The chatter has been continuous since at least the spring, a pervasive hum warning us of the disaffection of the White Working Class. Since the early hours of Nov. 9 and Donald Trump’s victory, the chatter has turned into a roar. The startling and, for many, unforeseen electoral outcome brought a doubling down on calls to understand the WWC.
Several recent books, including historian Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, have examined some of the history and concerns of the WWC.
But J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis has been greeted as a kind of Rosetta Stone for our political moment. The poignant, frequently charming book traces Vance’s life from eastern Kentucky to southern Ohio and on to the hallowed halls of Yale Law School.
At base, though, Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s damning cultural analysis wrapped in the trappings of memoir. Hillbilly Elegy makes blanket assertions about Appalachians, trotting out several tired conservative ideas to prove its implicit argument that, for the most part, the challenges of Appalachian poverty and culture stem from personal failings of Appalachians and have little to do with systemic obstacles or inequalities. This instinct — to blame residents of Appalachia for their problems — runs deep when we start talking about this kind of book.
All of these books, and Vance’s in particular, share a common Kentucky-born ancestor, one of the most important American books ever published about the plight of the working poor. Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, first published in 1963, is an often-overlooked American masterpiece that has received credit for igniting Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
By turns idiosyncratic, exhilarating and exasperating, Night takes a poetic, angry look at two centuries of Appalachian history — from Indian wars through moonshining to the coal industry — to explain and create sympathy for the impoverished residents of eastern Kentucky.
Born in 1922 in Whitesburg, the Letcher County seat, Caudill led a dynamic life before settling into his role as chronicler of his beloved home region. He served in the Army during World War II, practiced as an attorney in eastern Kentucky and was elected three times to the Kentucky House of Representatives. He concluded his career as a professor of Appalachia History at the University of Kentucky.
An autodidact with a flair for storytelling, Caudill embarked on Night after publishing an article titled “The Rape of the Appalachians” in a 1962 issue of The Atlantic.
Night Comes to the Cumberlands is one of those strange books that is more known about than read. Similar to W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, much of Night’s power stems from the poetic conviction and narrative verve of the author.
That’s really just a way of saying that if Caudill wrote today, the book wouldn’t survive a dissertation defense. The book lacks footnotes. It privileges robust truth over rigid fact, often playing loose and fast with minor details. The book exudes a manic energy, a relentless moral inertia. This is an ungainly metaphor, but Caudill writes like he’s falling down a staircase — he may not touch each step as he tumbles, but for the most part he ends up at the bottom of things.
As Wendell Berry said when eulogizing Caudill in 1990, “He saw, and he said, in as many ways as he could find, that we are involved in a disaster. One the one hand, he saw the hills, the streams, the trees and the people; he saw, on the other hand, the great moneyed interests that had not the power to see the hills, the streams, the trees and the people, but only the power to destroy them.”
Ron Eller, professor emeritus of history at UK (he holds Caudill’s former chair, actually), says Caudill is someone full of “myth and prophecy.” This is romantic language, of course, but romantic language befits Caudill, a flawed crusader with courage to stand up for both his beliefs and the relatively powerless residents of Appalachia.
It’s also true: myth for the stories that have sprung up around his most famous book and prophesy for the book’s eloquent prescience.
It’s become common knowledge — or as common as knowledge can be when it comes to issues like rural poverty, issues that until the last few months most Americans happily ignored — that Night was an essential catalyst for the War on Poverty. This in only somewhat true. Soon after its publication, The New Yorker reviewed Caudill’s book alongside Michael Harrington’s The Other America. As the story goes, this review sparked JFK’s desire to address rural poverty. According to Eller, this was not the case.
“There was already something called the East Kentucky Development Commission that [Kentucky] Governor Combs created in 1960,” Eller says.
Eller himself is an authority on the region; his book Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945 is an essential contribution to Appalachian Studies.
“There was a major book published the same year as Night Comes to the Cumberlands called The Southern Appalachian Regional Survey,” Eller continues. “What I’m saying is that while Night Comes to the Cumberlands did in fact play an important role and became a national symbol, it wasn’t in and of itself [the spark for the War on Poverty]. There’s no real evidence that Kennedy actually read the book. He clearly was influenced by the review and then by Caudill’s article in The Atlantic .He did read that and he was he was influenced by both of those, but that’s not why we got the war on poverty.”
Before Kennedy could visit the region, he was killed. Johnson took up much of Kennedy’s agent, including the formalized War on Poverty. Where Night Comes to the Cumberlands play a minor role in sparking the social program, Caudill’s engagement with the issue after Johnson took office was arguably more important.
According to Eller, not a single substantive piece of journalism about Appalachia was written without consulting Caudill. He and Anne, his wife and writing partner, would greet visiting journalists and guide them through eastern Kentucky, with Caudill regaling them with stories through their trip. This as much as the book itself lent Caudill an outsize influence on what the country thought of Appalachia.
What of Caudill’s prophecy?
Caudill’s prophecy was of just being clear-eyed, of course. In the real world that’s what prophecy really is — the ability to see the suggestions of the future in the deformities of the present. He was able to see clearly the history of violence that had been visited on the people of the region, from both internal and external sources, and how that had create a region ripe for exploitation by the coal industry, the primary villain in Night.
“But the tragedy of the Kentucky mountains transcends the tragedy of coal,” Caudill writes toward the beginning of Night. “It is compounded of Indian wars, civil war and intestine feuds, of layered hatreds and violent death. To it sad blend, history has added the curse of coal as a crown of sorrow.”
This is mesmerizing writing, but it is also one of the truest things that can be said about the region’s economic hardships. Caudill was one of the first writers speaking this way about the region — and maybe the first from the region.
“The broader issues that Harry raises, how industrial capitalism can bring benefits but at tremendous costs because of the inequalities and the injustices when government looks the other way to a place and the people,” Eller says, “that’s what Harry was talking about. He talks about the destruction through strip mining of eastern Kentucky and what’s going to do to the water and the health of the people and we can’t survive. You know it seems to me that so much of that has come true. Harry was one of the first to say that Appalachia is a mirror to the rest of the country, and we ought to be looking at it.”
Of course, Caudill was not flawless. He sometimes traded in hillbilly stereotypes. More importantly, a noxious form of J.D. Vance’s essentialism crops up in Caudill’s work — it lies at the edges of Night but moved to the foreground as Caudill aged into pessimism about the region’s prospects for economic and social progress.
In the 1970s he became enchanted by some pathetic ideas about genetics — he felt that the residents of Appalachia were poor genetic stock and that for the region to succeed, outside blood was necessary. This is as absurd as it is vile, and these lines of inquiry did great violence to Caudill’s reputation. These positions are not defensible, though we can say that Caudill was merely a man of his times. Moreover, it seems fair to say that Caudill’s work for justice did more good than his flawed attempts at genetic theorizing.
“I would argue that in many ways he is still a prophet for today if you can take some of the better ideas,” Eller says. “That’s like trying to understand any historical figure or person. You can’t take them whole. You have to take what you can learn from them and translate them into the demands of the day and how we understand life today.”
And understanding life today seems as complicated as it is necessary. Kentucky’s a microcosm of the nation — with solidly blue Louisville and Lexington swimming in a sea of red. And folks feel economically adrift out there. Today’s attempts at understanding are worth our time, but more than reading contemporary tea leaves we could do well to look at one of the singular classics of the genre.
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