Fifty Years of Night

Chapter 5: Harry Caudill inspired the War on Poverty, but gloom darkens his legacy

Harry Caudill, right, accepted an honorary degree at the University of Kentucky in 1971. In 1977, Caudill was appointed a full professor at UK.
Harry Caudill, right, accepted an honorary degree at the University of Kentucky in 1971. In 1977, Caudill was appointed a full professor at UK. University of Kentucky Special Collections

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50 Years of Night

In 1963, Harry Caudill of Whitesburg published “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area,” which shone 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 launched a yearlong look at the region’s struggles since Night was published.

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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.

As 1977 dawned, Harry Caudill got a surprise — a job offer.

Otis Singletary, the University of Kentucky’s outsized president, asked Caudill to accept a tenured history professorship at his alma mater to teach about the paradox of Appalachia, the wealth of its land contrasted with the poverty of its people.

Singletary first noticed Caudill in the mid-1960s while directing the federal Job Corps program under President Lyndon Johnson. Everyone in Washington’s liberal circles buzzed about Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands, an angry book about the plight of Kentucky’s mountaineers.

“All the Harvards and Yalies and policy advisers, all of them had read it,” Singletary recalled in a 1998 oral-history interview. “It was a very influential book, maybe in ways that even the author didn’t realize.”

Singletary’s job offer seemed like a no-brainer.

At the time, Appalachia was a popular subject for students influenced by the environmental, people-power and back-to-the-land movements. Those movements, in turn, were inspired by the populist outrage of books such as Caudill’s. Who better to teach a class on the troubles of Appalachia?

On the other hand, Caudill was an autodidact, a country lawyer who taught himself history by reading and writing books and essays. He had no relevant graduate degree or teaching certificate, no experience with lesson plans. He was, in fact, a loud critic of “pedagogues” and the teaching colleges that manufactured them.

Singletary knew that appointing such a man to a full professorship would irritate junior faculty at UK, young men with Ph.D.s awaiting their own shots at tenure. He did not particularly worry about their hurt feelings.

The problem for Singletary was the incoming chairman of the UK Board of Trustees: William Sturgill, a rich Eastern Kentucky coal operator and generous donor whom Caudill long had criticized. Sturgill did not want his nemesis hired at UK on his watch, and certainly not to take shots at the coal industry from inside a classroom.

“Sturgill had been the target of Harry’s writings,” Singletary said in the oral-history interview. “The safest way to put it is, I persuaded Bill Sturgill not to make a public issue out of it. Because one, I thought he would lose. And two, I didn’t think it would help the university.”

On Feb. 7, 1977, conceding his own doubts about his qualifications, Caudill nonetheless wrote Singletary gratefully to accept the job. Caudill said he was “burned out” after three decades of practicing law. Now 54 years old, he wanted to try something new.

That fall, Harry and Anne Caudill shuttered their Whitesburg home, rented a Lexington place and started an eight-year career as a faculty couple.

Caudill on campus

There weren’t yet Appalachian history textbooks, so Caudill cobbled together a reading list of relevant books, articles and government reports, much of it photocopied from his personal library.

Caudill wasn’t entirely impressed by UK. He found faculty and students to be insular; he told a friend that few of his colleagues were familiar with the state beyond Lexington’s city limits. To remedy that, he organized field trips to Eastern Kentucky for his students and anyone else who wanted to come. The groups toured coal mines, hiked mountains and sat on porches to ask locals about the arc of their lives.Tanya Pullin of Greenup County was one of Caudill’s students.

“I honestly don’t remember much about the specifics of what he told us in class. But I remember that he was involved — deeply involved in events, in improving his community, in traveling, in meeting important people,” Pullin said. She is now, as Caudill once had been, an Eastern Kentucky lawyer and a Democratic state representative.

“I left that class convinced that a person who grew up in small-town Kentucky and who talked like I did could have an effect on what happened in the world rather than just stay home and have things happen to them,” Pullin said. “That was an important lesson.”

Having juggled a law practice and a writing career, Caudill took advantage of the more relaxed scholarly atmosphere. He took several years and traveled to England to research his next book, Theirs Be the Power: The Moguls of Eastern Kentucky. It identified by name the businessmen who had controlled Appalachia by accumulating — ruthlessly, in many cases — its land, timber and coal, while avoiding responsibility for taxes; pollution; and sickened, injured and killed miners and their families.

