Press & Reviews

Fresh and valuable… The Moundsville film, by Miller and Bernabo, presents the results in a way different from most other documentaries I’ve seen… worth watching. — James Fallows, The Atlantic 

Summarizes the core problem that many small cities and towns face in 21st century America. — Matt Stroud, Postindustrial

This sort of entrepreneurial revival is “one thing that’s happening in Appalachia that is not talked about enough,” says Miller. “There are young creative people doing different kinds of things, and building a new kind of future. And we’re not going back to the past. One thing the mound reminds us of is that civilizations and cultures do eventually move on, and change is inevitable.” — Bill O’Driscoll, WESA 90.5 (NPR)

The city’s rise and fall will be familiar to many who grew up in small, rust-belt towns — yet there’s something distinct about Moundsville, named for the ancient burial mound in the center of town. The Grave Creek Mound Burial Site — which dates so far into antiquity that little is known about the native Americans who built it — provides a physical and spiritual backdrop for the film. — Sean Collier, Pittsburgh Magazine 

Moundsville isn’t just a sad story… The film, indeed, presents the city in pleasant light. – Nora Edinger, Weelunk.com

Miller became fascinated with how a town built on coal mining and steel would recover after the factories closed and its residents found themselves out of work. — Sherry Greenfield, Hagerstown Herald-Mail

Any hard conversation about America’s future needs to start with a shared understanding of our past and present, free of myth and easy narrative. When you’re trying to accept and understand change, the truth always helps. — John W. Miller, Buzzfeednews.com

“Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.” — John W. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A gripping look at a fascinating West Virginia town wrestling with its past and fighting for its future, with lots of surprises along the way.” — Joe Barrett, Wall Street Journal 

“This film succeeds by allowing people to tell their own stories – with moments of nostalgia and pride interspersed with flashes of frustration and grief – just like real life. It’s hard to predict the future, but as a viewer (or reviewer, as the case may be), it’s impossible to deny that I’m rooting for Moundsville. These are good folks who certainly deserve a win.” — Tony Montana, United Steelworkers

“I feel energized by the thoughts that this movie has provoked. The way the story is told is brilliant. Communities throughout history like to think others’ success is the reason for their own woes. Rather, they need to look within to figure out how to have their own rebirth. This movie is a step in the direction of understanding.” — C. Donald Brasher, Jr., President, Trade Data Monitor, Inc.

“A provocative documentary about the economic geography of a West Virginia mountain town. It was fantastic! I’m still thinking about it.” – Dr. Bob Ross, Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA

“A lot of stories about the Heartland are depressing, bleak, hopeless — or angry. It’s more complicated than that, and this movie finds a path between the extremes that gets you closer to reality. Everyone should take the trip to Moundsville.”– Joe White, Reuters

“Fantastic! A great job showing the multiple forces driving Appalachian thinking and acting.” – Dr. Jason King, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA

“A beautiful, thoughtful, and respectful documentary about my hometown of Moundsville, WV.” – Tracey Whorton, drummer from Moundsville

“Gets to the truth of the place by leaving Trump out of conversations.” Bob Davis, Wall Street Journal

“I highly recommend this absorbing and enlightening documentary about a small West Virginia town and its travails since the halcyon days of the 1950s.” — Paul Blustein, former economics reporter for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, author of “The Chastening” and other books about global trade

Why the United Steelworkers Screened ‘Moundsville’ 

 

Pittsburgh, PA– Like most families and communities in 2019 America, the United Steelworkers doesn’t relish talking politics. Many of the union’s 1.2 million members and retirees are enthusiastic about President Trump’s agenda, especially tariff protection for U.S. industries. And an equal number, it seems, oppose the president, despairing over the President’s rightwing policies and angry rhetoric. (Traditionally, unions in America have leaned Democrat.)

For the people who manage communications at the Pittsburgh-based union, the bitterness of the Trump era has prompted soul searching about how to promote better dialogues inside and outside the USW. “We should be talking about the things we all want: a safe community, good jobs, the chance to spend time with our families,” says Tony Montana, a senior communications official at the union.

