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Harry M. Caudill

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Harry M. Caudill
Caudill in 1967
Caudill in 1967
BornHarry Monroe Caudill
(1922-05-03)May 3, 1922
Whitesburg, Kentucky, US
DiedNovember 29, 1990(1990-11-29) (aged 68)
Whitesburg, Kentucky, US
OccupationAuthor, historian, lawyer, legislator, and environmentalist
Notable worksNight Comes to the Cumberlands
SpouseAnne Robertson (Frye) Caudill
(m. 19??; his death 1990)

Harry Monroe Caudill (May 3, 1922 – November 29, 1990) was an American author, historian, lawyer, legislator, and environmentalist from Letcher County, in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky.


Caudill served in World War II as a private in the U.S. Army. After which, he was elected three times to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1953, 1955, and 1959 to represent Letcher County. He taught in the History Department at the University of Kentucky from 1976 to 1984.

A common theme explored in many of Caudill's writings is the historic underdevelopment of the Appalachian region (particularly his own home area of southeastern Kentucky). In several of his books (most prominently Night Comes to the Cumberlands, 1962) and many of his published articles, he probes the historical poverty of the region, which he attributes in large part to the rapacious policies of the coal mining industries active in the region, as well as their backers: bankers of the northeastern United States. He notes that such interests most often had their headquarters not in Appalachia but in the Northeast or Midwest, and thus failed to properly reinvest their sizable profits in the Appalachian region. Following publication of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, President John F. Kennedy appointed a commission to investigate conditions in the region and subsequently more than $15 billion in aid was invested in the region over twenty-five years.[1]

In his later years he became an active opponent of the rapidly growing practice of strip mining as practiced by companies working in Appalachia, which he believed was causing irreparable harm to the land and its people. He published articles in many magazines in addition to speaking out about the subject. Caudill pointed out that strip mining could be done responsibly as in England, Germany, and Czechoslovakia where topsoil, subsoil, and rocks are removed separately and placed back in layers in their original order.[2]

Caudill became interested in the work of William Shockley, a scientist with controversial eugenicist stances at Stanford University in California. Caudill came to believe in Shockley's theory of "dysgenics," the argument that unintelligent people weaken the genes of a "race" over time. He felt that "genetic decline" in Eastern Kentucky contributed to issues of poverty. "The slobs continue to multiply," Caudill wrote in a 1975 letter to Time magazine. The editors of Time rejected Caudill's letter.[3]

He also produced several volumes of folklore and oral history, which he collected himself from residents of the area centering on Letcher County and Harlan County, Kentucky. One of those oral history interviews in 1941 of a man who would have been about 90 years old, was the basis for the 1995 movie, Pharaoh's Army, starring Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, and Kris Kristofferson.

Caudill killed himself with a gunshot to the head in 1990, faced with an advancing case of Parkinson's disease.[1] He is buried in Battle Grove Cemetery, Cynthiana, Kentucky.


The Harry M. Caudill Library located in Whitesburg, Kentucky, the main library of the Letcher County Public Library District, is named for Caudill.


"And we just can't afford to sit back and watch all that (land) be destroyed so a few people can get rich now. One of these days the dear old federal government is going to have to come in and spend billions of dollars just to repair the damage that's already been done. And guess who will have the machines and the workmen to do the job? The same coal operators who made the mess in the first place will be hired to fix it back, and the taxpayers will bear the cost."[2]

Books by Harry M. Caudill[edit]

  • Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (1962; Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1963). ISBN 0-316-13212-8.
  • My Land Is Dying (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973). ISBN 0-525-47302-5.
  • The Watches of the Night (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1976). ISBN 0-316-13218-7.
  • A Darkness at Dawn: Appalachian Kentucky and the Future (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1976). ISBN 0-8131-0218-9.
  • Dark Hills to Westward: The Saga of Jenny Wiley (1969; Ashland, KY: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1994). ISBN 978-0-945084-45-7.
  • The Senator from Slaughter County (1973; Ashland, KY: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1997). ISBN 978-0-945084-66-2.
  • The Mountain, the Miner, and the Lord and Other Tales from a Country Law Office (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1980).
  • Slender is the Thread: Tales from a Country Law Office (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987).
  • Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains (Epilogue written by Caudill; co-authored by Eliot Porter and Edward Abbey) (New York: Dutton, 1970) ISBN 978-0-525-05685-0.
  • Theirs Be the Power: The Moguls of Kentucky (Campaign, IL:University of Illinois Press, 1983) ISBN 0-252-01029-9


  1. ^ a b Glenn Fowler (December 1, 1990). "Harry M. Caudill, 68, Who Told of Appalachian Poverty". The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2017.
  2. ^ a b David McCullough (November 1992). Brave Companions: Portraits in History. Simon & Schuster, 1992. p. 163f. ISBN 0-671-79276-8.
  3. ^ Cheves, John; Estep, Bill. "Chapter 4: Disillusioned, Harry Caudill blames 'genetic decline' in Eastern Kentucky". Lexington Herald Leader. Retrieved December 10, 2015.

Further reading[edit]

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