Night Comes to the Cumberlands
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 patrician in his sense of the past and bitter in his reflection on its loss. Though he is especially reticent about his formal political beliefs, he is undoubtedly a conservative: committed to the extension of personal freedom, local selfdetermination, and the prudent use of capital. But if Caudill is a conservative, he seems also to be something of a populist, antipathetic to big business and absentee ownership and the accumulation of speculative profits. He is, or was, enthusiastic about the U.M.W. and the C.C.C., and though he deplores the welfare state, which has accustomed his neighbors to the dole, he recognizes that without free government food these people would surely starve; and while he argues wistfully for regional government he knows that direct federal action is all that can save his people and their land, and all that could ever have saved them. It is clear from Caudill’s account that liberal or conservative political ideologies as expressed by theorists and office-seekers are irrelevant to the plight of the Cumberlands and to their future, and it is among the virtues of this book to have demonstrated their irrelevance, if only by implication.
Nothing in their experience of the London slums and their impressment on the tobacco plantations had taught the early settlers of the Cumberlands the virtues of organizing themselves in communities or of accumulating capital and regulating their commerce or agriculture. On the contrary their hard past fitted them best for the cruel life of frontier anarchy. Caudill remarks at one point that even the Indians, who were brutal enough, at least had certain restraining traditions which the new settlers lacked, so that while the settlers learned from the Indians how to hunt game and cultivate the bottom lands, they also learned how to scalp their enemies, and it was not uncommon among these mountaineers to outdo the Indians in brutality.
The Civil War served further to discourage the development, among the inhabitants of the Cumberland Plateau, of an orderly and productive society. The mountaineers fought on both sides during the War, and long after it was over the families retained and intensified the antagonisms which the War precipitated. The feuds, for which the mountains were later to become famous, had their origins in these divided allegiances. But the War and its aftermath brought a still worse disaster to the Plateau. By 1870 land speculators had begun to arrive from the North and Midwest and within a decade had absconded with the region’s timber and mineral rights. The hospitable but unorganized mountaineers were, in their innocence, woefully fleeced, and the deeds, which they cheerfully signed at fifty cents or a dollar an acre, dispossessed them not only of their enormously valuable mineral and woodland properties, but, as was to turn out, of the very lives and liberties of their children to the present day. These deeds, which the Kentucky courts have regularly enforced and whose provisions they have seldom failed to expand and confirm, conferred, in many cases, not only the mineral and timber rights themselves, but the right, on the part of the exploiters, to make whatever arrangements were necessary—including the right to pollute and divert streams and to destroy homesteads and farmland—in order to profit from their holdings. To enforce their privileges, the coal and timber operators inevitably took control of state and local politics, appointing judges and legislators, school boards and assessors, so that by the end of the nineteenth century nothing was safe in the Cumberlands but the rights and titles which resided with the great corporations in other states.
The sad outcome, of course, is by now famous, and it is an innocent Cuban or Chinese who will argue that American businessmen have confined their predatory and stupid practices to less favored nations. By the 1920’s the United Fruit Company or Standard Oil might have envied the proprietors of the Kentucky coal fields, whose workers were neatly housed in company compounds, bought their groceries with company scrip in company stores, and brought their grievances, if they were foolish enough to do so, before company judges and governors. Meanwhile the counties financed their public services, such as they were, through the disproportionate taxation of farmland, leaving the coal and timber operators relatively free of this burden. But with the Depression this paternalistic idyll collapsed. The mines went bankrupt, the Big Bosses fled, and the rights and titles were lost or sold to Northern holding companies. The mountaineers were abruptly left to their own devices and often they starved. Not only did the mines go bankrupt; so did the towns and counties which had been encouraged by the mining companies to finance their schools and roads through bond issues rather than through the proportionate taxation of mining properties and revenues. Inevitably a new paternalism arose in the form of the W.P.A. and the C.C.C., and finally, when the market for coal had all but disappeared and the last owners were exhausted and ready to retreat until trading conditions improved, the U.M.W. emerged as the first champion of regional autonomy in the Kentucky mountains since the Civil War. During the Second World War, when coal was once again in demand, the miners, organized in their locals, were able to enforce welfare contributions and reasonable wages and working conditions from the newly prosperous mining companies; but while the advantages conferred by the union were substantial, it was, as was soon to appear, too late. With the building of roads deeper into the coal fields and the purchase of trucks, it became profitable for individual miners to lease isolated coal spurs from the holding companies and thus to become entrepreneurs in their own right. And they proceeded, in ways that the conservative mining companies themselves would never have dreamed of employing, to devastate the mountains, themselves, and their few employees still further. Exempt from union supervision, these “truck miners” made large sums of money during the War and afterward, but nothing in their experience had taught them how to conserve their profits, much less how to use them to improve their communities and the life of the hills generally.
