“Good Journalism Is Loving Because It Cares About People” — A Speech on Journalism to High School Students

Dave Bernabo (r) interviews Bill Wnek (l) for our film, at Bob’s Lunch in Moundsville, WV.

Screening Moundsville this year has taken us to magazines, schools, libraries, old-age homes, theaters, small towns, and art galleries. My impulse in making the film was journalistic: I wanted to report an American story that everybody agreed was true. In post-film talks, I found myself having to explain, and thinking a lot about, what I think journalism is. Most people don’t really know. So when my neighbor, an English teacher at a high school in suburban Pittsburgh, invited me this spring to speak to his class, I said yes, and this is what I said:

First, don’t confuse journalism with media. You’re familiar with that: You have smartphones. Media is what you see on it.

Media is Netflix, Snapchat, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and radio, TV and newspapers. A Youtube clip by Taylor Swift, a tweet by Trump, a quiz on which Disney character you are. All of that.

I’m not here to talk about media. I’m here to talk about a subset: journalism.

Journalism is a type of media. It’s also a craft, a practice, a job, a way of looking at the world.

It’s work, driven by curiosity, integrity, a love of words and a love of the truth. It’s introducing the world to people, places, ideas and stories that don’t exist anywhere on page, stage, screen or speaker.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do journalism.

Here’s the right way: find a story that is interesting and relevant to people, and introduces the world to a new idea, person or place.

Go talk to people. Make phone calls. Present yourself honestly. Write down what people say. Be persistent. A honey badger. Take some pictures with your phone. Do some reading. Write a story. Get somebody to edit it.

Without editors, you’ll get stuck in your own worldview and language. Editors will help you write for your readers instead of for yourself.

If you make a mistake, fix it, and print a correction.

Do this over and over again. There’s a right way to do it. Like any craft, the more you do it, the better you get it.

When I was in college, the textbooks and teachers told us that the mission of journalists was to inform, entertain and educate. That’s still true.

Another mission is holding powerful institutions, especially governments and corporations, accountable to the truth.

When big institutions see more value in their survival than in people, they lie.

The Catholic church lied to protect pedophile priests, Nixon lied to protect a burglary, and a company called Enron lied to protect profits. Journalists learned the truth by talking to people.

Good journalism is loving because it cares about people.

There’s so much media out there. Read, watch or listen to journalism done by people doing this work right.

Figure this out: Are they making a lot of phone calls? Are they talking to a lot of people before they write their story? Do they work hard to make it easy to read? When they make mistakes, do they hold themselves accountable and print corrections? If they do those things, it’s journalism and you can trust it. If not, it’s some other kind of media.

You’re so lucky: This country has a great tradition of trustworthy journalism. And you get to read, watch and listen.

You know you might want to be a journalist if your worldview is driven by curiosity. Look around you. Do you have questions? Who’s in charge here? Why? How? How is this room lit? Look up. Where were those lightbulbs made? Who invented the lightbulb? Who dug up at the sand used to make the glass used to make the bulb?

In America, we’re lucky because we have the first amendment that means you’re free to try to answer these questions. Don’t take that freedom for granted.

If you want to become a journalist, do it now, for your high school newspaper. Find a story. Go talk to people. You don’t ever have to study journalism, even in college. Like I said, it’s a craft. That means that, when you get a job, somebody will teach you how do it. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get. In school, learn stuff nobody will teach you later, like Shakespeare or physics.

Journalism will continue because, done right, the work is so valuable that we’ll always figure out a way to pay for it.

Journalism will endure because we will always love stories and words, and want to know more about the truth; and we will always be curious.

John W. Miller




The Badass Life of the ‘Mother of the Civil War’ Whose Children Fought on Both Sides: A Teenage Bride, She Got a Divorce, Outlived Husbands, and Loved to Smoke.

Sarah Brandon

Now a salute to Sarah Brandon, a Moundsville woman whose 1914 obituary described her as the “Mother of the Civil War”. According to a story in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Gazette, she died at 113, and had 23 children, including 16 boys who fought in the Civil War. (14 for the Union, two for the Confederacy.) It also mentioned this fact: “She drank and smoked moderately for 90 years.”

I discovered Brandon’s story thanks to a recent mention on Twitter by University of Tennessee-Knoxville historian and Appalachian writer Bob Hutton. (He did not return a couple emails seeking comment; I’m happy to publish his comments here if he wants to add something.)

Brandon’s life story shows how early media legends were created, and illustrates in vivid detail the tough, painful lot of women in 19th century America.

A search of newspaper archives shows that Brandon was a minor media sensation in the 1900s and 1910s. Her likeness hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, and the Ohio state gallery in Columbus. Then she was forgotten. I never heard her story while researching material for our movie (which you can rent for $3.99 here.)

Moundsville town historian Gary Rider hadn’t either, but he found and emailed me genealogical research indicating that newspaper accounts exaggerated her age and number of children.

Here is the most likely truth, according to those records: Sarah Barker was born in Ohio in 1819, 16 years after it became a state. So she was 95 when she died, not 113. But still: She came into the world only a few decades after the age of Washington and Jefferson, and lived into the century of the Wright brothers, the Atom bomb, Hitler, the moon landing, and Eminem.

And this is even crazier: At 15, she married a 74-year-old man named Charles Brandon, who was born in England in 1761 and was one of the Ohio Valley’s first white settlers, establishing a homestead and fighting against Native Americans. When they tied the knot, Charles had already fathered over 20 children in two previous marriages. Together, they had 15 children. The large number of Charles’ other children explains why newspaper accounts credit Sarah herself with as many as 32 offspring.

No wonder she filed for a divorce in 1856, even though she reportedly never learned to read. In 1887, she told the Xenia, Indiana Journal that she had divorced her husband the year he died. According to descendants, he died 10 years later. In 1863, she remarried a man named William Swaney or Sweney. By the 1910 census, he was no longer around either.

By then, Brandon was getting old and newspaper reporters were flocking the Moundsville to write stories about her.

An 1887 story in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer has her walking as many as 20 miles in a day between towns on the Ohio River. It says that Mrs. Brandon was known

as a somewhat eccentric personage, and many interesting stories are told about her. Although verging on seventy years her strength and powers of endurance are remarkable, exceeding, as they do, that of the average man… In personal appearance Mrs. Brandon is striking. Six feet tall, she has the build of a backwoodsman… Her features are not unpleasant, but her countenance is marred by the absence of her right eye, shot out with an arrow by one of the second wife’s children a generation ago, in a fit of childish rage. She is unable to read or write, but in conversation is intelligent, quick witter and possessed of great will power. She is a wonderful woman and one of the few remaining links binding the civilization at present existing along the Upper Ohio Valley with the savage and bloody past.

A 1911 story from The Appeal, a St. Paul, Minnesota paper, describes her as

hale and hearty. She does all her own housework and cultivates a small garden patch in the rear of her home. She smokes a pipe constantly, favoring only the strongest tobacco. Without the pipe, she says, she grows nervous and lonesome.

The little house in which she resides snuggles against a hill within a few yards of the city limits of the Ohio River town [Moundsville], and every week Mrs. Brandon can be seen wending her way to the city for supplies of her Sunday dinner.

Almost all the stories about Brandon refer again and again to her fondness for smoking tobacco. A 1911 story from the Rutland Daily Herald (Vermont) with a Moundsville dateline discusses how her reportedly 80-year-old son Evan went to buy “the annual supply of smoking tobacco” for his reportedly 111-year-old mother. “There are authentic records to prove that she is as old as she says she is,” the story says.

Mrs. Brandon is wonderfully active and is able to do much of the work around the house and even goes into the fields and assists there. She has had the very best of health all her life and in the last 30 years has not had a suck day. She, with other women of her day, learned to smoke and today her pipe is her constant companion.