When I covered the steel industry for the Wall Street Journal, Tony was my main USW contact. Since I’ve left the Journal, we’ve stayed in touch, meeting for lunch or coffee to chew the fat. After he watched Moundsville, (which you can rent for $3.99 here), he invited me and Dave to lunch. The three of us, and another union official named John Lepley, got sandwiches and arranged to screen the movie at USW headquarters in Pittsburgh. “I think your movie may be able to help avoid politics and address issues that really matter,” Tony told us.

Over two lunch breaks this week, a couple dozen USW officials showed up, in person and remotely, to watch Moundsville and talk the issues it raises. One official, who phoned in from Missouri, said she had “never seen anything like” Moundsville, one of my favorite compliments so far. Among the questions (and answers):

How can small towns in Appalachia and the Midwest recover? (It helps to have a college, or become the suburb of a big city.)

Can manufacturing return to the US? (Yes, via small, heavily automated shops with niche markets like Shutler cabinets, featured in the movie.)

How do the people we talked to in West Virginia feel about unions? (They still like them, mostly. There’s lots of nostalgia for the unionized factory days.)

How come the characters in Moundsville “don’t seem angry”? (Because we mainly asked them questions about themselves and the history of their town.)

What’s the best way to engage people on sensitive issues like immigration? (Ask people about how the issue affects them personally. “Tell me about your friends who are immigrants.”)

Are things better in the European Rust Belt? (Kind of. The social safety net is stronger. But those regions are still struggling.)

Making this movie — my first, Dave’s 11th — was an adventure. Another, largely unexpected, adventure has been developing the social mission around it. I didn’t expect Tony’s invitation but it delighted me. Moundsville is about people and the quality and texture of their lives, and those are things we should all be talking about.

John W. Miller

IMG_8065
L to R: John W. Miller, Tony Montana, David Bernabo

 

What Appalachians Want: ‘Honorable Work at a Living Wage’ — ‘Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?’

11838905_10153977004336664_7117241055929526824_o

In a new essay, Kentucky-based writer Robert Gipe argues for a hardheaded humanist approach to tackling Appalachia’s issues. Applying the lens of national politics — an easy, entertaining method for big newspapers, website, and TV stations — usually hurts discourse. “The national political rhetoric plays on our worst selves and drives us apart,” writes Gipe in the essay, which was published Friday by the New York Times. (As regional newspapers struggle, big media bears an ever greater responsibility for careful, levelheaded coverage that brings out people’s best selves.)

As the story of Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here) shows, people in Appalachia are busy working out their future. “We still are looking,” writes Gipe, “but that is more difficult to do when we are pitted against one another.”

One answer, suggested in Moundsville, is to take Trump and other faraway figures out of the conversation and rebuild a shared narrative, based on reality and the lived experience of individuals. Yes, that narrative is messy. As Gipe points out:

Appalachia has been going through rapid, often painful changes for the past hundred years, and our communities have been working hard to rebuild our economies. Over the past decade, many of us have put aside partisan politics to work together to do what’s best for the places we live in, the places we love.

Instead of dividing the region according to its pro- and anti-Trump factions, outsiders would do well first to acknowledge the truth of what’s happened, and the basic human needs of people in the region, which, as he points out, encompasses parts of 13 states, and 25 million people.  Writes Gipe:

We all crave honorable work at a living wage. We want success tied to the success of the community. We want to be safe. We are weary of fear. We are exhausted by hate. We in Appalachia join our fellow Americans in asking: Who will encourage our best selves? Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?

One joy of making this movie has been connecting to a community of people pushing back against stereotypes, condescension and manipulative political rhetoric, like Gipe, public historian Elizabeth Catte, who wrote What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, and her Cleveland-based publisher, writer Anne Trubek, founder of Belt Publishing.

In fact, I am an outsider – my home is Brussels, Belgium – and not an academic expert on the region. I have lived in Pittsburgh (yes, that’s Appalachia, since 2011) and I am a professional journalist, and I love the region and believe there can’t be enough of the work of reaffirming the humanity of people ignored by our coastal celebrity-obsessed culture, and nudging the national conversation toward stories of earnest, interesting people who believe in hard work, honesty and keeping your word.

Another writer doing this work is The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows, whose book Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey Into The Heart of America with his wife Deb is an exploration of down of American towns from Charleston, WV, Erie, PA and Louisville, KY to Rapid City, SD, Bend, OR and Riverside, CA. (Fallows has also written two posts about Moundsville, here and here.)

