As the dawn faded into a hazy mid- morning of post-War America, millions fled the cities to the suburbs in an early experiment in Dreherite retreat. The mood, however, was still hopeful: their parishes shattered, their old neighbourhoods surrendered to the sons of ne’erdowell day traders who couldn’t hack it as sharecroppers, they had still managed to elect the youngest president in American history and were making tremendous headway in clearing up the various wrong-headed errors that defined the America of yesteryear. Phil Ochs wrote a song about these people called “Love Me, I’m a Liberal“. It introduced your author to the experience of agreeing with a communist for the wrong reasons.
They’re not a particularly introspective, scholarly bunch – but intelligent people can impress them, and for a brief time, they were head-over-heels for a country lawyer from the coal counties in Eastern Kentucky. The hook? A 1962 exposé titled Night Comes to the Cumberlands. The New York Times called it “the Jungle of the 20th century” and President Kennedy, never one to miss a fad, insisted that every member of his cabinet should read it.
The work is strangely timeless, actually – revealing the horrible poverty and destruction of the land and the people of Appalachia due to the mining practices of the post-War economy, especially strip mining (known more innocuously as “surface mining” in the industry.) It also tells the story of the people left behind by emergent White Suburbia: poor mountain folk who formed the backbone of support for men like George Wallace in Alabama – whose descendants in the Shenandoah today are a driving force behind Corey Stewart of Virginia. These are the people disproportionately effected by the opioid epidemic, and in the 1960s they were an early face of the “War on Poverty” that did little other than funneling government money into the inner cities the citizens of Suburbia had abandoned under threats of violence well documented over at Those Who Can See and in the research of one Devin Helton, among others. In fact, there was little that did quite as much as Harry Caudill’s book to kick-start the expansion of the Welfare State during the Kennedy-Johnson era.
Now, however, it is safe to day Caudill has had a much less illustrious legacy than Upton Sinclair, to whom he was so readily compared in his own day. Environmental legislation and social welfare programs have done little to end the rape of the land in Kentucky and West Virginia, and the people of Appalachia, the nearest we can likely get to the purebred founding stock of America, have benefited little or not at all from government programs. Indeed, Appalachia probably reaped more concrete benefits from Loretta Lynn than from Caudill. Your author stumbled upon him whilst perusing a back issue of American Heritage magazine from 1968 – an auspicious year for reformers and activists who arrayed themselves against the forces of raw Capital in displays ranging from the melodramatic to the farcical. Caudill’s trajectory is revealing, as is his quiet disappearance, for he traced a path from public advocate for Appalachia and its people to a private architect of a massive social engineering plan that involved the forced sterilization of most of Appalachia and selective breeding among a select few – in order to improve the genetic stock that had failed to support his sweeping reforms for the correct reasons. Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly: after getting frustrated with his own people, he turned to a colleague at the University of Kentucky with a plan to breeding them on board.
The story is too illustrative to leave back in the memory hole; through university education and DC society, a coal miner’s son goes from Atticus Finch to full ecofascist in just shy of a decade. It also cuts to the heart of modern environmentalism across the ahem spectrum, and what it means to place human being in the balance with the land they inhabit and interact with.
Dark as a Dungeon
First, though, we must talk, at least briefly, about coal and the people who take it out of the earth. Coal shapes a people; coal miners (here we mean anyone working in the pits, not just miners in the proper sense) and their children recognise their own kind regardless of nationality or locality. That said, coal mining as a major operation has an ethnic quality to it, as the only major coal deposits in Europe are found in England and Germany. Anthracite – hard coal – is rare in Europe and restricted largely to upper Appalachia from Dauphin to Susquehanna counties in Pennsylvania. This dominated the market from the 1830s to the 1940s in America as a heating coal, and was in fact so central to the Northern war effort that Union troops were sent in by Republican mine owners to keep the mines open at gunpoint and conscript labour agitators to prevent them from voting (that is another good story). Lower Appalachia – that is, from the southern borders of Ohio and Pennsylvania southward to Georgia – is dominated by varying grades of bituminous or “soft coal”. Soft coal hits a sort of sweet spot for industry – neither as hot nor as hard to ignite as Anthracite, it is still of high enough quality to burn evenly and consistently. It burns longer and hotter than the brown coal from Texas, but it’s still generally softer than the rock around it, meaning it can be picked and drilled like Lignite (brown coal) and does not require blasting like anthracite.
In short, bituminous mining requires a different, and, to an extent, more accessible skill set, and can be mined profitably both in deep mining and strip mining. Anthracite mining is much more dangerous work, requires a higher skill set but also higher degrees of desperation to do it. Your author would be remiss if we were to continue without noting that “more dangerous” does not suggest that bituminous mining is some kind of dream job – safety is atrocious and soft coal miners are among the hardest working men in America – and the world. Anthracite deep miners, though, ran higher risks of catastrophic death and dismemberment at the height of deep mining than bituminous miners. All miners, however, share common struggles: Black Lung, slave-like existence in relation to the mining companies, and strong ethnic communities for whom mining work is an inextricable part of their identity. The Slovaks and Poles of Lattimer, the Irish of Scranton, the Italians of Pittston, the Rusnaks of Pittsburgh, and the Scotch-Irish of Kentucky and West Virginia are all unique tribal communities, but they share common traits in the way they have maintained their tribes as a result of their ties to the mines. It is perhaps their sense of humour that defines these peoples most as mining folk – just listen to the lyrics of “Dark as a Dungeon”, for example. The gallows humour and suspicion of outsiders also earned the Anthracite fields around Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Hazelton a reputation for being tough crowds on the Vaudeville circuit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Natural disaster spelled the doom of Anthracite mining in America – the double hit of Hurricanes Diane and Agnes in 1955 and 1972 completely eliminated the rail infrastructure used for hauling coal out of the region, though by the 1970s, deep mining had already been eliminated by the Knox Mine disaster, a sad story of criminal mismanagement (literally here – the executives were convicted) that resulted in the Susquehanna River breaking through the ceiling of the mine flooding the entire system of mines and killing twelve miners who remain entombed in the flooded shafts and slopes beneath the river.