An account in the Central News of Perkasie, PA makes her sounds like a hippie smoking weed:

Mrs. Brandon began to corner the smoking tobacco market at an early age, yielding to the lure of the pipe, and for many years requiring her son to lay in an ample supply of bright, golden, burley tobacco for her own special use. She hits the pipe freely and every day and night witnesses angelic visions through the curling smoke of the fragrant weed.

Of her children who fought in the Civil War, the Rutland Daily Herald story, says, “some were killed in battle, some were wounded, while others returned home unscathed.” One story from 1911 mentioned her reportedly 89-year-old son Hiram. He “works every day in a steel mill and boasts that he was never sick a day in his life.” Her son Evan “digs coal” and “carries scars from bullet and saber wounds received while fighting for the Union in the Civil War.”

Brandon lived in an age even more divided than our own, soiled by the blood of a literal civil war that killed some of her children. Initially celebrated only as a mother of soldiers, she comes across in later newspaper accounts as somebody who, despite illiteracy, a quasi-forced marriage and a life in a society painfully oppressive to women, persisted, and died very much her own person. May we all be so lucky.

John W. Miller.

Race and the American Dream in Appalachia: The Patriotism and Pain of Gene Saunders, the Only Black Mayor in the History of a Small West Virginia Town


Viewers’ favorite character in Moundsville is almost always Eugene “Gene” Saunders, a retired coal miner and the first and only African-American mayor in the history of the Ohio river town of 8,000.

Gene is an earnest, engaging and energetic presence on the screen, and his life illuminates contradictions about America, and challenges mass-media narratives about Appalachia, a broad region encompassing 13 states and 25 million people, which tend to focus solely on white hillbillies and often obscure the role of racial minorities, including African-Americans, who have made up around 10% of the region’s population since the 1860s.

Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here) has a lot of threads, and we decided to tackle race and racism through the story of Gene, an interview with Alexis Martinez, a Latino immigrant, and the story of the mound, a monument to Native American peoples overrun by time and other enemies, and, later, white settlers, which speaks to all kinds of tensions in American life.

Gene refuses to let any of the truths about his identity and beliefs drown each other out, asserting the right we all have to contain multitudes. He’s an African-American who still suffers from the painful discrimination he grew up with in the 1950s, and a proud coal miner and American fierce in his old-school patriotism and love for his small West Virginia town and its traditional values. He’s an unabashed booster who declares that Quality Baker on 2nd Street has the “best doughnuts in the country.”

“I love America,” he says. “I think it’s the best country to live in. I love our rights, and our freedoms.”

Gene, a Democrat, says he holds old-school small-town conservative values, nostalgically recalling a time “when the neighborhood raised you.” Young people today “want an easy life. They want everything right now. We made it easy for them. Nothing like when we were kids. These days the parents want to be their friends more than their parents. They’re also telling them they’re always number one. I don’t agree with that. My parents didn’t even know what a vacation was. ”

He’s also skeptical about the benefits of immigration. “I wouldn’t have a problem with immigration if we took care of our own,” he says. “We got blacks and whites here who can’t find jobs. And it’s tough when you have foreigners who’ll work for less pay.”


Gene was born on Nov. 11, 1948, making him 70 years old. He has three living sons, 10 grandkids and six great-grandkids. He attended segregated schools. “I didn’t understand why I could play with white kids but not go to their schools,” he says. Gene and his family couldn’t go to parts of town off-limits to black people. (In the same 1950s neighborhood he grew up in, he says, lived the last surviving Native Americans, born in the 19th century.)

After the schools desegregated, Gene had to be the first to integrate baseball and basketball teams. Kids wouldn’t let him sit with them on the bus. Later, as a young adult, he struggled to find housing in Moundsville “because of the color of my skin,” he says. “It was really rough.” (Some older residents in Moundsville don’t like hearing these stories, and objected to us including Gene’s telling of them in our movie.)

Gene’s dad went to work in the coal mines when he was eight and labored underground for 51 years, developing black lung disease. He tried to dissuade Gene from following his path, but it was one of the only good jobs available to African-Americans at the time.

Gene had tried living in Pittsburgh and hated it, so he moved back to Moundsville and in 1967 got a job shoveling coal for 15 dollars a day. He lasted 40 years, treasuring the good salary and prestige. He never had lung problems, which he credits to not smoking. (His dad smoked cigars.)

I loved working in the coal mines. In 1972, I became a boss. What was tough was people taking orders from a black guy. My first six-eight years I had some hard times. People would write things about me. When I got transferred to another mine the superintendent said we almost didn’t want you down here this is a red neck coal mine. and I said well as long as these people do what I tell them to do there will be no problem.

Eventually, Gene says, he won people over by his hard work and by saving a white man’s life. What about the awful double standard? “It is what it is,” says Gene. “I chose to focus on my opportunities.”

In 2005, Gene lost part of his right leg when it was crushed by a machine.

I was in a very serious accident where I should have by rights been gone. I should have died that day. My leg was crushed. Luckily, an EMT happened to be there and saved me. I was in the hospital for over a month. They tried to save my leg. The doctor came in and said I would have a gimp leg if they could save it. I had already had nine operations. I ended up telling him to take my leg because I wanted out of the hospital.

After retiring from mining following his injury, Gene got active in city politics, running for council in 2008. “Everybody thought I was nuts,” he says. “Everybody said you’ll never elected. I thought the worst thing that can happen is I don’t get elected.” He won.

Why do voters like him? “All my adult life, I’ve always given,” he says. “I joined the Lions Club, which my dad could never have dreamed of.  I’ve been a baseball umpire in the Ohio Valley for 40 years. I’ve coached football for 40 years. All that must have helped me get elected. There are still people in town who will never vote for me, though.”

In 2012, Gene was elevated to mayor, a position he held for almost five years. The wall of mayor’s portraits in the Moundsville city building is a sea of white faces — and Gene.

Moundsville, WV city council meeting room. (Gene is second from left in last row.)

Like many people in Appalachia, Gene has children who live elsewhere. “They can’t find the opportunities in Moundsville they can in other places,” he says. Two sons live in Virginia, one a grade school teacher and the second a retired military computer engineer; and the third works in sports management at the University of Maryland.

There are only 30 to 35 African-Americans living in Moundsville, says Gene. “My wife and I might want to live elsewhere, but this is where I grew up, it’s what I’m used to. And I’m thrilled to be alive, and to have had the life I’ve had.”

John W. Miller





“They carried earth in baskets” — Virginia Tech Researcher Jordan Laney Wins Moundsville Film Poetry Contest

Jordan Laney, winner of Moundsville poetry contest

Jordan Laney, a postdoc researcher at the Virginia Tech Dept. of Religion and Culture, has won the Moundsville poetry contest.

Poet Crystal Good says she was inspired by the documentary film (which you can rent for $3.99 here) to run the competition for national poetry month in April because of the film’s treatment of race, the cyclical nature of history, and the part we gave to West Virginia poet laureate Marc Harshman, one of her favorites.

The three poems she picked as winners — all meditations around the 2,250-year-old Native American mound — “were rich and lovely and I hope you enjoy reading them,” she says.

Laney, the first-place finisher, says she “entered the contest as a challenge to myself during National Poetry Month– to be more productive and public with my work.”

The film, she wrote me in an email,

had a story and cadence that reminded me of my hometown, Marion, North Carolina and our beloved “old Wal-Mart” (not to be confused with the new Wal-Mart on I-40). The “old Wal-Mart” that I went to as a child is now half Big Lots, half vacant building and sits on top of/in front of an indigenous burial ground. I was moved by the similar emotions of different generations throughout rural America can be seen through the stories you captured in Moundsville– the ability to stay for older generations (the hope the mill and mines offered) and the struggle to return and thrive for younger generations (despite a college education). Through the film, I enjoyed being reminded of the rich material culture in our small towns and the way the present moment interacts with history through both stories and the literal ground we walk on. I’m looking forward to visiting Moundsville, WV.

Here’s her poem:

To Know

They carried earth in baskets

        high          above furrowed brows

feet in Ursa Major, dragging

onward, to Polaris

wandering, making hollers

and ridges of skylines

For supper, soft round soil

silt     clay     sand

dirt between teeth, sweet on the tongue

swallowing, to know

what it means to be

of a place in a place

to be        a place

After long days of work

water wheel planting

Pelleted fertilizer, fire

deep in good dirt

pushing life into emptiness

backs bent and dreaming

At nightfall

we closed our eyes and we ate


glutinous by nature

When baskets were empty, stomachs

swollen (all water, organic matter gone)

we carried seeds in our teeth

         blood blistered lips to the ground

speaking life         into rows

tilling      ripping

subsoil        topsoil         red soil

peat        chernozems         loess

Praying, bleeding, waiting

          drought and flood

resigning.       until only

the gathering

the discovery recovery uncovering

is left

Second place goes to Nora Edinger, a writer for Weelunk.com in Wheeling, who wrote one of the first reviews of Moundsville. (Disclosure: We had no say in the selection process.)

The Moundsville Method

They carried the earth in baskets.

One does what one can to make a forever mark.

Have a baby. Write a book.

Attract 90 million followers on You Tube.

Build a mountain where there was nothing but flatness.

Same difference.

And third place goes to Andrea Keller, a conservationist at the Grave Creek Mound and a participant in the film. (Same note as for number 2.)

Grave Creek Mound Contemplation

I stand looking up


                             Those who rest here


Three million loads of Earth

               Monumental creation


                                Those who rest here


I  wonder:

       Who will remember me

                                 When I rest

                                                       Eternally ?

All three winners will receive a free Moundsville DVD, and jewelry made by Crystal Good. Poets, she told me, “are keepers of the past, present and future. Poets look for the poem and Moundsville is full of them.”

John W. Miller

Review: King Lear as Allegory for U.S. Industrial Decline




I saw a preview last night of Quantum Theatre’s new Pittsburgh production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Carrie Furnace. (It runs May 10-June 2; tickets here.)

Lear is the story of a king gone mad in the sunset of life. Immediately, this stylish production by the Pittsburgh experimental theatre troupe hits the note in a political key: The actors march out chanting the 1931 miners’ union anthem “Which Side Are You On?” Is decline making America go crazy? Can Shakespeare help decode our moment of madness? Is Lear Uncle Sam?

The sets are two rounds — the first, industrial; the second, bucolic — carved out of the Carrie Furnace, now a National Historic Landmark and tourist attraction. The Furnace was part of a steel mill on the banks of the Monongahela river that was shut down in 1982. Within sight is U.S. Steel’s famous Edgar Thomson works in Braddock, still a working steel mill.

This production’s embrace of these themes of industrial rise and fall reminded me of Moundsville (which, yes, you can still rent for $3.99 here) and its characters’ wrestling with loss and identity.

In the program notes, director Risher Reddick makes this Rust Belt meditation explicit:

Our jobs our status, our wealth and possessions demand our attention and define us. We can come to believe that these traits are intrinsic to who we are, but what happened when one of these defining pillars of self is taken away? Who are we then? If Lear is not a king, who is he? If Pittsburgh is not a steel town, what is it?

In Lear, he continues

we witness a man stripped of everything that seemed to define him, and through that stripping, find out who he is. Painful as it is, Lear’s journey, like Pittsburgh’s, is not simply a story of loss; it is a story of transformation, redemption and ultimately, liberation. Lear’s story reminds us that in the end we gather – possession, status, relationships – we must let go, and in letting go, we find out what we hold dear.

Pittsburgh has not, in fact, completely let go of steel. From the Carrie Furnace, you can see the U.S. Steel mill in Braddock, a struggling hamlet made somewhat famous by the films of favorite filmmaker son Tony Buba and former charismatic reforming mayor John Fetterman, now lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. (Pittsburgh-based) U.S. Steel is investing $1.2 billion in refurbishing the Braddock mill and its network of plants in the valley.

My companion last night was a writer friend in his 70s who grew up in Braddock during the booming 1950s. The reason the town is poor now, he pointed out, is “not that the factory closed but that the steelworkers in the 60s moved to the suburbs. That was the cool thing to do. My family looked into it, went driving around looking at houses, but my dad liked going for walks around here, and this is where his friends were, so we stayed put.”

In an email today, my friend added:

The town’s history, from olden times to its heyday, is a great thing. It’s worth preserving and building on, in way that you can. But for present purposes we’ve got to stop looking at this place as a 20th-century mill town in decline. This is a 21st-century community with state-of-the-art, 21st-century problems, and the people here need and want to find a better future that can work out from where they are now.

Outside of Braddock, Pittsburgh’s richer, whiter parts prosper, thanks to colleges, hospitals and a rich tech sector, sprouting condos, bakers and vegan restaurants. It is towns elsewhere in Appalachia and the Midwest — like Moundsville — that are having a harder time recovering from the collapse of manufacturing, and struggling with opioids, brain drain, and the resurgence of white supremacist movements.

The Quantum production is straightforward and strong, I thought, with period costumes and classic Shakespearian acting that was mostly very good, with a few flat tones. The play’s text was edited for length. We were back in our cars in under three hours.  The flourishes come from the surroundings and a few clever touches. The fool sings her song of wisdom as a blues number. (“Have more than thou showest…) In the opening scene, Lear walks out carrying his big, heavy cape adorned with the map of his kingdom he’s about to split apart.

Lear can’t handle decline, even as he divides his kingdom between his three daughters so he can

shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.

The negotiation splits the family and ostracizes the good daughter Cordelia who refuses to “heave [her] heave her heart into [her] mouth” and falsely flatter her father. She flees and leads the French army to wrestle back control of the kingdom from her two evil sisters.

The characters wrestle with decay, what to do when

love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there’s son against father: the king
falls from bias of nature; there’s father against
child. We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our

In King Lear’s case, traveling without his crown is a journey through madness, arrogance and victimhood – “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” he says into humility and truth. The once vainglorious king is left to plead:

Pray, do not mock me:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

In the end, Lear loses the loving daughter Cordelia to civil war, and himself dies, but not before awakening to the depth of their bond and fostering, in the crisis, burgeoning wisdom from his son-in-law Albany:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Lear teaches us that loss is a trigger. The world spins. You rock. Fight. Cry. Journey. These things cannot be escaped. But we still have choices. If, like Albany, you keep your eye on reality, and love, you can hold on to something decent and sane, and keep going with a stranger strength. An old, useful truth to ponder in the shadow of a dead blast furnace that made steel for 20th century warships.

John W. Miller








Before The Star Was Born: The Legend of Lady Gaga’s Singing West Virginia Grandpa


Our story of how Lady Gaga was inspired by her West Virginia grandmother to “pick yourself up” during a difficult time is the most-read post on this site — with over 30,000 views.

People in West Virginia are proud of the family, even if Gaga’s mother Cynthia Bissett left the region for New York City in the 1970s, part of a wave of emigration described in our movie Moundsville, available for $3.99 here. (If you enjoy these posts, please consider supporting us by renting or buying the film.)

With Gaga making news this week with her stunning display of fashion at the Met Gala, it’s a good time to pass on a story we heard from readers who wrote in after our first post.

This one’s not about Gaga’s grandmother, which has been told many times– but instead a lesser-known tale about her grandfather, a man named Paul Bissett, Sr. who was a legendary West Virginia amateur crooner in the 1960s, singing at weddings, birthdays and public events.

Gaga gets her golden voice from him, people in Moundsville and Glen Dale like to say.

