Ky. Voices: Caudill wasn't perfect, but he demanded better for Appalachia

February 24, 2013 

Harry Caudill focused national attention on Appalachia and helped launch the federal War on Poverty.

  • Kentucky Voices

    About the author: Linda Morton, a Louisville native, is a southern Indiana writer who has researched Harry and Anne Caudill's work.

Don't we know a good man when we see him?

Harry Caudill — activist, author, professor — fought against the very forces we decry in politics today.

We say we don't want monopolies. We cry out against cronyism, fraud and corruption in public offices, corporations, and the destruction of our environment.

Yet, as the recent Herald-Leader series and e-book on his life show, there are many who still want to criticize his attitude and character and diminish his epic accomplishments.

My fellow Kentuckians, don't you smell the red herrings?

Throughout history, distinguished leaders are blunt, controversial. They possess the confidence to accept failure and try again. They are tenacious and brave, but they are not perfect.

The central issue is not what Caudill, or anyone, said or thought about mountain people.

The real issue is, and always has been, what they think of themselves.

I see parallels between Caudill and fellow Kentuckian Justice Louis D. Brandeis. Born in Louisville in 1856, Brandeis came to be known as "the people's lawyer." From very different backgrounds, both fought against human oppression, injustice and corruption.

Fighting against the establishment caused his enemies to declare, "He's the most dangerous man alive because he can't be bought." For a time he was an outcast. Brandeis was hated by the corrupt, revered by the powerless, and his legacy in social justice and American law is well documented.

Caudill also wasn't afraid of making enemies or of controversy; bootlicking wasn't his style. Apparently, he's still an important target, even after death. But how could that be?

Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Caudill's book that 50 years ago brought national attention to poverty in the mountains, has been attacked by jealous academics obsessing on the lack of footnotes required of scholarly books. This classic was written for a general audience, though it is frequently cited by other scholars. It garnered international attention and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in October, 1963.

Prior to publication, the manuscript, or sections of it, passed through the hands of various University of Kentucky professors, including Thomas Clark, who would later become Kentucky's historian laureate. Clark did not suffer fools lightly — in academia or politics.

In a 1961 letter, he wrote: "Harry, I think you have written the best book that has been written on Eastern Kentucky. It shows imagination, forthrightness, and courage."

Harriette Arnow, a late Kentucky author, gave it her stamp of authenticity, and residents or former residents of Eastern Kentucky blessed it. It rang true. No footnotes needed.

Caudill was given tenure when he started teaching Kentucky history at the University of Kentucky in 1977. This had to grate on faculty competing for that coveted prize.

In fact, a Herald-Leader article on April 29, 1990, revealed faculty bias when it reported, "Furthermore, it is said that many of Caudill's ideas are so outmoded [genealogy] many of today's young academics and Appalachian scholars no longer take him seriously."

That, "is the real tragedy of Harry," UK professor Ron Eller told the reporter. That's an unusual assertion from a colleague, a damning comment unchallenged because Harry died of a self-inflicted gunshot, later that year.

Students admired Caudill as a teacher and a mentor. He got them off the campus and toured Kentucky and its mountains up close. The man loved his land and people, but maybe he was naïve about his friends.

In the summer of 2010, while doing research on the Caudills, I corresponded with professor Eller. In his email he wrote: "It saddens me that the biography of Harry... by the late Rudy Abramson may never be published now. I have a couple of graduate students who are interested in writing about Harry, but they do not have the knowledge, maturity or perspective that Rudy possessed."

What? That's like saying historian David McCullough would had to have personally known the second president, John Adams, 1735-1826, to have written his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography published in 2001.

Perspective is the way one looks at something and it can change as we digest more information through research. It's not static; there's simply too much out there to learn.

An author I know sent to the University Press of Kentucky a manuscript of Anne Caudill's stories of her life in the mountains from direct interviews with her over years. The Press kept it for a year and returned it saying, "it was not academic enough." One reviewer said, "There's too much in this book about Harry."

I now believe some people will do anything to blot out his legacy, and maybe Anne's, who, in my eyes, is Kentucky's version of Abigail Adams.

The world is full of fine biographers. This 50-year grudge demands a writer from outside Kentucky to see that the Caudills have their rightful places in history.

I see what's happening now: Focus on one aspect of his life, reject his wife, suppress scholarship and deny posterity of Harry Caudill's full legacy.

Why is that, Kentucky?

Kentucky Voices

About the author: Linda Morton, a Louisville native, is a southern Indiana writer who has researched Harry and Anne Caudill's work.

Linda Morton, a Louisville native is a southern Indiana writer who has researched Harry and Anne Caudill's work.

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