Sturgill, the UK board chairman, took another drubbing in Theirs Be the Power. So Caudill was aggrieved but not truly surprised when the University Press of Kentucky, which published several of his earlier books, passed on this one. The University of Illinois Press released it instead in 1983. Some reviewers called it his best book.

“What Harry represented could not have been entirely comfortable for the University of Kentucky,” said writer Wendell Berry, a friend of Caudill and a former creative writing professor at UK. “He was a dissenter, and a dissenter is a pariah there. This business about leading a free discussion on important issues in search of the truth is a genteel fiction at UK.”

Sturgill, now 88, did not return calls seeking an interview for this story.

Not precisely right

Other problems bedeviled Caudill during the 1980s.

Now that he was an academic historian, not just a lawyer sharing tales of rascality, his work was freshly scrutinized for accuracy — and sometimes found wanting.

In the April 1981 issue of Kentucky Coal Journal, journalist Alice Cornett wrote a lengthy critique of Caudill’s books, essays and quotes over his career. She found errors, some fairly harmless, others significant.

For example: More than once, Caudill unfavorably compared safety rates for Eastern Kentucky coal mines to those for undersea Dutch coal mines. He lectured Kentucky coal operators to imitate their more careful, compassionate European counterparts. However, Cornett wrote, Holland did not mine coal under the ocean. Caudill invented that practice out of his imagination. In fact, she said, Holland had stopped mining on land well before the years Caudill cited in his writings.

Another misstep: Caudill said 4 million people left Central Appalachia during the middle of the 20th century, evidence of the region’s dire circumstances. But population experts put the era’s out-migration at no more than 3 million, Cornett wrote.

“But if you are dealing in overstatement, as Caudill often does, what is a million people more or less?” Cornett asked.

Responding in an opinion piece in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Caudill acknowledged that he possibly made minor errors or relied on outdated or faulty information in his research.

Then he gracelessly added, putting himself in lofty company: “Even Darwin and the Holy Bible are under attack.”

Cornett’s broadside started a thorny debate over how much of Caudill’s books were true.

One could agree or not with his conclusions about strip mining’s ecological devastation. But Caudill buttressed his arguments with folksy anecdotes. He cited unidentified places and companies and quoted unnamed people. “I discussed a huge stripping operation with the engineer who was directing it,” he wrote in Night Comes to the Cumberlands. And: “In one county, a huge loading ramp was built at a cost of $70,000.” And: “A mountaineer claimed that a company had plowed up his mountainsides.” Proper names could be scarce.

Since much of his writing would be impossible for anyone else to fact-check, any known errors raised questions about the unknowable parts.

Also, Caudill’s weak-genes theories — his references to “fertile and amoral females” who breed with “dullards” in Eastern Kentucky — and his relentless gloom about the Cumberland Plateau were wearing raw on the rising Appalachian scholars he initially inspired. They were natives, too, but proud of mountain culture. Their books were serious and scholarly, often neutral in tone, meticulously sourced. So they did not rush to defend him.

John Stephenson, then director of UK’s Appalachian Center, making him one of Caudill’s colleagues, said he was surprised that nobody had “challenged some of his generalizations before. Mr. Caudill is not one to give himself to the normal kind of scholarly reporting that others do routinely. He leaves himself open to that kind of criticism.”

Steve Fisher, an Appalachian activist, chided Caudill for his “slipshod and poorly documented research” in the spring 1984 issue of Appalachian Journal.

Even supporters ceded ground while defending him. Caudill was essentially right, they said, not precisely right.

“To criticize Harry Caudill on accuracy is about like saying that Thomas Wolfe’s portrait of his mother was not precisely accurate. Harry speaks to sway people and to get at a kind of truth that is beyond facts and figures,” Loyal Jones, then director of Berea College’s Appalachian Center, said during the controversy.

Once the dust settled, Caudill no longer was the voice of authority on Appalachia. The conversation, in part, had moved past him.

“I think in some ways that pissed him off,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg.

Rubbing salt in the wound, the UK history department sent Caudill a short note around Christmas 1983 to inform him that “student interest in Appalachian studies on campus has declined.” Henceforth, his two Appalachian history classes would be cut to one.

