Kyle Crichton: Peale's Most Famous Son?
It seems as if author Kyle Crichton, born in Peale in 1896 (and died in New York City in 1960), was quite the character!
Kindly quoted from The Writer in Pennsylvania, 1681-1981
Kyle Crichton was part of the literary migration that drifted into New York in the 1920's. He arrived in 1929, was hired by Scribner's as a book editor (he worked under the legendary Maxwell Perkins), and, shortly afterward, disillusioned by the 'evils' of capitalism (the country was in the throes of the Depression), joined the Communist Party. Crichton, a big man, was immensely likeable. (Writing in Newsweek, Burton Rascoe said, "Kyle is about the same height and a bit heftier than Gary Cooper. If you had ever hooked an elbow with him, you'd say, 'There's about as nice a guy as a man would want to meet'.") For the next thirty years he was a member of the New York literary set. Stanley Walker described him as a perennial "ornament and a lively one, at the better cocktail parties, at luncheons big and small, and high-powered conclaves in the homes of his acquaintances.
During the 1930's Crichton was, politically, very outspoken. While still associated with Scribner's and, later, with Collier's Weekly, he wrote for the Daily Worker and the New Masses. Writing under the name "Robert Forsythe," he turned out article after article - generally about contemporary personalities - that held firmly to the 'party line.' (He was not paid for his efforts). Two books evolved from his leftist connections - Redder than the Rose (1936) and Reading from Left to Right (1938). The first of these, an assault on contemporary capitalism, was a collection of essays on the American scene, college presidents, William Randolph Hearst, Broadway successes, best sellers, and H.L. Mencken. Writing in the New Republic, Kenneth Burke said: "Redder than the Rose should gratify with its deftness, sophistication, and clearly demarcated point of view.... The Author is infused with the belief that 'gangsterism is only a lesser phase of the gangsterism of Big Business." And Forum commented: "The Bourbons and Babbitts will naturally disapprove of Mr. Forsythe. But unless their sense of humor has atrophied they will also be reluctantly entertained." In Reading from Left to Right Crichton brought together a number of articles he had written for the New masses - articles on a diversity of topics. In its review of the book the Boston Transcript wrote: "Here and there, through this book of editorial clippings, he does stick his pen into the bubble personalities of contemporary writers, movies, sports, and the like - and then the book rises out of the odorous and scarlet-colored mire of Radicalism and becomes genuinely interesting." The New Yorker commented: "Left Wing slings and arrows. Some hit their mark, some don't, but all are vigorously thrown." During the next twenty-two years, Crichton wrote other books - novels, biographies, and 'entertainments' - but his reputation as a writer of unusual force and impact rests principally on these two books.
Kyle Samuel Crichton, the son of William Crichton and Margaret Nelson Crichton, was born in Peale, a town in Pennsylvania's coal-mining country, on November 6, 1896. Before he became a writer, he was a coal miner, a turret-lathe operator in a machine shop, and an open-hearth puddler in the Allegheny steel mills. (He came to know, first-hand, the problems of labor). He attended Bethlehem's Lehigh University, was admitted to membership in Phi Delta Theta, and graduated in 1917. Because of ill health he moved to new Mexico, where he was active in politics (for a time he was manager of the Albuquerque Civic Council) and journalism (he turned to writing in 1922). Before leaving the South-west, the published his first book - Law and Order, Ltd., the life of Elfego Baca, a law officer of the region.
But, for a writer, New York was the place to be. Four years after arriving there, he left Scribner's to become an associate editor with Collier's Weekly. Under his own name he produced illustrated interviews with screen, stage, radio, and pugilistic celebrities for the magazine. Under "Robert Forsythe" he was turning out articles for the Daily Worker and the New Masses. (He was, in effect, leading a double life.) he was also very much a part of the "parlor Bolshevik" circle, the League of American writers, and Communist cultural fronts. In 1940, with the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact, he left the Party and entered into a new phase of his literary career. Proud People, a novel about a Spanish family in New Mexico, was published in 1944. His most popular book - a biography of the Marx Brothers - appeared a year later. Sad, funny, and joyful, the book traces the brother's career - from their beginnings in a Yorkville tenement to their days of glory in Hollywood. Crichton left Collier's Weekly in 1949; bought a house in Newton, Connecticut; and became a free-lance writer.