A woman named Mary Butler emailed me to tell the charming story of Mr. Bissett singing at her wedding.

Not only was Paul Bissett a State Farm Agent, he was gifted with a beautiful voice.  He sang in the McMechen Methodist Choir, but also in the McMechen Mens Chorus.  The chorus was directed by Ray Ponzo, bass player in the Wheeling Symphony, band director at Union High School in Benwood and later for Shadyside High School.  The chorus sang at many events around the Ohio Valley.  Paul sang The Twelfth Of Never at my wedding.  My uncle, Earl Summers, Jr. played the violin, making it a very musical wedding.

Gaga grew up in New York City, but often visited her proud grandparents. Sometimes, they would take her to talent shows, another reader wrote.

When Mr. Bissett died in 2013, his obituary noted that he was a “a very well known singer throughout the [Ohio] valley.” Amazingly, it makes zero mention that he was the grandfather of possibly the most famous singer on the planet.

Among his survivors, the obituary mentioned “his loving wife of 63 years, Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Ferrie Bissett”, and four grandchildren, including a woman named Stefani Germanotta — also known as Lady Gaga.

John W. Miller



Meet Marc Harshman, Proud Poet Laureate of West Virginia, Star of Moundsville


One of the most eloquent, defining voices in Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here) is Marc Harshman, a former Moundsville resident, grade school teacher, storyteller, children’s book author– and the ninth poet laureate of West Virginia.

Since earning that title from Governor Earl Ray Tomblin in 2012 — after the death of Irene McKinney — Marc has traveled widely around the state to support poets, novelists, journalists and other artists. “Although we are a small state, it’s hard for me to imagine any state with a greater pool of accomplished artists—painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, as well as, of course, writers,” he said in an interview with Zach Davis for Fluent Magazine.

Working with Marc was a treat. He was generous with his time when we met with him at his home in Wheeling last spring. We turned on the camera, and talked for two hours, on religion, small towns, economics, class, race, poetry, politics and American history.

Marc hit a lot of sweet, smart notes during our conversation, which is why he is featured so prominently in the film. Clearly, he had been thinking for decades about the stuff we had to ask him.

And, luckily for us, he really, really loves West Virginia, in a way that’s deep and thoughtful and true and impossible to fake.

For example, this poem is from his book “Woman In Red Anorak”, published by Lynx House, which you can order here:

after Tomas Tranströmer

Town is closed today.
Smokeless chimneys, rain-slicked and empty streets.
I don’t know why.
It hasn’t asked much of me lately.
Like a fever, perhaps, it will pass, open again tomorrow.
The sun glints on the damp pavements
and a few windows shine
in the dark face of the warehouse.

I haul myself up the ridge
to where my words race, then tumble, soundlessly
over the cliff.
I hold myself close, and listen,
and with my back to the wind,
lift my arms, and try again, say
the word feather, say the word soar.

The quiet answers with its own names.
I should do this more often,
and whether or not the peopled world below
goes on or not,
this older world remains
as these sun-drenched warblers testify
with their reedy whistling.
I should more often do, at least, this much.
I should this much do, as if even the least of us mattered.
I lift up a stone and watch it soar.
I can almost see where its feathers begin . . .

That book won the 20th Annual Blue Lynx Prize. “In Marc Harshman’s prize-winning collection,” the publisher says, “actual war, age, and disaster mingle with dream and hallucinatory sadness to produce an edgy sweetness few American poets have managed to give us.

That edgy sweetness is tinged with hope. This poem is from a book called “Believe What You Can”, published by WVU Press and available here.


The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. — Jackson Pollock

The starlings have again held their revival here.
The sidewalk below their power line pulpits
is stippled with rose and ivory starbursts.
A few linger near yet this morning, whistling,
as if they were unaware
of their art, unaware
of the limits of transcendence,
of the neighbors’ lack of appreciation
of mulberries, of art, of starlings with a purpose.

May we all be starlings with a purpose. Thank you, Marc.

John W. Miller



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


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


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



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