Ky. newspaper begins look at landmark book


Associated Press

Posted on December 26, 2012 at 9:01 AM

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — A Kentucky newspaper has begun a yearlong series examining the effects of a landmark book that put the spotlight on Appalachian poverty.

The Lexington Herald-Leader ( ) is looking at the issues raised by "Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area," by Harry Caudill.

The 1963 book forever changed Appalachia by exposing the plundering of the mountains of eastern Kentucky. The book established Caudill, then 41, as the voice of the beleaguered mountain people.

Caudill, of Whitesburg, died in 1990.

Commercially, "Night" was a modest success. Culturally, "Night" was a bombshell, with an impact far beyond mere sales.

"Tens of thousands of acres," Caudill wrote in its pages, "fell to the exploiters, from a people who, though they might fight each other with medieval brutality, at a business negotiation were as guileless as infants."

Ronald Eller, an Appalachian historian at the University of Kentucky, said "the book was a pivotal moment."

"Harry articulately and openly challenged the system," Eller said. "The fact that so much about 'Night' still rings true today is quite an indictment of the political culture of the commonwealth."

By fall 1963, the whole world was coming to Whitesburg to share a meal with Harry and Anne Caudill and take his "poverty tour" of shattered mountains and shantytowns.

Word spread of "ugly, poverty-ridden" Appalachia, as The New York Times' book review put it.

Harry Caudill wryly described the response: Americans cleaned out their closets and shipped tons of old clothes to eastern Kentucky; threadbare suits cut for 1940s fashions dominated the mountains for years. A charitable wholesaler sent 12,000 pairs of children's shoes. Other donations were less thoughtful.

"The town of Harlan was blessed with an entire carload of cabbages for several days on a side track while the cargo rotted, and the Louisville and Nashville — which touts itself as 'Old Reliable' — promptly discarded it on a riverbank," Caudill wrote. "The ten tons of decaying vegetables sent an odoriferous pall to plague the county seat and raise serious doubts about the whole idea of Christian charity."

In early November of 1963, President John F. Kennedy told incoming Gov. Edward "Ned" Breathitt that he was arranging a visit to eastern Kentucky to announce aid for the impoverished region, Breathitt said in a 1998 oral-history interview.

After Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, assumed Kennedy's agenda as his own. In 1964, Johnson took the tour Kennedy planned, dropping into Martin County by helicopter to declare his War on Poverty and shake the hands of startled mountaineers on their front porches.

More than anything, Caudill said, Appalachia needed employers independent of coal.

Congress established the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC, in 1965 as a fairly traditional public works project. Billions of dollars in federal aid would go to counties designated as "Appalachia," predominantly for road construction, with other projects sharing smaller sums.

Thirteen states would share in the ARC's munificence, from New York to Mississippi. In Kentucky, Appalachia as Congress defines it extends through Lexington's suburbs to just outside Bowling Green in the western half of the state.

Caudill dismissed the ARC as an uncoordinated boondoggle. He said it didn't end the region's dependence on coal, improve schools or break up political cliques.

Medicare and Medicaid, created by Johnson, provided health care for the old and poor, which was much of Appalachia. That was good, Caudill said.

On the other hand, each new handout encouraged malingering by the lazy, he said. Free access to medicine let pill addicts claim "bad nerves" and stay doped up all day — a prescient criticism given the prescription drug abuse currently afflicting eastern Kentucky.


Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader,