Chapter 2: The making of an angry book about an exploited Appalachia

jcheves@herald-leader.com; bestep@herald-leader.comDecember 17, 2012 

In 1963, Harry Caudill of Whitesburg published Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, which shined a ­spotlight on the plundering of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. The book forever changed Appalachia. On the eve of the book’s 50th anniversary, the Lexington Herald-Leader examines the man behind the book.

Harry Caudill was born to write the book on Appalachia.

His roots were deep in Letcher County. His grandfather's grandfather James Caudill helped settle it in 1792. Generations later, Cro Carr Caudill, his father, had an arm ripped off at a coal tipple. Disabled, Cro entered politics for a living, holding county office and exposing young Harry to the deal-making and storytelling of the courthouse.

"My generation grew up in the 1930s," Caudill was to recall. "It was an activist time, the New Deal years. And many of us got the idea that government could make a difference, … that society didn't have to rot itself to death."

Caudill served in World War II as an Army infantryman. He was awarded the Purple Heart after shell fragments in Italy so badly mangled his left foot that he suffered for the rest of his life. He had to wear special orthopedic shoes to walk.

Returning home to "dear old Letcherous County" from the University of Kentucky law school in 1948, Caudill opened a one-man law practice to represent poor people. They arrived without appointments, filling his small waiting room, many with bodies or lands broken by mining.

Caudill rejected the lucrative career path of becoming a general counsel for coal companies, writer Wendell Berry observed in an essay last year.

"He thus from the start made himself exceptional: a bright young Kentuckian who brought his professional education home, to become not an exploiter of the land and people but their advocate and defender," Berry wrote for The Progressive.

About the same time, in the middle of the 20th century, Kentucky's coal industry was making a change that disturbed Caudill. Labor-intensive underground mines were losing out to highly mechanized surface mining that employed fewer men and caused more destruction. Massive machines transformed wooded hillsides into lunar landscapes. Unionized underground miners who had enjoyed good pay and benefits were discarded.

Caudill didn't oppose coal mining — in fact, he and his brother held business interests in Wayne Cannel Coal Co. in Letcher County — but strip mining seemed to put greed above any other consideration, said Caudill's older son, James.

"Having been in the coal business himself, he recognized that coal was a very valuable natural resource and it was going to be mined," James Caudill said in a recent interview. "The question for him was not whether to mine coal but how to mine coal. He did not think it advisable, or even proper, to do massive damage to the countryside to get it out."

Harry Caudill began to criticize the coal operators and called for an end to strip mining in the mountains. He thereby forfeited clients with ties to coal, which meant anyone with much money, former Gov. Edward "Ned" Breathitt said in a 1998 oral-history interview.

"He didn't have any real establishment clients," said Breathitt, a lifelong friend. "They would retaliate and say, 'Don't hire Harry Caudill.'"

'Damn near worthless'

Beginning in 1954, Caudill's neighbors elected him three times as a Democratic member of the state House of Representatives. In Frankfort, he led an investigation of dishonest and incompetent school officials. He sponsored the state's first rudimentary restrictions on strip mining.

However, when he saw his strip-mining law on the books, riddled with loopholes added along the way, he dismissed it as "damn near worthless." He left the state Capitol with a sour taste in his mouth. Frankfort could not be trusted to act honorably, he said.

"Of all American politicians, the small-bore officials who run the states are the most greedy and least scrupulous, and the coal royalists learned early … how relatively paltry sums, if well placed, could bring the passage of helpful laws, the veto of harmful ones and, in a pinch, the nullification of judicial opinions," Caudill later wrote in his 1976 book The Watches of the Night.

Caudill didn't respect the voters, either. In 1960, he anonymously published a scathing essay in Harper's Magazine titled "How an Election Was Bought and Sold," detailing for a national audience the venality of Letcher County politics. The byline that launched his writing career identified him only as "A Kentucky legislator."

"Last year I was elected to the Kentucky legislature after paying off citizens of my district with the money and whiskey they demanded in return for their votes," his essay began. "Many of the men who sit with me as legislators were elected in the same way. This is nothing new in Kentucky, but I think it is time that some politician, somewhere, tell the straight — and embarrassing — story of how a candidate may be compelled to pay for votes in this country if he is to be elected."

