I once thought of Night Comes to the Cumberlands as a The Mind of the South for southern Appalachia (W.J. Cash utterly ignores the highcountry). Now that I’ve read Night Comes to the Cumberlands, I know just how different coal country is from both the lowcountry South and the stretches of Appalachia unblighted by coal and thank God again there is no coal under my particular corner of Appalachia. Coal ruined Mr. Caudill’s country, and he’s rightfully angry about it (although his writing is never other than fair and evenhanded, perhaps too much so, as he lays out this hillbilly horror story in exacting detail).
Night Comes to the Cumberlands has immediately joined my pantheon of books I would recommend to any planning to embark on a serious study of the South along with The Mind of the South, Confederates in the Attic, and Albion’s Seed. It occupies an even more central place in Hillbilly Studies, rivaled mainly by Albion’s Seed and perhaps Hillbilly Elegy. Caudill purports to do nothing less than lay down the entire (European-American) history (through the early 1960s) of the Cumberland Plateau that covers most of eastern Kentucky. The Cumberlands are a dissected plateau, hence the deep gorges, tendency toward erosion, and coal. It is the coal that dominates Caudill’s history and causes the divergence between coal country and the rest of southern Appalachia.