While researching The Breaker Boys, I was delighted to find that American author and journalist Stephen Crane wrote in 1894 of his visit to a coal mine. Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is my favorite Civil War novel. It was praised by Civil War veterans for the extreme realism of its battle scenes – but Crane was too young even to have fought in the war! So I was excited to read what he’d say about the breaker boys after observing them up close and personal:

“These little men were a terrifically dirty band. They resembled the New York gamins in some ways, but they laughed more, and when they laughed their faces were a wonder and a terror. They had an air of supreme independence, and seemed proud of their kind of villainy. They swore long oaths with skill.

“… Work ceased while they tried to ascertain if we were willing to give away any tobacco. The man who perhaps believes that he controls them [the breaker boss] came and harangued the crowd. He talked to the air.

“... When they get time off, they go out on the culm heap and play baseball, or fight with boys from other breaker or among themselves, according to the opportunities.

“… Meanwhile they live in a place of infernal dins. The crash and thunder of the machinery is like the roar of an immense cataract. … They have this clamor in their ears until it is wonderful that they have any hoodlum valor remaining. But they are uncowed; they continue to swagger. … ”

     It’s no coincidence that my breaker boys resemble the ones Crane observed – not the pathetic, downtrodden victims of contemporary lore, but the ones with the “hoodlum valor”: independent, swaggering, and proud.

     Click here to read the whole article from McClure’s magazine, including Crane’s colorful description of the miners he meets when he goes underground.


Stephen Crane meets the breaker boys