In his chapter on Charleston, WV, the Fallows attends a performance of Mountain Stage, the public radio Appalachian musical variety show and talks to its host, Larry Groce.

The list of artists who had their first live-broadcast exposure to a national audience under Groce’s auspices is so long and impressive that at first I didn’t really believe it (but then I checked it out.) The performers include Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Barenaked Ladies, Alison Krauss, Ani DiFranco, Phish, Counting Crows, Lucinda Williams, and many more.

Later, the Fallows visit Groce at his house, and interview him. Groce is originally from Dallas, Texas, and has an easy time explaining his appreciation of Appalachian values. One is a lack of pretension: “A hillbilly isn’t an ignorant fool,” he tells Fallows. “He’s a straightforward, self-effacing, ‘what you see is what you get’ person. He relies on his friends because he doesn’t trust a lot of other things. He is not necessarily formally educated. But he is smart.”

Another value he names is generosity, which makes me think about the time that my car wouldn’t start in Moundsville, and Phil Remke broke away from his day to help me find a garage. Phil is the mayor of Moundsville. “I appreciate you being here,” he told me as I apologized over and over again for the bother.

Although many older people are “looking backward,” Groce tells Fallows in the book, younger people “are starting new businesses and families and projects.” In the last 10 years, “there has been a renaissance,” he says. “It’s easy to go to a place because the money is good. It’s different because you like being there. I am optimistic about this place.”

John W. Miller

 

 

 

Screening Moundsville at the Mount

54278068_10218848022255295_487625581488242688_n
Photos by Vincent Chesney and Ed Egan

Last night, we showed the movie (which you can rent for $3.99 here), at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, in Western Maryland, just south of Gettysburg. It’s where I attended college 1995-1999.  It was lovely to see former fellow students and professors who still teach there, and a thrill to present work almost exactly 20 years after I graduated. The college, because of its isolation and shared commitments, is like an idyllic small town. If I wanted to pick a professor’s brain about evolution, I could take my lunch tray and sit down next to the chair of the science department; or Shakespeare, English. They were generous, a delight for the curious, and kind.

54175277_10218848022055290_6664622030194737152_n
L to R: Dave Bernabo, John W. Miller and Ed Egan

Unlike Moundsville, this warm, stable Mount community is dependent on a few hundred decent middle-class jobs that won’t get cut if the price of X goes down. It’s no accident that many of this country’s best places to live — with nice restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores and museums, are college towns. (First rule of travel in Appalachia: Coffee follows college.)

We were asked last night about the impact of declining attendance in civic groups, clubs and churches. Those organizations are suffering in Moundsville and around the country, contributing to fraying social ties. (In a future post, I’ll explore the chicken-or-egg question of whether labor force/community or business “comes first”.) I was pleased that the dozen or so students who showed up seemed to pay attention, laughed at the funny lines, and stayed afterwards to chat. Moundsville, I think, can help explain to young people what’s been lost so they can help their parents and grandparents grieve, avoid false nostalgia and utopian fantasies, and build a better future.

John W. Miller

 

Seeing Your Own Ohio/Michigan/Pennsylvania/Indiana/Illinois/New York/Wisconsin/Iowa Town in Moundsville, WV

Mound View 1

The first time we screened a rough cut of Moundsville, for friends, my favorite reaction was from my pal (and neighbor) Matt, who grew up in a small town called Cresson, in central Pennsylvania. “I see Cresson in Moundsville,” he said. His reaction confirmed my sense that in West Virginia, we had found a wider story, and a place with an arc that matched that of hundreds, if not thousands of towns across the country but especially in the so-called Rust Belt: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, New York, Wisconsin and Iowa.

As the movie (which you can rent for $3.99 here) gets more attention, we hear from more viewers having the same experience Matt did. The economic forces that compelled companies to build factories and pay good wages in Moundsville — proximate natural resources, rivers, railroads, labor and markets in a time of national economic expansion during the rise of the 20th century consumer society — were the same that sustained Main Street prosperity around the country.

The declines triggered by a complicated mix of capitalist cycles, changing markets, free trade, private equity, the stock market, big box stores, automation, the cultural popularity of suburban living, and the internet were similar.