Worst of all, Caudill suffered increasing physical pain.

Caudill’s old war injury, his mangled foot, hurt worse than ever. Passing his 60th birthday, having to stand in the front of classrooms and tread on concrete campus sidewalks, Caudill complained that he could find no relief.

Additionally, he soon would struggle with Parkinson’s disease, a debilitating brain disorder that plays havoc with motor functions, including walking.

Caudill wrote to Singletary in March 1985, thanking him for the chance to teach at UK but expressing a desire to return home to Whitesburg when the term ended.

Singletary, who died in 2003, told an interviewer that he felt vindicated in hiring Caudill. “I don’t think he was ever truly comfortable in the professor’s role,” Singletary said, but many of Caudill’s former students approached him to say how much they enjoyed and learned from the course.

25 years later

Caudill returned to UK in 1986, this time to speak at a conference on the state of Appalachia 25 years after he began writing Night.

It wasn’t much of a celebration. More than 100 participants, including scholars and state politicians, “gave bleak prospects” for Appalachia even though “$15 billion in aid poured into the impoverished eastern mountains since the publication of Mr. Caudill’s best-selling book,” The New York Times reported from Lexington.

The attendees credited the Appalachian Regional Commission with building highways, reducing the area’s isolation. They said families were kept alive by the social safety net woven with food stamps, Medicaid, public housing and other welfare.

However, Appalachia still had few good jobs outside of the boom-and-bust cycle of coal mining, they said. The mountains’ brightest high school graduates left for opportunities in the cities. (By that point, Harry and Anne Caudill’s three children had done so, too.) One of Caudill’s best friends, Tom Gish, editor of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, spoke of mountain counties in which “virtually no one is now working.”

Caudill himself had begun referring to Appalachia as a “welfare reservation,” where the government deliberately left poor whites to rot while the rest of the nation prospered, just as blacks were abandoned in urban ghettos and Native Americans in Western deserts.

In his final years, Caudill complained that Eastern Kentucky was hopeless regardless of how much taxpayers spent to prop it up. His gloom obscured even the brightest days.

Although he once protested the miserly salaries paid to mountain teachers and their decrepit one-room schoolhouses, he dismissed the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, which increased state funding for rural schools. Caudill told reporters that “money alone” couldn’t fix an ignorant rural culture that wouldn’t bother itself to learn.

“It would be a great thing indeed if the people of Kentucky and the Old South could develop some real ambition concerning their future and do the work necessary to make that future come to pass,” Caudill wrote to a man in California shortly before KERA passed. “I do not expect that to happen, however, because the culture is wrong.”

KERA supporters, including former Gov. Bert Combs, a friend of Caudill and a fellow mountaineer, had assumed he would side with them. His cynicism infuriated them. At a post-KERA dinner, Combs would not stop angrily cussing at the mention of Caudill’s name.

‘A force for change’

The end came Nov. 29, 1990.

At home in Whitesburg, Caudill waited until Anne drove into town to do her shopping. Then he walked to a hemlock tree in his front yard, faced his beloved Pine Mountain and shot himself in the head with a .38-caliber handgun.

“He did it in typical Harry style. He was looking at the mountains,” Edison Banks Jr., a Letcher County prosecutor and one of Caudill’s former students, told reporters.

Harry Monroe Caudill was pronounced dead a few hours later at age 68. He left behind a legacy of undimmed outrage and a two-page note expressing his love for Anne and explaining that he did not want his declining health to burden her.

He was famous one last time. His obituary ran in newspapers from coast to coast. They called him “Appalachia’s proud apologist,” which wasn’t really true, and “an inspiration for the War on Poverty,” which was.

“He wasn’t satisfied,” former Gov. Edward “Ned” Breathitt, a lifelong friend, explained a decade later. “But that’s the attitude of the critic. That’s the definition of the critic or the gadfly. If you ever get satisfied, then you get comfortable, and then you’re no longer a force for change.”

Charles Kuralt, an old journalist friend memorializing him on CBS Sunday Morning, said simply: “Harry Caudill spent his whole life trying to call attention to poverty and injustice in Eastern Kentucky. If you want to get angry, read Night Comes to the Cumberlands.”

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