Night Comes to the Cumberlands
by Harry Caudill
Atlantic Little Brown, 394 pp., $6.75
The pathetic history of the Cumberland Plateau in Eastern Kentucky illustrates the results, for men and nature, of unregulated free enterprise, the pre-eminence of the rights of property, and the absence of responsible public supervision. Though the author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands did not intend his book to be such a tract—or a tract at all—the lesson is nonetheless clear. Its consequences are visible in the ruined mountains, the blasted forests, and the miserable population of the Kentucky hills. Nor is the lesson new. For years these hills have been scrutinized by social scientists, their folk art has been collected and catalogued, their unfortunate people have been organized and reorganized by the mining companies, by the U.M.W., and by various government agencies. Communists, novelists, photographers, cartoonists, and song-pluggers have, for decades, been bringing word of these mountains to the rest of the country. But to no avail. Today the area is devastated, and Harry Caudill, whose book describes this disaster, concludes with the sorrowful suggestion that by tomorrow the hills may not be there at all. Erosion and the brutal process of strip mining, by which the mountainsides and tops are bulldozed away so that the coal can be scooped up with great power shovels, threaten to eradicate the whole region.
Harry Caudill is a lawyer and a Kentucky legislator who has spent his life in the Cumberlands, and whose ancestors had been among the original settlers of the region, arriving, presumably like the others, as impressed labor snatched up from the slums of London and Manchester to work much like slaves on the great coastal plantations of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Throughout this book Mr. Caudill is very reticent about himself. One wonders how he managed to survive the poverty, the inbreeding, the ghastly schools which were, if anything, worse during his childhood, thirty years ago, than they are now.
Yet, for all his reticence, Caudill leaves with the reader a familiar impression. He is a responsible aristocrat, bound to the land and its people through generations of tenure, and determined to preserve, in this case to rescue, its traditions. His tone, like that of Faulkner’s hero, Gavin Stevens, whom he somewhat resembles, is spare, wistful, and grim; his intelligence, his anger, and his other passions are channeled to serve whatever good purposes can, in such poor circumstances, be found.
The Cumberlands are a particularly steep phase of the Appalachians, rising and falling sharply between deep and isolated valleys. Originally they had been covered with hardwood forests and their bottom lands were fertile. There was abundant game and a generally mild climate. The indentured workers, fleeing their servitude, saw no reason to proceed farther west. Except for the Indians, whose ways they quickly learned, there was little for the new settlers to fear. They must have found the mountain valleys a paradise, and Caudill, when he describes these times, does so lyrically. He is pre-eminently a conservationist, which is to say …