they are not as we are. They have power, and we do not.”

The son is pushing for a union, which Mr. Morgan rejects out of hand as “socialist talk.” Their impasse is not resolved.

Ford’s film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture (1941), beating Citizen Kane, is about the slow disintegration of a community exposed to the caustic solvents of avarice, self-righteousness, and hardness of heart. “The owners are not savages,” says Gwilym. But is that true? Do wealth and power threaten to make black-tied savages of us all?

I am reminded of something that happened when my father was a boy. His father was a coal miner too, as were most of the Irish and Italian immigrants in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, where I was born. Grandpa worked for the Delaware and Hudson Company, which also ran one of the most lucrative railroad lines in the east. Coal, you may know, can catch fire—that is why we dig it out of the earth. It is also sometimes found among pockets of natural gas, and slips of petroleum. In other words, when you are down a coal mine, you are working amid danger, not only of suffocation or smothering or drowning, but of being blasted to pieces, either by the charges of explosives you sometimes have to use, or by the natural combustibility of the material you are hacking at with your pickaxe.

So one day there was an explosion where my grandfather was working. The two boys next to him got clear of it and were unhurt, but the force threw him and he fractured his neck. He did not die; he was put in a neck-cast till the bones fused; but for the rest of his life he could never risk another fall.

The Delaware and Hudson Company decided that since the boys got out and he did not, it must have been his “fault.” They paid him nothing for the accident. Twenty or so years later the anthracite coal ran out, and so did the Delaware and Hudson Company owners. My father told me that they still held the land on which their defunct railroad tracks lay, and yet they paid the towns nothing in taxes. We had, you’ll surmise, little love for the men who made themselves rich from the backs and the blood and the black lungs of the miners.

“They are men as we are,” said Mr. Morgan. In some sense that was true in the Welsh village and in my boyhood town. In the film, the owners also lived in the village, and they attended the same Methodist church. The son of the principal owner actually marries Morgan’s daughter. The marriage proves to be a disaster, but there’s a fine comical scene in which the rich man calls on Morgan on a Sunday afternoon, while Morgan is reading his newspaper and soaking his feet in a tub, his trousers rolled up to the knees. We see the difference in class, but we also see one father paying his respects to another father, and inquiring whether his son might have the poor man’s permission to pay court to his daughter.

It was like that also in Pennsylvania—sheer physical proximity softened the difference, if nothing else. When a fire had damaged the paintings in the great Catholic church that the Irish miners in my town had built with their own hands, they had to come up with the funds to hire the protege of the Italian master who had painted the originals. But just at that time the mines were shut down for lack of demand from New York. So the men asked the owners to let them work down in the mines anyway, stipulating that the whole of their salaries would go toward repairing the church. The owners agreed, and then pretty much every man and boy in town went down those shafts for two weeks, giving away everything they earned. The owners also contributed, and when all of that proved to be short of what was needed, an anonymous donation—obviously from a wealthy person—made up the rest.

Another of my earliest memories has to do with the mines. My father had a record of Tennessee Ernie Ford, in his bass voice, singing the protest song “Sixteen Tons.” It is about a miner made out of “muscle and blood,” who cannot enjoy a single day of peace, let alone prosperity. You may remember the refrain:

Sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me—I can’t go,
I owe my soul to the company store.

My father had choice words for those “company stores.” At their best, they were community centers for people who lived far from any town, and they provided common necessities. But there was something insidious about how they sometimes operated. They would accept advances on the men’s paychecks. This meant, practically, that during a rough time the company store would end up as creditor to the men, who then had to work merely to pay off what they already owed; and since the company store was sometimes the only store, the prices of goods could be pretty high. So at its worst, the company store was a money-squeezing keeper of a turnpike, and a dispenser of an addiction. You had to go through it, and so much the worse for you. It kept the men dependent, morally incapacitated.

What, in our time, possesses the moral structure of the company store, without the mitigating factor of personal relationship?

We know who profited from keeping the miners poor or squalid or irresponsible with their money. The worst of the mine owners profited. Yet they could not rob all of the miners of their most precious resource. They did not rob my grandfather of his courage, his industry, the discipline he exerted over his ten children, and the indestructible religious faith of his wife. My grandfather lived with continual pain for the rest of his life, and took to drink to dull it, but they lived in a clean house, the boys and girls were brought up well, they all worked hard, and they pulled for one another. They had what George Gilder has called “moral and metaphysical capital.” They were poor; in absolute material terms much poorer than most people below the poverty line today. But if you called upon them at home you saw cleanliness and order, and there would be plenty for you to eat and drink, even if it meant (as it often did) slim pickings for the family for the next few days.

They were far from an ideal family. They didn’t have to be ideal. When you have plenty of moral and metaphysical capital, when you know right from wrong, when you order your days more or less according to the four cardinal virtues, you may be poor, but you will not be squalid, contemptible, or miserable. And at the first economic break you catch, you will rise above that material poverty, because you will be in the right moral condition to take advantage of it. I am not speaking of sainthood here, but of ordinary and ordinate human behavior. You will not owe your soul to the company store.

Now then, where are the robber barons among us, who pick not the pockets but the hearts and minds and souls of the poor, stealing that moral and metaphysical capital, profiting from the theft materially and politically, reducing their charges to moral squalor and incapacity, and removing themselves from the proximity of their clients, living upstream from the addictive filth they leach into the river? Where are the profiteers who make their clients dependent upon the only aqueduct, the only bridge, the only train, the only highway, the only store? Who have monopolistic management of the welfare of millions, and who want those millions to be weak, morally—not violent, no, but debauched, their families riddled with the most destructive vices?

Plenty of candidates, I believe. Have at it, readers.


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