Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill (Book Review #3 of 2015)
Night Comes to the Cumberlands is a must-read for anyone interested in Kentucky, whether you're working in public policy or a church planter (which Caudill provides specific insights into), a sociologist, or curious tourist. It ought to be a prerequisite for members of the Kentucky General Assembly to read before taking office. I am writing this review as an economist for the Commonwealth whose office often evaluates legislation and projects touted to bring jobs and growth to the mountains. I also evaluate Medicaid and am aware of the challenges the Appalachian region bring to that program. I have also lived in the Caucasus mountains, the Smokies, and at the edge of the Ozarks, and note many of the similarities (world wide) of the "highlanders" described in Night Comes. It's incredible that Kentucky is putting millions of tax dollars into SOAR, an effort to find solutions to problems that Caudill pointed out 50 years ago-- and many of the solutions presented as "new" are identical to Caudill's prescriptions 50 years ago! That's why this book is a must-read.
One prerequisite for any public policy maker, economist, or anyone interested in economic development before reading this book is Why Nations Fail by Acemoğlu and Robinson. Those economists' theory, developed while examining impoverished regions like Appalachia all over the world through the centuries, are that regions fail when extractive economic institutions set up exclusive political institutions to consolidate both political and economic power. That, in a nutshell, is the experience of so many counties in Appalachia who still struggle economically and are dependent upon the government and charity for so much. Reading that book will help you greater understand and critique Caudill's observations and policy prescriptions for Eastern Kentucky found in Night Comes.
Harry M. Caudill was the son of miners who became a lawyer, was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly, and taught history courses at the University of Kentucky. He witnessed the difficulty and peculiarities of Appalachian life and the book is written more to educate than the advocate. I do not know how precisely accurate all of his history is, but he does quote at length of various letters, memoirs, and newspaper articles from the 1800s to the time of his writing (1962). Caudill gives an interesting history of the settling of the Appalachians. I consider John Mack Faragher's biography of Daniel Boone (my review) to also be recommended reading along with this book. The future mountaineers were initially brought over to the Colonies as indentured servants to work in the fields of Virginia and elsewhere, laborers from London, Scotland and elsewhere. Largely uneducated and seen as a burden to the British to be neatly exported, they escaped to the mountains or moved/squatted there as soon as their contracts were up.
Caudill documents the superstitions and stories of witchcraft common into his boyhood, and prints some quotations of songs played on ancient fiddles that have been past down from Scotch-Irish forebears. These songs were transmitted despite an illiterate population that could not understand the meaning of some of the words in the old English. The various Hatfield-McCoy-like feuds came out of Civil War rivalries. Clans enlisted in opposing factions, and word of the death of one family member at the hand of the opposing army in battle would cause armed retribution on behalf of his kinfolk against opposing neighbors on the home front. When the soldiers returned, these rivalries continued and the land was difficult to govern.
The author also chronicles the history of the churches, relatively few, in the area. I was aware of Old Regular and Primitive Baptists, who have sort of a hybrid Calvinism and odd beliefs (like meeting once a month, a tradition from when circuit riders did the preaching and traveled from church to church, and a belief that children are born in sin and unredeemable until an age of accountability). According to Caudill, John the Baptist was the hero of church attenders, and there was much emphasis on a church's "trail of blood," linking its heritage back to John the Baptist having been uncorrupted by Roman Catholicism (this might have been important to Scottish Presbyterians?). Since most of the people were illiterate, there were very few who could read the King James Bible and even fewer who could understand it. At the time of Caudill's writing, church attendance was waning and he gives quote of correspondence from various church planters who found it difficult to get churches started even in large towns. More main stream denominations are/were avoided with skepticism by the locals. No snake-handling churches are mentioned, however.
There are detailed descriptions of coal mining, which would be quite tedious except for how Caudill illustrates the technological changes and their implication for wealth and the work force over the decades. Towns sprung up overnight, built by coal mining companies that owned the commerce and quickly bought up the fiscal courts and other constitutional offices. (Kentucky still struggles with administrative overburden with people getting paid large salaries to be jailer in over 40 counties with no jail.) The people were dependent on the mines and lived in the boom-and-bust cycles of the economy in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Support for FDR's New Deal shifted Eastern Kentucky from being mostly Republican to staunchly Democrat, a trend that held until the 2014 Senate race where the Democratic candidate was soundly trounced in all Appalachian counties (due in part to the perception that the Democrats had declared a "war on coal.") World War II enriched many miners who weren't drafted, returning veterans remarked at how fortunes had changed in their absence.