Their grief over increasing poverty, the brain drain, and the people who stayed feeling left behind, and desire for a savior, drove them in similar ways to vote for Trump. (And, also, Obama.) And the ways in which they now hope and confront reality, and some are trying to build something new between the cracks, are widespread.

This weekend, Moundsville received its first review in a national publication, The Atlantic. James Fallows, one of the great American journalists of his generation, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic, praised the movie for, among other things.

a completely clear-eyed understanding … of the inevitability of ceaseless economic and technological change—i.e., the absence of any thoughts on the line of, “We’ll be just fine, once the factories and the mines open back up again”

Last night, a viewer named Ken Stump posted this note on Vimeo:

Thanks to James Fallows for his mention of this documentary in The Atlantic, which is how I found out about it. I lived in a southeastern Ohio town about 50 miles west of Moundsville and Wheeling during my childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s, where my father found work in manufacturing. Today the manufacturing plants are gone, the young people have mostly moved away in search of better opportunities elsewhere, and those who stayed face the same post-industrial realities and voice the same sentiments as the characters in this documentary. I recognize their wistfulness and pride in the rich history of the place, and I admire their realism and honesty about the prospects for the future. Theirs is a dilemma faced by so many other small towns and rural communities across America’s heartland. No amount of wishful thinking or dwelling on the past will restore the region’s former greatness, but there is no obvious or easy path to renewal and reinvention either. But the underlying decency and humanity of the people shines through this film and gives me some hope. Thank you for this wonderful portrait and character study of Moundsville.

As Fallows argues in his prescient book, written with his wife Deb, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, redemption isn’t coming from Washington or any national politician. Instead, Americans can rebuild by facing reality, grieving the past when necessary, turning off their TV, and then getting to work in the places they live. That’s the journey Michele Anderson, an arts manager from Fergus Falls, Minn., describes in her excellent New York Times op-ed published this week.

Utopias don’t exist. The 20th century is never coming back. In the scheme of things, America is still a rich country, with an almost infinite number of places where you can live decently, if modestly, and build something new. The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different. And, we believe, it will be better if we can share an honest story about where we’ve been and where we are.

John W. Miller

 

“Pick Yourself Up” – Lady Gaga’s West Virginia Roots and Her Grandma’s Inspiring Words That Helped Make a Star

Lady_Gaga_A_Star_is_Born_premire
Lady Gaga at premiere of “A Star is Born” in London, September 27, 2018. Courtesy of Wikimedia. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

One of the people who left the Moundsville area in the 1970s, part of a wave of exiles portrayed in the movie Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here), was Cynthia Bissett, mother of mega popstar of the universe Lady Gaga.

Bissett raised Gaga, aka Sefani Germanotta, in New York, but her own mother, Ronnie, still lives in Glen Dale, next to Moundsville.  (The two are twinned in many ways, sharing a high school — John Marshall, which Cynthia attended — parks and other facilities.) The family doesn’t talk to the media, but Lady Gaga still visits.

“It’s not uncommon to have a Gaga sighting,” says Nora Edinger, a Wheeling-based writer for Weelunk.com, a trendy media start-up that covers the region. “You’ll hear about her popping up at Kroger, or in a restaurant.”

That happened in November, when Gaga shopped for Thanksgiving groceries at Kroger, which was reported by TMZ. She also showed up at the Later Alligator, a cozy restaurant off Wheeling’s main square, and dined with family and friends in the same room where, a few weeks later, we held a party after the premiere of Moundsville at the Strand theatre (in Moundsville.) As Weelunk.com reported:

“One of the servers who has waited on the family for years, said, ‘Susan, guess who’s in the back room?’… ‘I don’t know’ … [She] said, ‘Lady Gaga’s in the back room!’ and my heart fell on the floor!

Gaga isn’t the only celebrity with ties to the area. Country music star Brad Paisley and Hall of Fame baseball player George Brett also have roots in the northern part of West Virginia.

In a 2010 story, The Charleston Gazette quoted Becky Lofstead, who went to school with Lady Gaga’s mom.

“I remember Cindy,” Lofstead said. “We were sorority sisters. We both pledged Chi Omega back in the fall of 1972.” Lofstead remembered Bissett as being very outgoing, smart and having a flair for fashion. She was also a cheerleader.

