Based mostly on his own experiences, Theophile Maher’s local color novelCannel Coal Oil Dayschallenges many popular ideas about antebellum Appalachia, bringing it more fully into the broader story of the United States. Written in 1887, discovered in 2018, and published here for the first time, it offers a narrative of life between 1859 and 1861 in what was then western Virginia as it became West Virginia.
Cannel coal (a soft form of coal whose oil, when distilled, was competitive in the lighting oil business after overfishing reduced the whale oil supply) was at the center of one of Appalachia’s first extractive industries. Using the development of coal oil manufacturing in the Kanawha valley as its launching point, Maher’s semiautobiographical novel tells of a series of interrelated changes, each reflecting larger transformations in the United States as a whole. It shows how coal oil manufacturing was transformed from an amateurish endeavor to a more professional industry, with implications for Appalachian environment and labor. Then, Maher foreshadows the coming Progressive Era by insisting on moral and environmental reforms based in democratic and Christian principles. Finally, he tells the story of the coming of the Civil War to the region, as the novel’s protagonist, a mining engineer, works closely with a Black family to organize the local abolitionist mountain folk into a Union militia to aid in the secession of West Virginia from Virginia.
Edward Watts is professor emeritus of English at Michigan State University. He is the author or editor of many other books in American studies, most recently Colonizing the Past: Mythmaking and Pre-Columbian Whites in Nineteenth-Century American Writing.