Caudill chronicles the bare-knuckle political races of his day, including the tight Senate race between FDR's man, incumbent Alben Barkley, and Governor A.B. "Happy" Chandler. Chandler had gained support in the mountains and looked like he might win until Barkley spread false rumors of a mahogany-furnished bathroom in the Governor's mansion that Chandler built for himself and would not let his own wife use.
Caudill both bemoans and encourages subsidization of the migration from of the hills. Veterans returning from WWII opted to use their GI Bill to get educated at universities, and most did not return. Entire graduating classes of some of the high schools reportedly moved away. Kentucky's low budget for infrastructure made highways and maintenance sparse, as engineers were drawn away into private sector jobs. Since the roads were not funded nor no longer maintained by the private coal companies, mine roads fell into disrepair.
Caudill remarks that despite the mass migration of high school graduates, who at the time could automatically obtain enrollment at schools like the University of Kentucky, tey were largely "poorly educated" and unable to keep up with their peers. He cites a study by UK stating that high school students in Harlan County were three years behind their peers nationwide in reading, math, and science. He remarks as a teacher that few students had read any classics or seemed to have the capability, most of them having studied under teachers who were locally trained at teachers' colleges. Math courses were too often taught by coaches who devoted most of their efforts to athletics. Caudill detests the money put into athletics, coaches, and stadiums over education-- oh what he'd say today!
The author is writing from a 1962 perspective, having recently witnessed the "transformation" of the Tennessee Valley by the TVA under FDR. He argues at the end of the book for a Southern Mountain Authority, another TVA-like federal project to transform the region into a tourist hub by creating lakes and trails for visitors from the increasingly-crowded East Coast. At the same time, he calls for subsidizing industrialization in some areas and revitalization of towns. Interestingly, he calls for the subsidization of migration away from Eastern Kentucky, arguing that the ex-miners would be better off if the government paid them to resettle in Ohio, California, Florida, and other places where industry might be booming and pay better, and to pay to retrain them for those jobs.
His argument against against criticisms that such a federal program is socialist is interesting and could have been written in 2015: Firms in every U.S. industry get subsidized in some fashion by tax dollars. We also give foreign aid to prop up the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, where child slavery is legal and the monarchy rules like autocrats. Could some of those tax dollars not better be spent in creating a TVA for Kentucky?
He is open to other ideas by "future students," but writes that the reader must understand the following when arguing for market solutions:
- Miners are not self-sufficient. There is no present industry moving in to support them at any wage.
- Miners are unskilled. The skills they had were dependent on mining, and that's gone.
- The population is widely uneducated. UK study showed Harlan Co. grads were 3 years behind peers nationally in reading, math, science.
- Most of the population is on welfare otherwise, so the government might as well give them work to help their pride, dignity, and health.
- The women are idle and frustrated, also uneducated and largely unable to work.
- The population is "too big for its needs."
- Since we subsidize farmers to not even grow anything, why not subsidize miners to move to where wages are high?
- The land needs to be left to grow naturally and will heal if we let it.
- Every county needs better local governance. The county judge or magistrates have constitutional offices but little power in actual management.
This book is monumental, helped inspire LBJ's War on Poverty which in turn inspired visits to the region by dignitaries from LBJ to Mother Theresa. I wonder if Caudill would have been supportive of all the pork that Rep. Hal Rogers (R) has brought to the region, or simply would have complained of the resulting greater dependence on government. He likely would have favored the federally-subsidized industrial parks that now sit empty, and would probably shake his head to know that President Obama and the current Governor were thinking of new spins on old programs. I suspect Caudill would be sympathetic to economist Paul Coomes' idea to combine counties, since Kentucky has so many for such a small population and many Constitutional offices require local taxes to support, discouraging commerce, and providing no benefit (see the jailers without jails above). Taxes are as hard to collect in some of the mountain counties as they were in 1962. All of the aid that goes into the region often subsidizes people just to live there. We're repeating history because we haven't learned from Caudill's. 4.5 stars out of 5. A real gem.