A voracious reader, Caudill spoke as he wrote, formally, with a rumbling eloquence that was equal parts Shakespeare, Old Testament and Letcher County. Much of his writing was dictated aloud by a pacing Caudill to his wife, Anne, who patiently took notes and later typed his letters and manuscripts.

Caudill answered his phone with a booming: "What an inspired surprise! To what do I owe the signal honor of this communication?"

If a client needed his attention, he begged off other commitments: "I have a shivering soul here whom I must save from the gallows!"

At public forums on surface mining, he decried "the mindless oafs who are destroying this world and the gleeful yahoos who abet them."

His gift for storytelling extended to exaggeration. That charmed listeners at his dinner table but got him in trouble years later, after he was established as a widely quoted academic historian, one who sometimes bungled facts and almost never included footnotes, endnotes or sources in his books.

"I think he overstated his case, but he had to to make his point. And his points were valid," Breathitt said in the 1998 oral-history interview.

"One time a national magazine sent David McCullough out to Whitesburg to interview Harry for a big profile story," said Loyal Jones, former director of Berea College's Appalachian Center.

"So McCullough goes out there for a couple of days. Then he comes back and sticks his head in my door and says, 'I've just been spending time with Harry Caudill. My God! Is everything that he told me true?'" Jones said, laughing. "Well, I was hesitant to commit myself to a question like that, not knowing exactly what Harry had said. So I told him, 'You know, David, there are two kinds of truth.'"

Upset but inspired

Despite his qualifications — his roots, his eloquence, his outrage — Caudill did not intend to write a book. But he was upset by a scene he witnessed in the spring of 1960.

A coal-camp school on Millstone Creek, near Whitesburg, invited him to deliver a speech to its eighth-graders. Caudill described it:

"A shower sent a little torrent of water through the ancient roof onto one of the scarred desks. The worn windows rattled in their frames. … Outside, the grassless playground lay in the shadow of an immense slate dump and was fringed by a cluster of ramshackle houses. One of the graduates had been orphaned by a mining accident, and the father of another wheezed and gasped with silicosis. The fathers of three others were jobless."

The school ceremony opened with hollow-cheeked children singing America the Beautiful: "America, America, God shed His grace on thee, …"

Caudill "came home and got to telling me that he was just so saddened by that experience," his widow, Anne Caudill, said in an interview this year. "He started talking to me, talking about what had brought Eastern Kentucky to the state that it was in. The long history of the place. He was just thinking it through.

"I thought it was interesting enough that I wrote it down as he talked. If he had in mind that this would be published, he never said."

Eventually, Harry Caudill decided he must share this historical narrative in a book that would be called Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.

Someone, he said, needed to tell the world about the mountaineers reduced to penury, fleeced by robber barons seizing their timber and coal for pennies an acre, suppressed by lickspittle politicians whose orders were to keep taxes low and workers pliant.

By April 1961, Caudill had enough pages to send a partial draft to his friends Barry and Mary Bingham, the well-connected owners of The Courier-Journal in Louisville. "It made Mary Bingham cry," Breathitt said.

"We both feel positive that you have a book emerging here," Mary Bingham quickly replied in a letter to Caudill. The Binghams forwarded the pages to their son-in-law A. Whitney Ellsworth, an editor in New York for The Atlantic, which was tied to publisher Little, Brown & Co.

Ellsworth was impressed enough that his magazine ran an excerpt in April 1962 titled "The Rape of the Appalachians." But Little, Brown & Co. wasn't sure whether a market existed for a sprawling 150,000-word treatise on the agonies of Kentucky's mountains.

Ellsworth prevailed. (His own great literary future was imminent. Within a year, he would found The New York Review of Books.) In June 1962, he sent Caudill a $1,000 advance and a telegram: "Book accepted with great enthusiasm."

The country lawyer had become an author. Everything would change.

Chapter 3: The world comes to Whitesburg to take Harry Caudill's 'poverty tour'

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