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Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area [Paperback]

By Harry M. Caudill (Author) & James K. Caudill (Afterword by)
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Item description for Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill & James K. Caudill...

At the time it was written, Night Comes to the Cumberlands framed an urgent appeal to the American Conscience. Today it details Appalachia's difficult past, and at the same time, presents an accurate historical backdrop for a contemporary understanding of the Appalachian region.

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Item Specifications...

Pages   404
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.2" Width: 5.5" Height: 1.1"
Weight:   1.1 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Oct 1, 2001
Publisher   Jesse Stuart Foundation
ISBN  1931672008  
ISBN13  9781931672009  

Availability  0 units.

More About Harry M. Caudill & James K. Caudill

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Product Categories

1Books > Special Features > New & Used Textbooks > Social Sciences > Anthropology
2Books > Subjects > Literature & Fiction > General > Contemporary
3Books > Subjects > Nonfiction > Social Sciences > Anthropology > Cultural

Reviews - What do customers think about Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area?

A wonderful read.  Jul 2, 2008
This is an excellent book. Gives a lot of great detailed information on the history of that era.
Bad stereotypes = bad book  Nov 17, 2007
Harry Caudill's account of Eastern Kentucky's "untamed children" takes the award for the modern era's grossest stereotypes, excepting perhaps the SNL skit, "Appalachian Emergency Room." Yes, this coal country history is rife with the most insulting characterizations of mountain people. Caudill extends beyond the ubiquitous moonshiners and feuders by asserting that this area was settled by "embittered outcasts and rejects from the shores of Europe" who were lawless and, of course, fiercely independent (13). Then between 1870 and 1960, the region became plagued with inbreds, idiots, people lacking any artistic creativity and, God forbid, appreciation for Shakespeare or other expressions of "real culture," women who procreated out of wedlock to obtain government money, and wastrels incapable of pulling themselves out of the squalor that befell them upon King Coal's collapse.

This book is a depressing account of a depressed area scarred and wounded by industrialization and allegedly locked in the past by despondent people, corrupt corporations, and a negligent government. Caudill chronicles the regional cycles of boom and bust from the 1870s to the 1960s and seeks to explain the causes of the vast poverty surrounding him when he wrote this book in 1963. His most prominent and unfortunate explanation is the heritage of the mountain people, who, as mentioned before, were supposedly Britain's social outcasts. In Caudill's eyes, they only became more barbaric and unruly as they lived in the Eastern Kentucky wilderness and mingled with Native Americans. Their progeny later responded to post-Civil War political animosity with feuding and violence. This constant warring chased off the virile men that it didn't kill, so women began marrying their cousins as a result of the decreasing gene pool. Their "mentally inferior" children were the ones who entered into the mines. Once these "fantastically inbred" mountaineers were integrated into coal mining communities and culture, they then became subject to the vagaries of industry (84). As the coal boom collapsed into the Great Depression, the mountaineers-turned-miners became shiftless and despondent and began relying heavily on government handouts. During a later coal collapse, they also began seeking government-sponsored relief by manipulating local leaders through votes. Caudill's insulting explanation does not solely blame mountain people, for he also denounces coal operators and local politicians, but not nearly to the same extent. In fact, he is sometimes sympathetic to the capitalist designs of industrialists, even when he admits that they abused their workers and stripped the land of all of its value.

No references are included in this work, so the information Caudill presents is dubious at best. Some of his assertions are naïve, like his insistence that miners and coal operators were, almost without exception, friendly toward each other until the Great Depression. Other claims are completely outlandish. He insists that many mountain people, "literally starved for compliments and for some outward show of appreciation," readily sold their mineral rights after being wooed by slick-tongued mineral buyers (73). Caudill also argues that during WWII, coal companies struggled with labor shortages. Many able-bodied men had either gone to fight or had left the region seeking higher paying jobs in industrial cities, leaving in their wake those who did not qualify for military service due to health reasons. He cites malnutrition as a key problem, a valid assumption considering that the war followed twelve years of extreme economic depression. However, Caudill again resorts to a common misconception about mountain people when he interjects, "Illiteracy and low mentality - the latter induced in part, perhaps, by generations of inbreeding - also caused the rejection of hundreds of others" from military service (226). Comments such as these make me doubt even further the veracity of his arguments or the extent of his research.

I was warned that Night Comes to the Cumberlands perpetuated stereotypes, but I wanted to read it because of the influence it exerted on America's perception of Appalachia. According to regional historian John Alexander Williams, this book was a non-fiction bestseller. It was massively influential and initiated the idea for what became the Appalachian Regional Commission. I do not regret that Caudill called attention to Eastern Kentucky. Indeed, the land and people were suffering and their plight warranted national action. Even now I stand amazed at how little attention is paid to Central Appalachia in regards to the destruction of mountains, streams, and peoples' homes and health because of mining. But I ultimately fault Caudill for failing to acknowledge the diversity, intelligence, and industry of the people who chose to remain in Eastern Kentucky. Widespread activism that called attention to strip mining and black lung did not emerge in the region until a few years after this book was published, but one can certainly assume that the seeds of discontent had been sewn by 1963. What of the teachers, doctors, miners, and other proud men and women who pushed their youth to achieve, felt empowered by their local churches and community groups, or served as Union leaders prior to the 1960s? Their inclusion would have changed this book from a "biography of a depressed area" to a more inspiring call for social and environmental justice. Caudill's intentions were good, but he missed the opportunity to change the way that the region was viewed. Needless to say, I only recommend reading this book in order to understand how different eras have perceived Appalachia. Anybody seeking an introduction to the region should look elsewhere.
An eye-opening historical perspective  Jul 9, 2007
I was on vacation spending the week at our family's river cottage and this book, dusty and long-forgotten, set upon the shelf. After spending an idle week reading this book, I feel like I have a better understanding of the history and human forces that shaped this region of the United States. This book is a rare treasure that offers an eye-opening historical perspective which is easily accessible and well-written. While the publication date is over 40 years ago, if you are at all interested in the story of the Cumberland area, about the path towards industrialization brought about by coal, and the tragedy that befell a once proudly individualist and free people, you should read this book. You won't be disappointed. Be warned though, it's not a book for historical revisionists and it uses language in use during the time it was published, so check any political correctness before you open it.
Heavy going in places   Dec 30, 2006
I found the book to be a bit long-winded and belaboring certain points. The author was passionate about his subject - helping the people in the area - but just wrote in a manner that got tiring. He went into details on the mining operations that we really don't need to know about.

Nevertheless, it was a book worth reading, I am just glad I have finished it!
Inaccurate and Biased Against Eastern KY  Dec 28, 2006
When reading this book, one must keep in mind that it was written in the 1960's. Caudill's history has some inaccuracies. One such problem is the idea that the original mountain people were the "human refuse" of Europe. In actuality, many of the people who move into the mountains did so by way of Revolutionary War land grants which Caudill admits later in the story. Most of the people who fought for the Continental Army were from the middle or working class of American society--hardly the "human refuse" of Europe. This is just one instance of Caudill's inaccurate claims.

There are some good things about the book, i.e. a discussion of Indian/Anglo crossbreeding. However, I can definitely see why people from Eastern Kentucky have such a low opinion of the book. The author makes Appalachians look like animals who need to be saved from themselves--a common liberal stance of the 1960s.

The book, however, is worth reading. Just do so with a very critical eye. In addition, read a solid Kentucky history book before diving into this one in order to better separate the wheat from the chaff.

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