Monday, June 17, 2013

Regional Studies

I have been reading "Night Comes To The Cumberlands," a thoroughly engrossing and disturbing study of the history of Eastern Kentucky.

The book was written by Harry Caudill and originally published in 1963. The story it told of poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and deprivation motivated John Kennedy to create the Appalachian Regional Commission to improve living conditions for the residents of the Appalachian poverty belt.

Caudill established his bona fides in the introduction, which helps deflect a certain amount of the heavy-handed approach he takes to his subject. (Caudill's tone strays to the patronizing and somewhat condescending at times, and his take on both slaves and Native Americans betrays the era from which he is writing).

But if I were to create a "Regional Studies Reading List," I would certainly begin with "Night Comes to The Cumberlands," and add:
  • "Born Fighting" by James Webb,
  • "Far Appalachia" by Noah Adams,
  • "The Foxfire Book" by Eliot Wigginton et al, (at least the first three volumes)
The subject needs to be understood, if for no other reason than that the issues and attitudes described in this book are still very much with us today in our current political discourse. The attitudes of the earliest white settlers of Kentucky are still with us. They are manifest in a concept of 'freedom' that is defined not by "What  do I have the ability to do?" but rather "No one can tell me what I can't do."

The two approaches are clearly not equivalent; and they lead to radically different ends.


Edit: another book I'd add to the list: "Skyland" by George Freeman Pollock, for his odd (and somewhat condescending) take on the mountaineers he encountered when building his Skyland Lodge. Skyland became the nucleus of Shenandoah National Park, which displaced those mountain families into the Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley during the Great Depression. This diaspora into 'modernity' changed the lives of the mountain people irreversibly, and not necessarily for the best. What Cryphonectria parasitica did to the American Chestnut, the coming of SNP likewise did to the mountain families of the Blue Ridge. 

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