The resulting shift was towards bituminous and away from deep mining. The result was a massive uptick in surface – i.e. strip – mining. The principal arguments for the practice is increased safety and increased profitability – surface mines require lower skill levels, fewer workers, and move earth and coal at far greater rates than deep mining. This makes them a blessing for coal companies and a mixed bag for mine workers, but they remain an unmitigated disaster for local ecology. True, deep mining pollutes nearby waters with sulphur and iron, releases dangerous underground gas pockets, and turns the landscape black with coal, culm, and slate. Strip mines, though, turn creeks and wells into acid, kill everything that grows, and creates mudslides that engulf entire towns and forests, burying them like Vesuvius above Herculaneum and Pompeii. The land near a surface mine are often as barren as the surface of the moon.
Mr Caudill Goes to Washington
For a people like the Scotch-Irish of Kentucky, who still lived off the land well into the 1970s when Caudill was most active, strip mining was a death sentence. Wells dug by the early pioneers dried up or turned to poison, rivers and streams from which generations of hillbillies had drawn water for their stills became miasma, killing everything that took root nearby, and hillsides missing their mountaintops slid into the hollers and valleys, burying homesteads and making old roads impassable. In all cases, the land with which the settlers of Appalachia had become so intertwined was as indelibly altered by strip mining as if it had been subject to a great war or natural disaster.
Caudill initially took upon himself the noble task of highlighting the impact this had on the people, hoping to rally his own folk to his side and press for changes from Washington, DC. He probably ought to have known he was in for disappointment. In 1962, the chief concern of the United States government was expanding its own power and increasing the codependency of the ironically titled “Free World”. The plight of the localist, clannish, White working class people of Appalachia was at best irrelevant to and at worst an intentional part of US policy after 1945. The FBI-backed Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and would not slow down until the early 1970s and the Days of Rage. The only promise Caudill’s campaign showed to the proponents of expansive bureaucracy was it’s environmental implications. Predictably, he found himself pushed in that direction in subsequent writing and campaigning against the strip mine operations.
Caudill had another problem, though, even before he began his change of tone away from the Appalachian people and towards Appalachia as an ecosystem. He simply did not understand his own people. Defined by deep distrust of both government and moneyed powers, the mountain folk of Kentucky and West Virginia were unreliable friends of the Confederate cause against the fledgling Cathedral, and equally disagreeable allies of the Union. Their entire interest during the War was securing the rights of themselves and their posterity to be left the hell alone, a battle they continued well into the 20th century as they dodged law enforcement producing and transporting contraband liquor. Taken advantage of by every powerful force that had entered their lands, from the Plantation Aristocrats to the Union Army to the Coal Barons to the Tennessee Valley Authority, they were – and remain – a stubborn but resigned people given to depressive bouts and deep-rooted suspicions of all things foreign or novel. Caudill’s call for them to aid him in convincing Washington to intervene in their lives by regulating the mining operations employing many of them could not have found less receptive ears. Indeed, a less reform-minded race is difficult to imagine.
As Caudill came more and more into the public eye, he joined hands with a growing (though perhaps less than organic) environmental movement whose arguments were not couched in terms of human benefit but of the early stages of misanthropy that drive people who now speak of carbon footprints. To the simple, earth-grown eyes of the Appalachian hill folk, the urbanites who formed their views of nature based on fake Indians crying on television were loons. The more Caudill courted the good favour of the proto-bugman, the less use his own people had for him.
Caudill was dumbfounded, as is illustrated in his later works. He begins his career writing titles like Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and My Land is Dying, but by 1975 he had already penned a letter to Time magazine that poverty in Appalachia was because “the slobs continue to multiply”, and was in regular correspondence with William Shockley, the leading theorist of dysgenics as a cause for racial decline in America. Government money – Kennedy had spent almost $15 million in poverty programs – had not helped. It was time now to begin selective sterilizations and removals. Time quietly turned down the letter; Caudill, still a simple Appalachian at heart, had missed the memo that eugenics was no longer an acceptable topic for discussion among his betters in New York and Washington. Besides, they had other plans for the mountain men of Letcher County and the rest of lower Appalachia. Caudill’s 1976 work A Darkness at Dawn: Appalachian Kentucky and the Future would be his last major political comment on his land and people. By 1980, when he was forgotten and cast aside by the narrative makers, he returned to his roots with a collection of folk tales and anecdotes titled The Mountain, the Miner, and the Lord and Other Tales from a Country Law Office.
Caudill’s tale is a worthy word of warning to activists who court favour from the halls of power and influence. A country boy got himself an education, bettered himself by the universal standards of his time and people, and in the process forgot that Satan has been at this game of influence much longer than Harry Monroe Caudill, Esq. Moving in the spotlight and Cathedral social circles, he grew to hate his own and blame them for their own poverty and suffering – only to be cast aside when he ceased to be useful and crawl back home. In 1990, facing an advancing case of Parkinson’s, Harry Caudill put a gun to his head and gave into the depressive resignation felt for so long by the people whom he had failed as an advocate and champion. His name survives on his own tombstone, a branch of the county library system, and in the credits of a box office flop based on one of his folktales.