Book Review: Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area
Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry M. Caudill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Appalachia has a history of serving as whatever the counterpoint is to our contemporary definitions of progress.
The Cumberland Plateau has always been seen as an anchor dragging behind the rest of America. For example, right after the Civil War, when progress was built into ideas about modernization and the development of industry, Appalachia emerged as this backward place that could throw a wrench into the entire system by remaining primitive, even savage.
This book has often been described as a "definitive text on poverty in Appalachia among journalists, academics, and government bureaucrats concerned with economic inequality in America,” and yet despite the nearly endless research into the area and its many problems the area itself remains largely unchanged, even today.
For a while, in the immediate wake of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Harry Caudill thought his book would help him save Appalachia. He had credibility and the nation's attention. Surely he could use that to build something great, something permanent. But he became disappointed with the slow pace of change and disillusioned that the people did not themselves more actively seek reform. Caudill told reporters that "money alone" couldn't fix an ignorant rural culture that wouldn't bother itself to learn.
Appalachia taken as a whole perfectly illustrates capitalism’s destructive force, while it simultaneously lifts people out of poverty it also keeps them dependent and ultimately only serves to exploit them.
Journalist Chris Hedges labels areas like the Appalachians as “sacrifice zones.” In an interview with Moyers and Company he said, “It’s absolutely imperative that we begin to understand what unfettered, unregulated capitalism does,” Hedges emphasized. “These are sacrifice zones, areas that have been destroyed for quarterly profit. And we’re talking about environmentally destroyed, communities destroyed, human beings destroyed, families destroyed. And because there are no impediments left, these sacrifice zones are just going to spread outward. There's no way to control corporate power. The system has broken down, whether it's Democrat or Republican. And because of that, we've all become commodities. Just as the natural world has become a commodity that is being exploited until it is exhausted, or it collapses.”
One of the biggest problems facing the Appalachia's is a lack of quality leadership on a more local level. The type of leadership positions available at this level do not generally tend to attract the brightest candidates, as the more educated and intelligent members of the populace tend to move away, and as a result the people are burdened with leadership that is grossly incapable of making any real and lasting contributions to their communities. As a result of this intellectual and creative paucity the people under their guidance inevitably suffer.
Harry Caudill exclaimed that, “The fiscal court, the archaic institution that it is, for the sake of efficiency should be abolished and its functions should be turned over to a three-man county commission. The commissioners should then be directed to hire a county manager to conduct the fiscal affairs of the county under their guidance.” He also said, “The most difficult and most important objective lies in the consolidation of counties. By this means the number of officials could be reduced to a third the present number, and the resulting economies would make available to the remaining courthouses funds for essential projects which now receive little or no support.”
Whatever the solutions to the problems facing Appalachia may be, the answers are going to have to come from the people. No one is coming to save them and hope of a brighter tomorrow is only holding them back.
Whenever people point out the problems facing the people of southeastern Kentucky the people living there inevitably begin to cry foul and exclaim that they aren’t being fairly represented and ask why must we only talk about the negatives? Harry Caudill had an answer to that very question, “I have dwelt purposely on the negative influences because they have given the region its character and have created its difficulties.”
There was a point in time when I would meet people and they’d hear that I’m from Kentucky and they’d ask me about this book and they seemed really excited to talk to me about it. But the question was never, “What do you think about this book?” It was always accusatory as in, “What do you have to say about this?” As if the problems the author outlines was somehow my fault, and maybe it is, but blaming the poor for their poverty is a favorite pastime in a country where income inequality is its bread and butter.
But what concerns the author of this book should concern all of us. We are embedded in a system of exploitation that we come to tolerate simply because we can’t even imagine life without it.
If you’ve ever watched Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant adaptation of the P.D. James novel by the same name, Children of Men, you are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, but actually originates with H. Bruce Franklin, “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” This slogan captures precisely Appalachia’s predicament. Capitalism limits our dreams by claiming that it is the best possible system despite its imperfections. Culminating in a widespread belief that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative. Global capitalism is simply accepted as a fact that you cannot do anything about. The only question is, will you accommodate yourself to it, or will you be dismissed and excluded by it?