In the 1950’s the coal market collapsed once again and many of these truck miners were ruined. Numbers of them left the hills altogether, often with only the merest scraps of their former prosperity. Nor were they the only ones to leave. Wherever a young man or woman could, by virtue of talents and energies, flee the mountains, he or she did, leaving behind a human residue nearly as debilitated as the hills themselves. Today, with the price of coal at three dollars or less a ton, and the major customer, ironically, the T.V.A., which has outrun its hydroelectric resources, any organized attempt to save the Cumberlands has been abandoned. Even the U.M.W., in the face of automation, has withdrawn and left behind the giant augurs and bulldozers which, with a minimum of human labor, tear away what is left of the earth.
Caudill is by temperament neither a theorist nor a polemicist but a chronicler who prefers to allow events, as he recounts them, to enforce their own meanings and the evils he describes to indict themselves. He has no interest, or very little, in formal political or economic analysis, and one feels that he would reject such interpretations out of the same tough and private impulse which has kept him, despite his obvious talents, in such somber surroundings throughout his life. One has the impression that Caudill is himself as hard-textured and as resistant to theoretical interpretation as the dark and twisted history he has written in this book. Nor is he much given to describing the lives of individual mountaineers, though when he occasionally does let us see or hear one of these people the effect is startling:
I hain’t got no education much and just barely can write my name. After I lost my job in 1950 I went all over the country a-lookin’ fer work. I finally found a job in a factory in Ohio a-puttin’ televisions inside wooden crates. Well, I worked for three years and managed to make enough money to keep my young ‘uns in school. Then they put in a machine that could crate them televisions a whole lot better than us men could and in a lot less time. Hit jist stapled them up in big cardboard boxes. I got laid off again and I jist ain’t never been able to find nothin’ else to do.
But I kept my young ‘uns in school anyway. I came back home to the mountains and raised me a big garden ever’ year and worked at anything I could find to do. I sold my old car fer seventy-five dollars and I sold all the land my daddy left me and spent the money on my children. They didn’t have much to eat or wear but at least they didn’t miss no school. Well, finally last spring my oldest boy finished up high school and got his diploma. I managed to twenty-five dollars together and give get twenty-five dollars together and give it to him and he went off to get him a job. He had good grades in school and I figured he’d git him a job easy. He went out to Caliornia hirin’ men. The sign said all the work hands had to be under thirty-five years of age and be high school graduates. Well, this company would not recognize his diploma because it was from a Kentucky school. They said a high school diploma from Kentucky, Arkansas or Mississippi just showed a man had done about the same as ten years in school in any other state. But they agreed to give the boy a test to see how much he knowed and he failed it flatter ‘n a flitter. They turned him down and he got a job workin’ in a laundry. He jist barely makes enough money to pay his way but it’s better than settin’ around back here.
I reckon they just ain’t no future for people like us. Me and my wife ain’t got nothin’ and don’t know nothin’ hardly. We’ve spent everythin’ we’ve got to try to learn our young’uns something so they would have a better chance in the world, and now they don’t know nothin’ either.
Other observers of the Cumberlands might come away with revolutionary proposals for reform or at least end their narratives with sharp criticisms of federal indifference, commercial brutality, and venality among local politicians. But Mr. Caudill concludes with a proposal for a Southern Mountain Authority along the lines of the T.V.A., one of whose enterprises might be to gather the scattered residents of the area into planned communities, with properly subsidized schools and hospitals, and then to flood the valleys, in the hope that some day the Cumberlands will become a vacation center for fishing and boating enthusiasts from the overcrowded Northern cities. This noble proposal is also pitiable, and one suspects that part of Mr. Caudill’s motive in offering it is that future generations should not be able to witness the shame of these once beautiful valleys; that the Cumberlands should be allowed, at last, to die in peace and to be buried with some honor; that the only appropriate end to free enterprise and the unregulated exercise of rights conferred by ownership is, quite literally, the deluge.