“Cindy was just this young, beautiful brunette — everyone liked her. Lady Gaga actually looks a lot like Cindy — only blonde.” The two lived in the sorority house their junior year. Lofstead remembers Bissett was just about the only one who could cook. After graduation, they lost touch. Bissett later moved to New York and married Joseph Germanotta.

Lady Gaga herself posted this picture of her mom in a WVU cheerleader outfit.

In a 2010 Vanity Fair story, Gaga recalled visiting her grandmother during a rough patch before securing her current status as one of the greatest pop stars who’s ever lived.

“All I will say is I hit rock bottom, and it was enough to send a person over the edge. My mother knew the truth about that day, and she screamed so loud on the other end of the phone, I’ll never forget it. And she said, ‘I’m coming to get you.’” Gaga says they went to her 82-year-old grandmother’s house in West Virginia. “I cried. I told her I thought my life was over and I have no hope and I’ve worked so hard, and I knew I was good. What would I do now? And she said, ‘I’m gonna let you cry for a few more hours. And then after those few hours are up, you’re gonna stop crying, you’re gonna pick yourself up, you’re gonna go back to New York, and you’re gonna kick some ass.’”

That she did. A star was born. As the natural gas boom has wracked the coal industry, and factories have fled West Virginia in the last few decades, a lot of creative cultural energy has also left the region. But the stubborn spirit and work ethic that mined coal, hammered steel and assembled toys on the factory line live on in people like Lady Gaga, and her mother and grandmother, and the eternal wisdom that all you can ever do, really, is pick yourself up.

John W. Miller

The Inspiring Story of the Stubborn West Virginia Glassmaker Who Lost His Job at Fostoria and Kept On Making Glass

29063821_10156210217661664_8064101944263585581_o

One of the characters in our movie Moundsville (which you can watch here) is glassmaker Fred Wilkerson, Jr. (pictured above, on the right) who talks about his deep roots in the area and the closure of Fostoria, once one of the town’s main employers. The amazing backstory of how his small glass manufacturing firm got started didn’t make it into the final version of the movie, so I want to tell it here. It’s one of my favorite stories I’ve ever encountered as a reporter, all about pride, work ethic, self-reliance, stubbornness and American ingenuity.

28828152_10156210217666664_3330205037666719879_o

Fred’s dad, Fred, Sr. (left), worked for Fostoria Glass for 30 years. After it closed, and he lost his job, in the 1980s — because of imports, consolidation and people eating more off plastic and paper plates — he opened his own artisanal glass shop, in a barn of his house off a winding West Virginia country road outside of Moundsville. It focuses on making paperweight, and sells to customers in the US and around the world; it’s also done contract work for Owens Corning and Danbury Mint, and even the White House.

28828421_10156210217656664_3096158667701704591_o

Making glass was Fred, Sr.’s vocation and he wanted to keep doing it, even if the factory closed and there was no longer a stable and lucrative corporate structure around him. After a tour in the Air Force, Fred, Jr. joined him. They take commissions, attend craft fairs and sell online. “It’s often seven days a week of hard work,” says Fred Jr. “But we think of ourselves as artists.”

You can learn more about the Wilkersons and buy their glass here.

John W. Miller

What Would Barbara Tuchman Say?

Gary
Moundsville town historian Gary Rider

Our panicky short-attention span era could use Barbara Tuchman. For younger readers, Tuchman (1912-1989) was, arguably, the 20thcentury’s greatest popular historian. Her books about World War One, the Middle Ages, Israel, China, and the American revolution were paperback staples on the bookshelves of people like my baby boomer parents. Tuchman won two Pulitzers. When I was a book-gobbling teenager, my dad told me to read her, and I did.

Beyond commanding the stories of different ages, Tuchman was a deep and refreshing thinker about the current events of her day, like Watergate and Vietnam, the news in general, and her dancing crafts of writer and historian, as I rediscovered this week when I dug back into some of her books, to prepare for speeches this spring to students, teachers and union organizers about Moundsville, and related questions about journalism, perceptions of history and public discourse.

What’s so enchanting about Tuchman is that her imagination and prose match her command of the facts, and that she seems to never fall into easy generalizations, ideological traps, or nostalgia.

As “Tuchman’s Law”, she posited that “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold”, and pointed out that “persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance.”

Persistence of the normal. If you’re looking for refuge from spiraling news madness, take a deep breathe and meditate on that one.

