In 1902 there was a major strike by the United Mine Workers of America in the great anthracite coal region of eastern Pennsylvania. The usual allies of capital and labor were involved, and the strike, which was not without some violence, lasted from May to October.
As the historical marker at the Lackawanna County Courthouse in Scranton (figure 2) states, it marked the first intervention of the Federal Government in a labor dispute, under Theodore Roosevelt.
The president of the UMWA during the strike was John Mitchell (1870-1919), and to commemorate the steps forward by labor in the strike and to commemorate the man given his premature death, a fine monument (figure 1; in greater detail, figure 2) was commissioned in 1924 from Presbrey-Leland Monuments by the UMWA “and friends” (figure 4).
We are lucky that in addition to the more “political” names like John L. Lewis the monument offers the names of the architect, Peter B. Sheridan, and the sculptor, Charles Keck. Sheridan, whom the SAH website calls “the dominant local architectural talent until World War II,” was based in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, about an hour down I-81 from Scranton. He does not yet have a web presence in his own right, it seems.
Keck, on the other hand, was rather prominent. He assisted Augustus Saint Gaudens in the 1890s and enjoyed the opportunity of a Rome Prize to work at the American Academy in Rome. If you know him outside of the Mitchell portrait it may be for his statue of J.B. Duke at Duke University.
The History Set in Stone pamphlet, a modest guide to prominent downtown Scranton architecture, seems a little confused by the role of the architect and the sculptor in the monument.
Dedicated on May 30, 1924, the bronze cast created by Hazelton [sic] architect Peter Sheridan depicts the charismatic leader of the united Mine Workers. The sculptured granite work on the rotunda and rear of the monument depict mining and family scenes.History Set in Stone, Lackawanna Heritage Valley and the Lackawanna Historical Society.
Sheridan designed the exhedra-style monument in granite and thus created architectural frames for Keck’s three major sculptures: the portrait in front; a curved scene of miners going to work in the apse behind the portrait; and a relief panel on the rear of the monument.
Keck provided sculpted models, probably in clay, to Presbrey-Leland. The latter cut all the granite pieces from Sheridan’s designs and Keck’s models. Keck’s name is prominently on the relief panel on the rear of the monument, for example. Whether P-L cast the bronze portrait or not is another matter; their 1925 catalog suggests they did (see page ii and Plate LXVI), but I’d not be surprised had they farmed it out to a subcontractor like Roman Bronze Works.
But this is all technical matter. Let’s look at the finest part of the monument, the relief signed by Keck on the rear (figure 5).
It might be overlooked as a homey portrait of a miner’s family, but to write it off as such is to miss the intense didactic realism of the work. Almost every line of the relief preaches some sort of a sermon, the bottom line being that the miners, far from being the godless anarchist or communist stooges anti-labor forces might call them, are wholesome, upstanding citizens, just like you and me, if perhaps poorer. Dignity is a central theme of the panel, too: not so much the dignity of labor, but of the laborer. It’s worth noting that though the monument looks back at the 1902 strike, it also, inevitably, must be aware of the biases implicit in the Sacco and Vanzetti affair, which preceded the monument’s construction by 3-4 years.
As I see it, the relief has three didactic centers with a bonus section at the bottom. Let’s run through them quickly, but touch first upon the key to reading the panel: the clock on the shelf behind the seated patriarch. It reads five minutes after five o’clock. AM or PM? I can think of arguments for both, but I think it’s meant to be interpreted as the morning sendoff of the men to the mines.
I start with the young male figure at the door who forms the upper vertex of the triangular composition of the relief (figure 6). He could be the oldest son who has followed his father into mining; if so, he’s cracked open the door because it’s time to leave. What awaits the men is seen through the open doorway: the coal breaker, rail cars, and other infrastructure of the mine. It’s also possible he’s Pa’s friend Charlie who always stops by the house to pick Pa up en route to the mine. I think the man’s youth in contrast to the father’s (and a certain resemblance) marks him as a son.
But see, too, that the door is notched here and there, that the plaster of the walls is worn, and even broken in substantial areas with the lathe showing through. The panel repeatedly shows the house is well kept and neat, but it also needs refurbishing these people can’t afford.
The group including the matriarch, the left-hand vertex of the triangular composition, comprises three females; an older daughter leans her head on her mother’s arm in what I take to be a gesture of care and sympathy, and a young girl nestles in the mother’s sheltering lap and clings to her mother’s sleeve, looking at the father.
The mother is a little hard to read. She has a few signs of age, such as her fleshy right arm, but her face is borrowed from the ageless ones of Greek goddesses. What I do note about her is her intent expression and slight leaning forward toward her husband, as though she’s just observed (for example) that his work is fast turning him into an old man and killing him.
She wears an apron, but her collar seems closed with a pin rather than a button: a makeshift, perhaps, getting a little more use out of a worn dress.
The patriarch is prematurely aged, at least in comparison with the mother. The light when I took these photos was good in that it was raking, bringing out texture and some detail; yet its intensity, coming from directly above, tends to obscure other details. Still, see the masterful way the carver has brought out the age in the granite, which is usually a thankless, unexpressive medium: the lines above the brow, the chiseled (literally) features with hollowed cheeks, the prominent naso-labial folds, and the strong but work-ravaged hands. The artist has juxtaposed a child’s smooth hand next to each one of his, and we see his veins superior as a result of his hard work.
In looking at the idealized female face and the worn male face one immediately remembers that Keck studied in Rome, from 1901-1904; he’s been influenced by Greek Idealplastik and Roman verism here.
The father’s look is downcast, as I read it, tired and hopeless, perhaps unwilling to start up an old fight with his wife. The artist is good enough that we might justifiably infer an entire conversation between the two carried on through their silent expressions alone.
Thanks to this man’s work and his and his wife’s unwillingness to spend on themselves (or the house), the children are remarkably fresh and lovingly kept, in well tended clothing. The younger boy is even wearing a tie, I think, with his knee breeches. The early hour is betrayed by the lamp on the table. Father’s pipe and tobacco sit next to the clock on the shelf for when he returns home. Just as the two daughters are manifestly close to their mother, the two younger sons are close to their father, the baby’s expression turned to the father, the middle son nestled in his father’s arm.
The sermon here is that these two people love their children (just like you love yours) and their children love them (just as yours love you). Hard work and sacrifice are repeatedly alluded to in the image.
The bonus section is the bottom of the relief, where there is a lot of supplementary visual action conveyed by the domesticity of the pets, but most of all by the humanizing poses of the legs and feet.
A couple of details bang home a few last didactic nails. These people are cultured enough to have a print hanging in their room: over the father’s head, a pastoral landscape in conscious juxtaposition with the dark satanic mills of the mine seen through the door (figure 10).
A sampler on the female side of this relief reinforces domesticity, but also makes the point that these are God-fearing people just like the well-to-do who perhaps judge them. It is, of course, like the father’s wall hanging, purposefully juxtaposed—this time to the cracked plaster, as if to show that an impeccable upper (or middle) class house does not necessarily make a home.
And to the right of the clock above the wainscoting is a book—one book, and it will be a Bible. I can’t see if it has a title on the spine. Everything about this relief dignifies and humanizes this working-class family, a much more successful relief than the one on the front of the monument.
I’ll finish with two fine examples of Presbrey-Leland draftsmanship and cutting, recording sayings of Mitchell’s on the sides of the apse.