A chronic inviter, Harry Caudill, the Appalachian writer, lawyer, professor and inside agitator from eastern Kentucky, had a favorite message when visiting Washington to testify before congressional committees investigating "current conditions" in the mountains: Come look for yourselves.
At his death on Nov. 29 in his native Letcher County, Ky., Caudill, 68, had in his debt a fair number of outsiders who had taken him up on the invitations. Politicians, social workers, students and reporters regularly journeyed into the hollows of Appalachia. Those of clear eye and open mind were changed, some to the point of taking action after they left.
Scenes of despoiled mountains raped by strip miners and the poverty of families who had little hope and no one to speak for them were exactly as Caudill had described in 10 books that included "Night Comes to the Cumberlands" and "My Land Is Dying." In recent years, after about a decade of teaching Appalachian studies at the University of Kentucky, Caudill was a regular contributor to The Mountain Eagle, the literate and crusading weekly in Whitesburg. A regional voice who captured the national ear, he spoke with a sharpness that was both new and as old as the hills.
"These broken men," he wrote of coal miners either dying or wheezing from coal dust in their lungs, "are part of the price America has paid for her industrial preeminence, though the Madison Avenue firms never mention them in the expensive ads they devise for their coal-mining clients. Their pain and poverty are a hidden part of the highly touted 'American standard of living.' "
That passage is from "Night Comes to the Cumberlands," the 1963 book that came a year after Michael Harrington's "The Other America." Together, they alerted the country that gorge-deep problems festered in Appalachia.
Caudill traced his mountain ancestry to his grandfather's grandfather, who settled in eastern Kentucky in 1792. Stories passed down from those families in the hollows were collected as treasures by Caudill, to be dispersed to visitors to his Whitesburg law office like sprigs of mountain laurel. They were tales of color and mirth, as in the one about a member of the local Choctaw tribe who gave Caudill, when a boy of 18, a demonstration war whoop that sounded through the hollow as a piercing yell: "The sound left me thoroughly impressed. ... On a hillside pasture cows bawled, and at a house a hundred yards away a couple of hounds howled in sympathy and wonderment. Their owner threw a rock at them and ordered them to shut up. We heard him grumbling with much profanity that he had never heard 'such a god-damned racket' in his life."
Caudill made his own racket, in prose yells that jarred the national consciousness. Until he did the reporting, few outside the coalfields knew that 22-story scooping machines, with multi-ton blades, were gashing into Appalachian hillsides for black gold. The coal industry told him to lay off. If the strip mining stops, it said, an electric power crisis will follow, and the lights will go out.
If that's the worry, Caudill wrote, then "consider slowing coal exports to Japan. It is ironic that during World War II we ravaged our land for fuel to put out the lights in the Japanese empire; now we tear up our land for coal to keep those same lights burning."
It was light of another kind -- the illumination of ideas -- that pushed Caudill to write his final two articles for the Mountain Eagle in late November. Letcher County needs "an expanded, amply staffed and well-stocked library," he said. With a vacant building on Main Street in Whitesburg available, "a really good library would have tremendous impact on child development, and we might even make great readers out of many."
How to raise the $500,000 for the library? Ask for it, Caudill said. In sidebars, he listed the coal, gas and oil conglomerates that own more than 1.7 million acres of eastern Kentucky -- Bethlehem Steel, U.S. Steel, E. I. Dupont, among others -- and some of the shareholders, including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford. "These companies and the families who own them," Caudill wrote, "are not without generosity. ... We should not remain too lazy and shortsighted to ask them."
Should the asking be organized and the money comes in, what better name for the project than the Harry Caudill Library? Enlist a local stonemason to carve over the front door the native son's gentle counsel: Come look for yourselves.