In her forward to A Distant Mirror, her classic account of 14thcentury France, Tuchman reminds us that “No age is tidy or made of whole cloth” and that breakdowns and rebirths are normal.

When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down. Legend and story have always reflected this; in the Arthurian romances the Round Table is shattered from within. The sword is returned to the lake; the effort begins anew. Violent, destructive, greedy, fallible as he may be, man retains his vision of order and resumes his search.

In her classic 1966 essay, “The Historian as Artist”, Barbara Tuchman takes up the argument that “when you write for the public you have to be clear and you have to be interesting.” She assails the term “nonfiction” – “as if it were some sort of remainder.”

I do not feel like a Non-something; I feel quite specific. I wish I could think of a name in place of “Nonfiction.” In the hope of finding an antonym I looked up “Fiction” in Webster and found it defined as opposed to “Fact, Truth and Reality”. I thought for a while of adopting FTR, standing for Fact, Truth and Reality, as my new term, but it is awkward to use. “Writer of Reality” is the nearest I can come to what I want, but I cannot very well call us “Realtors” because that has been pre-empted—although as a matter of fact I would like to. “Real Estate”, when you come to think of it, is a very fine phrase and it is exactly the sphere that writers of nonfiction deal in: the real estate of man, of human conduct. I wish we could get it back from the dealers in land. Then the categories could be poets, novelists, and realtors.

A good historian is an artist: “What the artist has is an extra vision and an inner vision plus the ability to express it.”

This is what Monet does in one of those shimmering rivers reflecting poplars, or El Greco in the stormy sky over Toledo, or Jane Austen compressing a whole society into Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, and Mr. Darcy. We realtors, at least those of us who aspire to write literature, do the same thing. Lytton Strachey perceived a truth about Queen Victoria and the Eminent Victorians, and the style and form which he created to portray what he saw have changed the whole approach to biography since his time. Rachel Carson perceived truth about the seashore or the silent spring, Thoreau about Walden Pond, De Tocqueville and James Bryce about America, Gibbon about Rome, Karl Marx about Capital, Carlyle about the French Revolution. Their work is based on study, observation, and accumulation of fact, but does anyone suppose that these realtors did not make use of their imagination? Certainly they did; that is what gave them their extra vision.

Tuchman anticipated the analytics revolution, and saw the downside in relying on artificial intelligence to tell stories and analyze history. In a 1966 speech to the Chicago Historical Society, she mused about doing her work “in the midst of the electronic age when computers are already chewing at the skirts of history in the process called Quantification.”

Applied to history, quantification, I believe, has its limits. It depends on a method called “data manipulation”, which means that the facts, or data, or the historical past—that is, of human behavior, are manipulated into named categories so that they can be programmed into computers. Out comes – hopefully – a pattern. I can only tell you that for history “data manipulation” is a built-in invalidator, because to the degree that you manipulate your data to suit some extraneous requirement, in this case the requirement od the machine, to that degree your results will be suspect – and run the risk of being invalid. Everything depends on the naming of the categories and the assigning of the facts to them, and this depends on the quantifier’s individual judgment at the very base of the process. The categories are not revealed doctrine nor are the results scientific truth.

Humans will always be unpredictable, she concludes:

The eager electronic optimists will go on chopping up man’s past behavior into thousands of little definable segments which they call Input, and the machines will whirr and buzz and flash its lights and in no time at all will give back Output. But will Output be dependable? I would lay ten to one that history will pay no more attention to Output than it did to Karl Marx. It will still need historians. Electronics will have its uses, but it will not, I am confident, transform historians into button-pushers or history into a system.

As we push back against the temptation to do nothing but harvest data and wait for Output, reading Tuchman is a reminder that there is a persistent path to normal in writing and reading, and sober tellings of the paths that have led us here.

John W. Miller

Refuting the Stereotypes of Hillbilly Elegy With Poetry: A Review of Ryan Walsh’s Reckonings

 

American’s national crisis hinges in part on how hard it is to accept this time of change. We want progress without pain, transformation without torpedoes, and turnover without stuff we like getting turned over. The resistance brakes support for turning the page, blinds us to what’s ahead, and makes us vulnerable to fantastic promises, and offerings of utopia.

