Sunday, December 16, 2012

Paper starts year-long look at E. Ky. with biography of author who focused U.S. attention on the region

By Chris Ware, Herald-Leader
The Lexington Herald-Leader today began what it promises will be a year-long examination of one of the nation's most economically distressed areas, with the start of a five-part biography of the late Harry M. Caudill, who "brought the world to Eastern Kentucky" 50 years ago with the publication of  Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.

The book was the seminal document in reporting and commentary that focused national attention on the mountainous Cumberland Plateau, led to the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission and, the newspaper says, "forever changed Appalachia." Reporters John Cheves and Bill Estep write, "Coal mining was subjected to new taxes and new worker-safety and environmental laws. In the 1980s, Kentucky finally outlawed the 'broad-form deed,' a controversial legal device that allowed coal companies to strip-mine people's land against their will."

But the Whitesburg lawyer and former state legislator "never recognized this success," they write. "Ultimately, Caudill concluded that Appalachia could not be fixed because its people were broken, its gene pool hopelessly watered down by inbreeding among the 'dullards' who wallowed in ignorance and 'welfarism' in isolated hollows." The story reveals that Caudill and eugenicist William Shockley conceived a program to pay some families to undergo sterilization.

"Caudill's admirers . . . prefer that his legacy be advocacy of wise environmental stewardship and the courage to challenge long-entrenched powers, as a writer, a citizen-activist and a teacher," Cheves and Estep write, and quote University of Kentucky historian Ron Eller, the leading historian of modern Appalachia: "No one else at the time was saying the things that Harry was saying about the corruption in the relationships between business and government."

Part of an e-book the newspaper will publish, the biography is the first of Caudill. Former Los Angeles Times reporter Rudy Abramson nearly completed one, but "died in 2008 before he could publish it," the paper reports. "The manuscript rests with Abramson's grown children, who don't wish to discuss it." Abramson was a co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. (Read more)

UPDATE, Jan. 11: Cheves did an hour-long interview with WMMT-FM of Whitesburg, Caudill's home town. Lister to it here.

No comments: