Cape Breton Gothic: a cultural history of the coalfields

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University of New Brunswick


Cape Breton Gothic is a postmortem. At some point after the ink dried on Sheldon Currie’s Miners’ Museum (1995) and before Mayor John Morgan issued his out-of-nowhere resignation (2012), the heart of the Island’s mining culture ceased to beat. As a self-styled coroner, I determined the cause of death. In the autopsy that I performed, I isolated two pathogens that, when combined, proved fatal. The first was the trauma wrought by coal mining itself, a job that claimed the lives of 1,321 colliers, maimed thousands more, and did irreparable damage to the psyches of their families. The second was the hypertrophying of the honor ethic. The ethos of honor and shame is an attribute of scarcity-driven economies like that of the Gaels, who peopled the coalfields. The hallmark of honor culture is belligerence. The storm-the-barricades approach to civic life that it entails was adequate during the Coal Wars (1909–1925). But by the new millennium, it had degenerated into the knee-jerk pugilism of toothless labor unions and a quixotic lawsuit, launched by the regional municipality against the provincial government (2004). As an interdisciplinary study, Gothic uses a number of theories and methods to trace the etiology of the killing disease. From Gothic Studies, it borrows Freudian theories of trauma and repression; from anthropology, it borrows Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic capital; and from social psychology, it borrows Nisbett and Cohen’s experimental ethnography of Appalachian violence. As for its methods, Gothic uses archival research to exhume the bones of the Island’s fascist crisis (1938–1940), and it uses narrative inquiry to join sixty-seven interviews into a nonfiction novella of the area’s underclass and its “prominent citizens.” Cape Breton Gothic is, above all, a corrective to the hagiographies of Acadiensis historians. I have planted my flag at the horrific end of the historical spectrum, not to dismiss the standard narrative but to elongate its arc and to re-problematize it. Somewhere between the romance of David Frank and the Sturm und Drang of yours truly, there is a shadowland where future historians might write a subtler version of Cape Breton’s story.