America chooses capitalism, engine of creativity, consumption, construction—and destruction. When the latter gets creative in our backyard, we act shocked. But, as diner denizen Bill Wnek points out in Moundsville, the whole point is to shut down the hometown factory “if you can get it cheaper somewhere else.” Our journey making Moundsville has led us on a close study of this fact. Few places have been rocked by creative destruction and global trade harder than West Virginia. The state wants badly to flip the script.

I was thrilled this past weekend to discover Reckonings, an elegant, subtle book of poetry by Ryan Walsh, just published by Baobab Press. The collection of 38 poems, divided into four parts, tackles Walsh’s West Virginian childhood, meditations on Appalachia, and hopes for the future. (You can buy the book here.) At a packed launch at White Whale bookstore in Pittsburgh, Walsh read, preceded by acclaimed West Virginia novelist Ann Pancake. An exciting evening of homegrown Appalachian literary buzz.

The 37-year-old Walsh grew up in Elkins, WV and near the zinc plant in Spelter, WV where his grandfather worked for 28 years. After living in Michigan and Vermont, he landed in Pittsburgh as a fundraiser and communications director for Grow Pittsburgh, a non-profit that fosters gardening in the city.

In a phone interview, Walsh says he hopes for West Virginia to remake its economy in a more sustainable way. “Industry is what people know, so it’s easier to wish that back than to do the hard work of creating something new,” he says.

His book of poems traces an arc from factory days and a childhood among the trees, free of phones and screens, to a new century of hopeful environmental activism, technological makeovers, and reckoning with America’s changing place in the world.

GHOST FACTORY

It is imprinted on me, the factory on the hill

(no more factory, no more hill).

 

Grand and silent as a church.

Rusted hulk like a breathing scab

 

I couldn’t help but touch.

Those powder hills and slag heaps

 

We raced bikes over raising dust.

DuPont dismantled the smelter brick

 

by brick then brought down the shell.

Cadmium, arsenic, lead. Shadow

 

plant rooting down like a black star

black-holing the whole town.

 

All night the ghost factory is awake

making new ghosts.

 

Somewhere someone else

will do this for even less.

 

Now wind rakes the reclaimed site

each grass blade blazing

 

and a family pulls from the creek

fish no one should eat

Walsh says he got interested in chronicling his childhood in industrial Appalachia in part after chemical company DuPont, which had owned the zinc plant, paid a cash settlement and offered medical monitoring to people who had lived near the plant, where his grandfather had worked.

His focus is on honoring the humanity of people in forgotten places. “A book like Hillbilly Elegy gets so much attention because it reinforces stereotypes,” he says. “There are colorful people living everywhere in all cultures, and the poverty as entertainment thing is tiring. Typically, West Virginia makes it in the news because something horrible happens or something seems wild enough to document.”

That, concludes Walsh, “is a different kind of extraction.”

Reckonings also addresses the challenge posed by new technologies, a world of:

Fox cries and filaments

Wi-fi and wet dreams.

 

And what did you want–

confirmation of your smallness?

You are a creature in a body

 

Little planet

your gravity

little something.

 

Fields filled with fire-

flies, bodies blinking off

across the grasses–

 

Off     on     off

through dark grasses,

indecipherable

as words on a page

in night black night

In the end, the battle is for acceptance — of that more prosperous, more polluted past, and reality as it is today, with all its hope and desolation —  and for dreams of a better future.

From the book’s last poem, THE PINES:

We’ll gather like new-day monks or moths

A fire between us

Each heart-warm friend

we reckon them one by one

Each name a bead in the bracelet

Each arrival a thanksgiving

 

In the face of the lake

stars make replicas of themselves

forgetting our names for them

 

so we can all begin

tender as children

making a new life in the trees

 

John W. Miller

When Serial Murderer Charles Manson Tried to Move to Moundsville, WV

 

 

 

In 1983, cult leader, musician and serial murderer Charles Manson was in California state prison when he wrote to the warden of the West Virginia state penitentiary in Moundsville, requesting a transfer there.

This is one of the stories about the prison that paranormal collector Steve Hummel tells in our movie, Moundsville (which you can watch by ordering here) and it’s a popular one in town.

Manson, who died in 2017, was born in 1934 in Cincinnati to a 16-year-old girl, Kathleen Maddox, who went on to live a life of petty crime. Charles’ youth was spent bouncing around West Virginia and Kentucky, including long stretches in McMechen, a small town near Moundsville in Marshall County.

Locked up in 1971, for seven murders, including that of actress Sharon Tate, he requested to be moved to West Virginia.

“Dear Sir,” he began, in a letter to the warden that’s displayed in the Moundsville pen, which closed in 1995 and is now a museum. “You may know some of my ken folks God knows they been enough of us in & out of your place. I’m a beanie brother from way back. California prison people had me in the hole for 14 years. They done told a pack of lies & built up so much fear.”

“Would you accept me at your place?” Manson continues in the letter. “I’m a good worker & I give you my word I’ll start no trouble. I’ve been in prison hallways over 30 years & never lied to you & never rated. That should count for something somewhere. Thank you, Charles Manson.”

Warden Donald Bordenkircher declined, telling the United Press International that it would be a “a cold day in hell” before he admitted Manson.

“I’m not really into Charles Manson,” Steve says in a phone call. “There were prisoners in the Moundsville pen who were a lot more violent than he was.”

At his own museum in Moundsville, “Archives of the Afterlife”, which I recommend visiting, Steve has a postcard from Charles Manson to a PO Box address in Orange, CA, with a certificate of authenticity. He texted me pictures of the front and back of the card:

 

So why the fascination in town with the Manson anecdote? “We don’t have too many celebrities associated with this area,” says Steve, listing baseball player George Brett, singer Brad Paisley and the writer Davis Grubb.

Maybe, I suggest, a small town yearns for any connection to the wider world. Steve agrees.

John W. Miller

 

USW To Screen Moundsville To Foster Better Dialogue on Politics, Economics

30425331_10156298683671664_8359647799163420097_o

PRESS RELEASE

United Steelworkers Local 3657 To Screen Moundsville To Foster Better Conversations About Politics, Economics

Pittsburgh, PA– United Steelworkers Local 3657 will screen the documentary film Moundsville for its members, the international union’s technicians, auditors and administrative assistants, over two days, March 20 and 21, 2019 and host a conversation with co-directors John W. Miller and David Bernabo.

“Many of our members and retirees live in communities struggling to establish new economic identities after factories and manufacturing jobs disappear,” says Tony Montana, a member of Local 3657 who facilitated the screening for USW. “As we begin to prepare for the 2020 elections, I think we can learn from the conversational approach John Miller and David Bernabo have taken in the documentary film, Moundsville, which examines the history and culture of a West Virginia town not far from here – but is unmistakably set in Donald Trump’s America.”

“I think the film really succeeds by letting the people of Moundsville tell their own stories,” says Montana. “They reveal what’s important to them, and we learn that they are far more than the caricatures of bigotry, bitterness and anger that we expect to find in a place where Trump received more than 70 percent of the votes in 2016.”

“Screening at USW fits squarely in the evolving social mission behind the movie,” says Miller. “There’s been too much talk about what people in small towns think about Trump, and not enough talk about the reality of what’s happened in those places, and the shape of their future economies. Healing divisions starts with a shared narrative based on reality.”

Moundsville is the economic biography of a classic American town, from the prehistoric burial mound it’s named after, through the rise and fall of industry, to the age of WalMart and shale gas, and a new generation figuring it all out. Told through the voices of residents, the story covers an arc that includes Moundsville’s Native American origins, white settlement, Marx toy plant (it made Rock’em Sock’em robots), legendary prison, first African-American mayor, post-industrial decline, and current small businesses. The constant is the 2,200-year-old mound left behind by a Native American people, a Greek chorus reciting time’s insistence on change. By reckoning with deeper truths about the heartland and its economy, without nationalist nostalgia, liberal condescension, stereotypes, or talking about Trump, Moundsville plants seeds for better conversations about America’s future.

USW Local 3657 represents the technicians, auditors and administrative assistants employed by the United Steelworkers international union to support and serve its 1.2 million active and retired members in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. Members are located throughout the country in district offices and at the USW International headquarters in Pittsburgh. Improving the way we individually communicate about important issues with the members we serve as well as each other will only strengthen our collective voice and make us more effective advocates for fairness, equality and dignity for all workers.

For more information call John W. Miller at 412-298-0391 or Tony Montana at 216-308-4798