Nonfiction: Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill

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.

More than a mere screed, Night Comes to Cumberlands is packed with information.  The 1960 census showed that 19% of the residents of the plateau could neither read nor write.  Contrary to the general conception, the plateau was highly irreligious.  Caudill identifies the roots of feud culture in vendettas from the Civil War.  A culture that thrived in a place that where a murder rap might bring no more hard time than a theft rap.  We see the unions and the government come to the Cumberlands.

Billy Davis photo of Harlan County from the book

Life in the Cumberlands was never good, but Caudill shows the descent from benevolent ignorance to pathetic ignorance.  A proud, self-sufficient people slowly had all their dignity stripped away with the topsoil.  It’s one of the great American tragedies.  The enormous natural resources of the Cumberlands—from its trees to coal to natural beauty—were taken away with worse than nothing to show for its people.

Caudill, writing in 1963, also offers some insight into why our current opioid crisis is old news in coal country.  Mining coal country is hard, dangerous work, especially a century ago, that left men broken at best and crippled at worst.  They fought to unionize, and the unions fought for disability schemes.  The pressures of electoral politics and men who “possessed little beyond their votes” ensured those disability schemes did not stay exclusive.  Brain drain drained doctors unwilling to fudge a Welfare certification and men unwilling to seek one alike.  Those same remaining doctors freely dispensed prescription meds.

5 of 5 Stars.


More reviews:

John Cheves and Bill Estep at the Lexington Herald-Leader – article.

Kirkus Reviews – review.


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8 thoughts on “Nonfiction: Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill

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