His next book, The History of the Adventures of George Whigham and his Friend Mr. Clancey Hobson, was less successful. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Joseph Henry Jackson said: "George Whigham' to cut it down to a usable length, is fun even if it is completely mad. mr Crichton mush have had a wonderful time writing it, and I'd guess a good many people who don't demand seriousness in their fiction every minute, might have a wonderful time with it too." Crichton brought his literary career to a close with three very different books. My Philadelphia Father, the story of Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle, written in collaboration with Cordella Drexel Biddle Duke Robertson, was published in 1955. (His dramatized version was a Broadway success). Subway to the Met: Rise Stevens' Story, an affectionate portrait of the Bronx-born metropolitan opera mezzo-soprano, appeared four year slater. Total Recoil, an autobiographical account of personalities he had met over a forty-year period, was published the same year.
Kyle Crichton died of a coronary occlusion at the Medical Arts Center Hospital in New York City on November 24, 1960. (At the time he and his wife were on a visit to the city). He was sixty-four. Appropriately, he died 'at home' - in the city that, almost twenty-five years before, played such an important role in the creation of his two most memorable books.
Kindly quoted from Kyle Crichton's autobiography Total Recoil (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1960, pp. 105-112)
Whenever I fill out a form requiring my place of birth, I write down "Peale, Pa." with a flourish, and then start wondering what would happen if they decided to check up on my hometown. They'd have a difficult time of it, for there is no Peale, Pennsylvania.
There was a Peale, but it has disappeared as completely as the Lost Cities of Cibola. From the beginning, Peale was a different mining town. After it was built, the company found that the coal at Peale was of poor quality. New openings were made about three miles away, which meant that Peale was left as a small, clean, brand-new town sitting in a sylvan glade. There were no coal tipples, there was no smoke from the powerhouse stacks, there were no slag piles.
I don't know how long Peale lasted, but the nearby mines were finally worked out, and Peale disappeared. It was not allowed to fall into ruins; it was moved away. The houses were put on trucks and hauled to a new location. Nothing remained but the foundation of the store, looking like a Mayan ruin in Yucatan, and the house where I was born, now owned by a farmer. For the rest, the town had gone back to nature. It was as if it had never existed.
My sisters, Margaret and Sarah, always considered Peale a dream town. It was located in a narrow valley, with tall hills on all sides, and with the dark, bitter waters of the Black Moshannon dashing swiftly through town. At its peak, Peale had about 1200 residents. Everything centered about the large company store, which had, on the second floor, a big entertainment hall, including a stage. That room seems to have been busy all the time. There were amateur plays, church socials, dances, Halloween parties, Christmas parties, children's fetes, commencement exercises and town meetings. There were hay rides, skating, bobsledding, and bicycle trips. In memory, it appears to have been one long celebration.
For my father and brothers, it was less easy. They walked to and from work, and in winter it could be a torture. My father once told me that with the exception of Sundays they never saw daylight for months. They would leave home at five in the morning, trudge through snowdrifts up to their armpits, and be in the mines before daybreak. It would be dark when they came out and started the trip home.
But it was from Peale that my oldest brother, Rob, left home to attend college at Valparaiso, Indiana. How my father managed that on the modest salary of a mine foreman is more than I understand, but it was probably with the help of Grandmother Nelson, who was a great woman by every standard. She had the true Scotch mania for education, which she transmitted to my mother, along with a disdain for money such as I have never seen in anybody else. My mother's creed was: Is it worth doing? Then do it; the money will come somehow. My sisters also left Peale to attend normal school.
There are hundreds of stories about Peale in our family, but I will tell only two. The one concerns a fabulous character known as Johnny Reckless, who drove the hack from the town to the railroad station. The railroad ran along the crest of the hill, far up against the sky. When the leaves were off the trees and the trains could be seen, they seemed to hang in space. The station was reached by a steep, winding road that appeared to go straight up to the stars. Johnny Reckless and his nags made the journey up the hill with great difficulty; the return journey was another affair. With his passengers tucked safely into the hack, Johnny would take off downhill at a gallop. As the hack careened down the road, taking sharp curves on one wheel, the passengers would hang on desperately and pray that the next turn wouldn't hurl them over the cliff.
