Harry M. Caudill established himself as a regional writer of rural Kentucky in 1963 with his book Night Comes to the Cumberlands, an account of the eastern and southern section of Kentucky where coal is king. The primary focus of his novels and books is the despoliation, poverty, and government corruption in the Cumberlands. Darkness at Dawn: Appalachia and the Future, also published in 1976, details the genealogical heritage of Kentucky’s British descendants, describing the culture and tradition of the people. Caudill, a native Kentuckian, rehashes a similar subject, the coal industry that carelessly rapes the environment. The book that established his reputation, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, described the poverty and deprivation in this Kentucky plateau region which is rich in coal. The Watches of the Night is a sequel to Night Comes to the Cumberlands; it updates that book and shows the continued bleakness of lives and politics of the Cumberland Plateau.
The mid- to late-1960’s was doubtless the time for public awareness, good works, and crusades on poverty. It became almost faddish during this time to protest to “gain insight” into the disadvantaged, and so in the mid- to late-1960’s, Kentucky, perhaps the heart of American poverty, was invaded with “hordes of pampered young people” who wanted to “view and interview living and suffering poverty.” Television documentaries, college study groups, VISTA volunteers, and other public awareness groups came to Kentucky to see, to study, and to attempt to correct the poverty that Caudill portrayed in his 1963 book.
VISTA, one of President John F. Kennedy’s creations in his war on poverty, sent people to “help the inhabitants rise up and cast off the shackles of want.” When VISTA workers saw at firsthand that local politicians were allied to coal interests, they sought immediate reform. The results of their efforts to bring the poor to an awareness of their plight, of political and industrial outrages, merely destroyed their effectiveness. Kentucky politicians called their national legislators and demanded that the volunteers be recalled. They railed against the volunteers, calling them “radical” and “disruptive,” and VISTA died by 1967. In recalling these events and others like them, Caudill in turn rails against the government, saying that “The federal echelon is only the upper structure of a system built on precincts, counties, cities and towns, and to war on the base will shatter the security on top.”
Caudill is constantly critical of the government because so often, as he sees it, when help groups came to the Cumberlands and touched on the corruption of politicians, the poverty, and the health hazards in the mines, federal subsidies for the organizations dried up or new directives were issued for the group.
After VISTA came Appalachian Volunteers, a group of college students helping with housing and education. Following publication of a brochure on “Appalachian’s 40 Thieves” its federal funding was dropped and the organization fell apart.
Today Caudill points out that Appalachia is perhaps in worse shape than it was thirteen years ago before all the help groups were sent by the government. President Johnson and his Great Society’s war on poverty made a “welfare reservation” out of much of the Cumberland area. Strip mining has ruined much of the fertile land and made silt and mud flats out of lakes created by the Army Corps of Engineers for flood control and recreation. In addition, the forests and the soil, once depleted in productivity but now replenished, lie unused and wasted, for the majority living in the Cumberland Plateau either worship the king coal or the welfare check. And as Caudill repeatedly demonstrates, such worship begins with the small businessmen who increase prices as soon as the miners get raises, and extends to the local, state, and federal government because coal is the number-one industry in the state.
With the increased need for coal, Caudill says, comes the continued despoliation of the land. Strip mining has left the land raped and has created soil erosion which destroys property. Coal mining in Kentucky has “vastly hastened the erosive processes that are relentlessly leveling the Appalachians.” Roads have been and continue to be torn up by the oversized Mack trucks that create huge potholes and destroy paving. Laws fail to be enforced to meet the requirements for truck size and weight. Yet...
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