What Charles Dickens Wrote When He Saw the Mound, and Present-day Moundsville, West Virginia, in 1842

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In 1842, Charles Dickens, already a literary superstar at age 29, traveled to America, a journey he recounted in his travel book, American Notes for General Circulation.

Dickens’ travels to Washington, Boston and Pittsburgh are familiar to 19th century literature lovers. Less know is his impression of what is today Moundsville, West Virginia, the subject of our recent documentary film. (Which you can still rent for $3.99 here.)

On April 1, Dickens took a steamer on the Ohio River, bound for Cincinnati. A bit after leaving Pittsburgh, he passed by present-day Moundsville, then known as Big Grave Creek.

“There are few places where the Ohio sparkles more brightly than in the Big Grave Creek,” he wrote.

Like later visitors, including me and filmmaker Dave Bernabo, Dickens was touched by the region’s deep Native American past, and the haunting echoes of a people pushed aside.

The very river, as though it shared one’s feelings of compassion for the extinct tribes who lived so pleasantly here, in their blessed ignorance of white existence, hundreds of years ago, steals out of its way to ripple near this mound.

The mound seemed to deepen Dickens’ awareness of the wider tableau of American history over time, and how the technological majesty of industry conflicted with the beauty of the country’s rich natural landscapes, which now included the ancient mound.

Through such a scene as this, the unwieldy machine takes its hoarse, sullen way: venting, at every revolution of the paddles, a loud high-pressure blast; enough, one would think, to waken up the host of Indians who lie buried in a great mound yonder: so old, that mighty oaks and other forest trees have struck their roots into its earth; and so high, that it is a hill, even among the hills that Nature planted round it.

Dickens had been a fervent supporter of the US; this journey changed his mind. “I am disappointed,” he wrote. “This is not the republic of my imagination.” In particular, he was disgusted by slavery, especially the sight of an African-American family being broken up for sale.

He really hated Washington, DC. The capital, he said, was the site of

despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; and cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers.

Reading Dickens’ writing from this trip is another reminder that in America, the tension between angelic ideal and human reality – the proper German psychological word is Weltschmerz – has always been a necessary burden.

John W. Miller

VOTE — and SHARE This Post — to Lift Moundsville, West Virginia from 13th into Top 10 of USA Today Best Historic Small Town Contest — Voting Closes May 6 at Noon EDT

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Moundsville, West Virginia (subject of our movie, which you can rent for $3.99 here) is still in the running for USA Today’s “Best Historic Small Town” contest, but there are only 5 days left until voting closes next Monday, May 6 at noon EDT.

You can’t see the leaderboard anymore, but last we checked, Moundsville was in 13th place (out of 20).

Moundsville needs your vote — cast your vote here — every day until May 6. You can also help by sharing this post and encouraging your friends to vote.

Let’s give Moundsville and West Virginia a boost and help get the town into the top 10!

Moundsville is one of 20 contestants, along with places like Granbury, Texas; Mackinac Island, Michigan and Willamsburg, VA. It’s the contest’s only town in West Virginia.

Here’s what USA Today says:

The town of Moundsville is home to one of West Virginia’s most fascinating historical attractions, the West Virginia State Penitentiary, dating back to 1876. The town also serves as the gateway to the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex, one of the country’s largest conical burial grounds and a National Historic Landmark.

A panel of experts including travel writers Eric Grossman, Marla Cimini and Gerrish Lopez, and Deborah Fallows (co-author of Our Towns: A 100,000 Journey into the Heart of America with James Fallows who recently reviewed Moundsville in The Atlantic), and Anna Hider of Roadtrippers chose these towns because they have “big histories and small populations – fewer than 30,000 people as of the last census – making them fun and affordable ways to dive into our nation’s past.”

John W. Miller

“Moundsville” to Screen at Row House in Lawrenceville, Friday, May 3 at 7.05 pm

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(PRESS RELEASE)

Pittsburgh, PA—Row House Cinema (4115 Butler St, Pittsburgh, PA 15201 in Lawrenceville) will show Moundsville on Friday, May 3 at 7.05 pm.

Filmmakers John W. Miller and David Bernabo will make a short presentation before the 74-minute movie.

You can book tickets ($10) on the cinema’s website

See www.moundsville.org for trailer, info, articles, and options to rent/buy.

Moundsville, which has been shown in New York, Pittsburgh and Moundsville, and is available to rent or buy online, 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.

Row House Cinema is a single-screen theater in the historic Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Each week it selects a new movie theme. Its concession stand features natural popcorn with real butter & pure sea salt. In addition, it sells tasty chocolate popcorn, craft beer, locally made ice cream, pepperoni rolls, hot dogs, popsicles, coffee, tea, as well as vegan options.