The commercial drummers, weary of this obstacle race with death, adopted a plan of their own. They entrusted their sample cases to Johnny's hack, but hiked down the hill under their own steam. This could be a perilous venture. Some of the trains arrived after dark, and flashlights were unknown in those days. The drummers felt their way along the road, never knowing when a misstep would deposit them on the roof of the company store.
We lived in many mining towns which were merely little settlements surrounded by forests, but we were never a hunting or fishing family. We were baseball players from the time we could lift a bat. The exception was my brother Will, who was a genius in the woods. If eight boys set traps in one small area, only Will's would have the rabbit or ground hog next day. At the fishing hole, he would catch fish when nobody else caught fish. This was a pastime until the great strike of 1894 (I think that was the year, but it was before I was born and my memory may be faulty).
In any event, it was one of the bitterest struggles of American labor history. It lasted for six months, and ended with the strikers starved into submission. It had been called by the new United Mine Workers' union, and the defeat was almost a mortal blow for the organization. We were living in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, at the time, and my father did what he could by using our horse and wagon to do odd jobs, but Will really kept the family alive. What had been play now became grim necessity. I am told that he virtually lived in the woods during that time. He not only supplied us with fish, game, and berries, but the surplus was enough for my mother to establish a sort of soup kitchen for the starving children of our neighbors.
We moved away from Peale when I was quite young, and my memories of it came mostly from the family, and then an amazing thing happened along about 1937: an old resident of Peale organized a reunion. The town had been dead for years, but the response to the reunion call was astonishing. People came from all over the country. They brought their children and grandchildren, eager to show them the place where they had lived so happily. The streets of the old town had been laid out again, with signs bearing the names. When people decided to eat their lunch on the site where their house had once stood, others would cry:
"No, no; you've forgotten. It was over there, on the other side."
They would find the right place, and point proudly to the trees they had once planted on their front lawn. They were now grown to mammoth size. It was hard to believe that human foot had ever trod this virgin land. Some of us climbed the hill to the old station, long since disappeared. It was a wonderful scene, a wonderful occasion. I was there as what they laughingly called the "last white child born in Peale." It was probably not accurate, but it was close.
We drove out with my brother John and his wife Alice, and at one point near our destination we lost our way.
"Peale! " said an old man in astonishment, when we asked directions. "There is no Peale . . . but it's right down the road there."
That is the way it is with Peale: it may be gone, but it still exists.
My father used to say that the big moment of his life was when he went around the Horn in his bare feet. As children, we thought this was a great joke, and it was only later we realized the event had actually happened. His schooling had ended at the age of eight, when he had gone into the mines at Coatbridge, near Glasgow, at the side of his father. The Scotch had been immigrating steadily to America, but the Civil War temporarily halted the movement. By the time my father was sixteen, in 1866, he felt the time had come for a change. Life has never been easy in Scotland, and at that time it was particularly hard. Through the intercession of friends, he was taken on as ordinary sailor on a vessel that was leaving Glasgow for San Francisco.
It was a small sailing craft with a crew of about ten, and the voyage took five months. By the time it reached Cape Horn and the Strait of Magellan, the soles of his one pair of boots was held together by rope, but this protected only the upper part. When he climbed the rigging or swabbed the deck, his bare feet were exposed. How he kept from freezing to death he never explained, and we know that later he purchased a secondhand pair of boots from a bunkmate, but he always clung to the Cape Horn story. The phrase always fascinated me as a child: he went around the Horn in his bare feet. I could see father nonchalantly strolling around the tip of South America.
Father left ship at San Francisco, and headed for the gold mines at Virginia City, Nevada. I think he also worked at Placerville, California, and at other mines in Nevada. He would speak of this experience, but never with pleasure. As I recall it, gold mining was done at great depths and often under great heat. In any event, he didn't like gold mining and eventually went back to the sea.
This time he got a job on a coastwise steamer plying between San Francisco and Seattle. It was wrecked in a storm off Cape Mendocino. Out of a crew of nine, only two survived my father and another sailor, who lashed themselves to a spar and were washed ashore near Coos Bay, Oregon. This was enough of the sea and of the West for father. His family had come out to Pennsylvania and were now urging him to join them. It took him six months to work his way back East to the little town of Arnot. Coal mining was to be his life thereafter.
