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Cannel Coal Oil Days by Theophile Maher

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This autobiographical novel was actually written in 1887, discovered in 2018, and now, published for the first time. It takes place from 1859 until 1861 in the part of Western Virginia that became West Virginia two years later. The protagonist of the novel, Mr. Mark, moves from Chicago to take a job in the Elk River Valley producing coal oil for lighting and lubrication – a new industry that sprung up when whale oil supplies diminished. The novel provides important insights into this new industry and into the coming of the Civil War in the area. Mr. Mark works with a Black family to organize a Union militia to aid the secession of West Virginia from Virginia and ends when he surrenders to be imprisoned by Confederate forces to avoid a violent confrontation. Appendices provide insights into what happened after Maher’s novel abruptly ends, unfinished. “Cannel Coal Oil Days represents an artifact of great interest to scholars working in environmental and energy humanities spaces. Particularly notable is the author’s concern with the changing energy landscape in the mid-nineteenth-century US, and the impacts of coal mining and oil distillation processes on worker conditions, public health, and the environment. The book also offers a unique snapshot of the racialized dimensions of extractive industries in antebellum Appalachia. Americanists reading Maher’s novel will undoubtedly place it within a broader corpus of mining literature, energy history, and representations of environmental injustice in Appalachia.” - Matthew S. Henry.

Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2021. 162 pages with a 16-page introduction by Edward Watts, the editor as well as a Bibliography, appendices, and a few figures. Trade paperback.