Dreiser Committee "Discovers" Aunt Molly

Writers Group Visits Appalachia to Report on Mining Conditions

The Dreiser Committee was a self-appointed group of left-leaning writers who came from the north to witness the desperate situation of striking Kentucky miners in November 1931, when the Communist-led National Miners Union rivaled the United Mine Workers of America for a dominant union role.

Officially calling themselves the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, the writers (including Theodore Dreiser, Lewis Mumford, John Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson) listened to various members of the mining communities—the oppressed—in order to learn about this vivid example of class warfare, and place it in the context of international class struggle.

In front of the group, on November 7, 1931, at a church in Bell County, Kentucky, appeared Aunt Molly Jackson to provide testimony about the tragic living conditions of her fellow Appalachian workers. She told the Dreiser Committee:

The people in this country are destitute of anything that is really nourishing to the body. That is the truth. Even the babies have lost their lives, and we have buried from four to seven a week all along during the warm weather (Harlan Miners Speak 279).

Then Jackson performed a song she had composed recently called "Kentucky Miner's Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues)." Read her full testimony to the committee and listen to the song:

Dreiser's group was so captivated by Jackson's song that they included the lyrics at the very beginning of their published report, Harlan Miners Speak. Additionally, they invited Jackson to New York City to sing her song and speak about the miners' plight.

If, as Jim Garland suggested, Jackson's participation in the Harlan strikes was exaggerated, it is still not surprising that she was singled out by the writers' group. Jackson was a compelling symbol of her neighbors' struggle: an aging miner's wife, gaunt but fierce, who had lost many friends and family members in the mines, and, most importantly, who possessed the will and the voice to tell about it.

To the Dreiser committee, perhaps shamed by what they perceived as their own bourgeois intellectual backgrounds, Jackson represented the "real" thing, the "authentic" character and voice of the people. Moreover, she was a creative font burgeoning with songs and stories—many probably embellished or stolen, but "authentic" nonetheless. New York intellectuals would soon embrace her for this very reason.

The Toothpick Incident

Though many miners welcomed the Dreiser Committee's interest in their plight, others in the community percieved the group of writers as Communist intruders.

A few concerned citizens, keeping a close watch on the outsiders, noticed Dreiser's young secretary, Marie Pergain, enter the writer's room at the Continental Hotel in Pineville one night during his visit. As a practical joke, the onlookers balanced toothpicks against the bottom of his door; the toothpicks were found untouched the next morning. After a local judge ordered an investigation of the incident and a warrant for adultery, Dreiser left town quickly, stopping in Tennessee only long enough to repudiate the charges of misconduct with the weak defense that he was "completely and finally impotent" (Taylor 28).

The Pineville Sun suggested that next time Dreiser "reach for a toothpick instead of a sweetie" (Taylor 28). Incidentally, the committee had held a confrontational interview with that paper's editor, Herndon J. Evans, just a few days before. When Dreiser had pointed out the disparity between the editor's salary and the miners' wages, Evans asked Dreiser how much of his $35,000 salary he gave to charity. The writer answered that he gave none, though he contributed to organizations and had financed the present investigation at his own expense (Harlan Miners Speak 187). The calling card above was found in the possessions of the late Mr. Evans.

 

Back to Top | 1930s New York City

 

 

AMJ with Sherwood Anderson

Aunt Molly with Sherwood Anderson, New York, 1932. Source: Welcome the Traveler Home.

 

AMJ with Theodore Dreiser

Aunt Molly and Theodore Dreiser in Pineville, Kentucky, 1931. See larger image. Source: Welcome the Traveler Home.

 

writers not welcome

As the last line of the note suggests, the writers were not warmly received by everyone in Kentucky, and Dreiser left shortly after the highly publicized toothpick incident. See larger image. Source: Bloody Harlan.