Surely nobody but circus people or show-business people were ever more closely united than the coal-mining families. In the beginning, the miners were almost exclusively Scotch and Irish. They might live together, but their rows were prodigious. Most of the fights had a religious basis, for people took their worship seriously in those days, and there was no reconciliation possible between Presbyterian and Catholic. But there also seemed to be a chemical repulsion between the two races. In any event, you stayed closely with your own folk in the little mining towns. It was even more apparent when the Swedes came to Peale. Scotch and Irish combined to repulse the outlanders. The Swedes had their own church; they stayed strictly to themselves; after school the Swedish children hurried home and never reappeared until next morning.
Even in her nineties, my mother kept in touch with old coal mining families. When somebody would mention a name, she would say:
"Ah, yes; that'll be Maggie Stewart who married Wattie MacDonald's boy. Ye'll ken Maggie, dochter of Lizzie McFee who married the Jamie Stewart man in Morris Run. The MacDonalds came frae Bloss, ye'll understand. Maggie's living the noo in Illinois. They hae seven childer."
Just as had been the case with the Swedes, the coming of the "Hunkies" was ignored by the old-timers. I think possibly the first immigrants from central Europe had been Hungarians, but the name was applied to all that came thereafter, whether they were Polish, Slovaks, Rumanians or Serbs. There was some distinction about Polaks and Slovaks, but the generic term for them all was Hunkies. Mother and I used to sit on the front porch of our house at Portage in later years and watch the steady stream of walkers going up and down the "branch." Among them were always groups of fine, strapping, beautiful girls with kerchiefs on their heads.
"They'll never change," sighed Mother rather proudly. "You can't get them to wear hats."
A few years later every girl in America was wearing a kerchief instead of a hat. Whether this caused the "Hunkie" girls to change, I don't know, but the vogue started with them.
One great change with the Slavic invasion was the religious situation. In Portage there were half a dozen different Catholic churches‹Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Polish something or other, etc., etc. The religious holidays drove the mine operators mad. A wonderful phrase was coined to fit the case. When you'd ask why the mines weren't working they would shrug, and say:
"Mary went over the mountain."
When I have occasionally ventured to speak of the excitement of coal mining, my literary friends have looked at me with disgust. But I can still recall the bitter winter mornings, when I would be awakened by my brothers' stumbling down the stairs on the way to the washhouse, where they got into their working clothes. A potbellied stove would be roaring in the shed, and the men would dress in the jumpers and sweaters they had taken off the night before. By this time my mother and sisters would have been working in the kitchen for hours. There was a big breakfast to prepare, and then buckets to be packed.
At one period there were five buckets going out of our house, a gigantic task. Then men worked hard; they needed good meals. There were pies and cakes to be baked; there must always be a slab of meat in the bucket; there would be sandwiches and potatoes and an apple or other fruit. The buckets had a sort of cupola at top for coffee or tea. Most miners drank tea. By this time I would have thrown my clothes over my heavy underwear and come down for breakfast. This was a wonderful time for me. My older brothers were my heroes; they had already taken their places in the mine. Breakfast was always a jolly affair, with lots of joshing and horseplay. Then my father would take up his mining lamp, and they would start for work.
I would stand at the window, watching them trudge through the snow toward the mines. Lone lines of men would be snaking their way up the branch, huddled against the fierce winds that seemed to blow against them as they went to work, and to swing about to buffet them again on their return. It would be even more fun when the men came home at night, for the washhouse would be full of their clamor and jokes. My friends will never believe it, but we had a good, happy life.
Occasionally, however, there would be disputes with the foreman about a bad working place. There would be shouts and recrimination, and the miner would turn back in disgust. They had a fine phrase for this:
"Johnny poured out his tea and went home."
These pages comprise an ongoing project to document, map, interpret, and memorialize the ghost company town of Peale Pennsyvania located along the Clearfield and Centre County (PA) boundaries in north-central Pennsyvlania.
Please contact j.b. krygier (email@example.com) with comments, input, or additional information.
>>>>Kyle Crichton: Peale's Most Famous Son?