For more information, contact John W. Miller on 412-298-0391

Moundsville Screening at Aull Center in Morgantown, Thursday, April 25 at 7pm

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(PRESS RELEASE)

The Aull Center in Morgantown presents a free, public screening of the new documentary film Moundsville on Thursday, April 25 at 7pm. The screening will be followed by a Q&A and discussion with the filmmaker John W. Miller.

Moundsville, which The Atlantic called “fresh and valuable” (and which you can rent for $3.99 here), is the 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. By reckoning with deeper truths about the heartland and its economy, without nationalist nostalgia, liberal condescension, or stereotypes (or talking about Trump), Moundsville plants seeds for better conversations about America’s future. More at moundsville.org

The Aull Center is a branch of the Morgantown Public Library established in 2004 and dedicated to local history and genealogy. It’s located in the historic Garlow House. The house was built in 1907 and was home to the family of Aaron J. Garlow, president of the Second National Bank. Researchers are welcome to explore collections of books, photo albums, yearbooks, and a plethora of family histories. The Aull Center is also home to the J. D. Rechter Holocaust Memorial Library and a portion of the Appalachian Prison Book Project collection. It serves the public as a research center and forum for discussing the past. More at https://www.theclio.com/web/entry?id=45157

LOCATION: 351 Spruce Street, Morgantown, WV 26505

TIME&COST: Thursday, April 25, 7pm. Entry free & open to the public.

MORE INFO: John W. Miller (412-298-0391) re Moundsville;

and Nathan Wuertenberg (nathan.aullcenter@gmail.comor 304-292-0140) re Aull Center

Moundsville Named as West Virginia’s Entry in USA Today Contest for “Best Historic Small Town” — Vote Here (Once Per Day) Before May 6

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USA Today is holding a contest for “Best Historic Small Town” in the country, and Moundsville, WV (subject of our movie, which you can rent for $3.99 here) is one of the 20 contestants, along with places like Granbury, Texas; Mackinac Island, Michigan and Willamsburg, VA. (Full list here). It’s the contest’s only town in West Virginia.

Cast your vote here.

Here’s what USA Today says:

The town of Moundsville is home to one of West Virginia’s most fascinating historical attractions, the West Virginia State Penitentiary, dating back to 1876. The town also serves as the gateway to the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex, one of the country’s largest conical burial grounds and a National Historic Landmark.

Votes are due by May 6, and you can vote once per day. The ten winning small towns will be announced on Friday, May 17.

A panel of experts including travel writers Eric Grossman, Marla Cimini and Gerrish Lopez, and Deborah Fallows (co-author of Our Towns: A 100,000 Journey into the Heart of America with James Fallows who recently reviewed Moundsville in The Atlantic), and Anna Hider of Roadtrippers chose these towns because they have “big histories and small populations – fewer than 30,000 people as of the last census – making them fun and affordable ways to dive into our nation’s past.”

John W. Miller

 

 

 

April is National Poetry Month: Write a Moundsville-Themed Poem, Win DVD, Jewelry, Publication — Hosted by Affrilachian Poet Crystal Good

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West Virginia poet, activist Crystal Good. (Photo by Renee Ferguson)

For National Poetry Month, we’re holding a Moundsville-related poetry contest with African-American Appalachian (“Affrilachian”) poet Crystal Good. Email her your poem, to crystal@crystalgood.net. The winner, to be declared in May, will receive a free Moundsville DVD, a custom piece of Good’s sassafrass jewelry, and publication and promotion on this website. Submissions (which are free) are due by April 30.

To help, Good wrote 17 Moundsville “prompts”, short ideas intended to start or suggest a poem (if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you can rent it for $3.99 here):

  1. How to pronounce my hometown.
  2. A man/woman shouts “Top Of The Mourning” or “Morning” to you from a hill. Your response.
  3. The day you lost your job.
  4. Listen to this and write about your favorite childhood toy.
  5. Rockem Sockem Robots. The Red is one industry (coal) the Blue another (gas). Commentate the “fight”.
  6. You’re walking by a prison to get an icecream cone…
  7. Imagine you are a child being raised in a town by a ghost, a prisoner, an ancient “indian” and a pioneer frontier settler.
  8. A lullaby by Charles Manson’s mother.
  9. Tell the story about (you name them) who got drunk in the bar on top of an Indian Mound and rolled down. Spoiler: He dies.
  10. Write about your first ______.
  11. You are the Mayor of _______ville. (insert your name).
  12. First line: They carried the earth in baskets.
  13. Write a bilingual poem. One language is: West Virginia/Appalachian
  14. Take up a collection of words.
  15. You find a bone.
  16. What do old people eat?
  17. You meet a woman crying. You ask her why. She says: For labor.

An acclaimed activist and poet based in Charleston, WV, Good is the author of “Valley Girl”, a book of poetry. In 2013, she gave a thought-provoking Tedx Talk entitled “West Virginia & Quantum Physics” which posited that whether you think her state is “alive or dead” depends on the observer.

She tells me she likes Moundsville‘s treatment of race, its meditation on the cyclical nature of history, and the voice given in the movie to Marc Harshman, West Virginia’s poet laureate. “Marc is a fantastic poet and human,” she writes me in a follow-up email. This month, she plans to read his book “Believe What You Can”, which “explores the difficulty of living with an awareness of the eventual death of all living things”. Poets, says Good, “are keepers of the past, present and future. Poets look for the poem and Moundsville is full of them.”

She counsels not to be intimated by National Poetry Month — “a delightful way of dread if can dread can be delightful.”

The month creates anxiety in me to do the thing I love, write. The cause? Traditionally in writers circles the month challenges poets to write a poem a day. I have yet to write a poem a day in any month much less April. I do however enjoy the month by reading new poems as the month opens the door to so much poetry.

This year, says Good, “I have decided to write 30 poetry prompts for myself. The idea was sparked while receiving Moundsville.”

Besides email you can also find Good on Facebook (Crystal Good) or on Twitter @cgoodwoman

John W. Miller

PS: Here’s my entry:

Ville-Mound

Build and tell, show and burn

Towns ancient and modern 

All these stories in order

Fire the glory recorder

Spirits linger below and above 

We’re still trying to sort it out, love

 

 

 

 

WVU, 100 Days in Appalachia To Screen Moundsville (Free&Open to Public) Monday, April 8 at 7pm at WVU in Morgantown

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(PRESS RELEASE)

The Humanities Center of West Virginia University and 100 Days in Appalachia present a free, public screening of the new documentary film Moundsville on Monday, April 8 at 7pm at WVU in Morgantown. The screening will be followed by a Q&A and discussion with the filmmakers, David Bernabo and John W. Miller.

Moundsville, which The Atlantic called “fresh and valuable” (and which you can rent for $3.99 here), is the 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. By reckoning with deeper truths about the heartland and its economy, without nationalist nostalgia, liberal condescension, or stereotypes (or talking about Trump), Moundsville plants seeds for better conversations about America’s future.

More at moundsville.org

The Humanities Center at West Virginia University cultivates critical humanistic inquiry, fostering innovative, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and publicly accessible scholarship and teaching to benefit the common good of the University, the state, and the world. Website: humanitiescenter.wvu.edu

100 Days in Appalachia (100daysinappalachia.com) was born the day after the 2016 election in response to the national narrative that reduced the region to a handful of narrow stories. Its mission is to share the diverse stories of Appalachia, which stretches from the Rust Belt to the Black Belt, by working with local voices to apply a cultural lens to what’s happening in our backyards and share what that means for the rest of the world.

LOCATION: Media Innovation Center on the 4th floor of the Evansdale Crossing Building, 62 Morrill Way, Morgantown, WV 26506

TIME&COST: Monday, April 8, 7PM. Entry free & open to the public.

MORE INFO: John W. Miller (412-298-0391) re Moundsville;

and Ashton Marra (304-838-0540) re WVU and 100 Days in Appalachia.

Free Screening of Moundsville at Wheeling Jesuit University on Monday, March 25 at 630 p.m.

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Wheeling, WV– The Moundsville documentary film will screen in the CET Recital Hall at the Wheeling Jesuit University at 630 p.m. on Monday, March 25. After the movie, the filmmakers will answer questions and lead a discussion.

You can find details about screening location and other information here.

The screening of the 74-minute film is organized by the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University. Although Moundsville is a secular movie, and there’s no overt discussion of religion or church in the movie, the film shares with religious thought, and in particular Catholic social teaching, its intense focus on the deeper truths of people’s lived experience.  In particular, it discusses how the community has changed over time, and how people in this classic American industrial town are coping with changes in economic fortunes.

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.

The Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University promotes research, service, and advocacy for and with the people of Appalachia to build healthier, stronger, and more sustainable communities. Rooted in Jesuit tradition, the Institute facilitates objective conversation around topics pertinent to the region, including: public health, environment, energy, culture, and community development. The Appalachian Institute carries out its mission by coordinating service and experiential learning immersion trips for several high school and college groups across the country, facilitating student and faculty research and engagement opportunities, and presenting public forums and workshops throughout the academic year. The Appalachian Institute also manages sustainability programs on WJU’s campus.

 

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

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