The Lonely War Of A Good Angry Man

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Like most mountaineers, Caudill tends to be independent, obstinate, and at heart a fighter. Though he is a member of such conservation organizations as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, he never presents himself as, say, “a Sierra Club man.” He prefers to be his own man. Often he has no other choice, for the “conservation issues” he gets involved with in Kentucky are seldom disputed in quite the way they would be in other parts of the country. As he remarks, “It should be remembered that we have in this section a decided inclination to settle our differences with dynamite.”

Caudill makes his living as an attorney in Whitesburg (population 1,800). His offices are on the ground floor of the Daniel Boone Hotel on Main Street. He is forty-seven years old, married, and the father of three children, one of whom, another James Caudill, has already made his own mark in the community by being the first boy from Letcher County ever to go to Harvard University.

Caudill himself is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and received his law degree there. He is president of the Letcher County Bar Association, a former state legislator (three terms), a Democrat with grandfathers who fought on opposite sides during the Civil War (which side a family was on is still the chief determining factor in political allegiance). He is a tall, spare, bookish, long-legged man who dresses neatly, talks with a deep, musical mountain accent, walks with a limp caused by a German bullet in Italy, and goes about with a rather long look on his long face except when he is telling stories. Other than his time at college and the war years, he has spent his whole life in Letcher County (“dear old Letcherous County,” he calls it), and he has no intention of living anywhere else. His father, Cro Carr Caudill, was a coal miner who lost an arm in a mining accident and later was elected clerk of the court in Whitesburg. “Cro Caudill? Sure I remember him,” says one elderly mountaineer. “He only had the one arm, but he’d give you a good big hug with it—especially when he was lookin’ for a vote.”

Young Harry spent much of his boyhood in and about the courthouse listening to stories told by the “eminent citizens who congregated there.” He became known in time for his own talent with a story, and so was plainly marked as a young man of promise. The high importance placed on the art of story-telling in eastern Kentucky Caudill explains with a story (naturally) about an old friend, Judge L. Hayes, who never had a regular Christian name, just the letter “L,” and who used to say, “’Bout all we have got to do down here is chew ’baccer, drink liquor, and tell lies.”

Caudill has collected stories of his mountain country for as long as he can remember, and he tells them magnificently in the rolling, rhetorical style of Kentucky’s old-time country lawyers. Many of his stories come from “old characters” he has “hunted up” through the mountains. (“You know, those old people just love to talk,” he says, upon winding up a little yarn that he may have taken fifteen minutes or more to tell.) And many were included in his first book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands , widely recognized as one of the finest studies of Appalachia and its history ever written. Published in 1963, well before any wars on poverty had been declared, it had a profound effect on the longstanding, popular impression of life in “hillbilly” country, and particularly on official Washington during the Kennedy administration. (Stewart Udall, then Secretary of the Interior, compared it to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as a call to the American conscience.) And it was not too long after the book appeared that visitors from Washington and New York—reporters, magazine photographers, government officials, representatives of the large foundations—began showing up in Whitesburg to meet Caudill and set off on what his wife, Anne, calls “Harry’s horror tours.” Some were astonished to discover that whenever Caudill began to talk it was in the same cadences as the book, as though he were speaking from a prepared script. But the reverse was the case: Caudill had dictated the entire book. “He had been out walking in the woods one afternoon,” his wife says, “and when he came in he told me he had been thinking about where all these people [in and around Whitesburgj came from originally and about what had happened to their country; so I began taking down what he was saying, and when we were finished we had just this big pile of typed pages, no chapters or anything, and we weren’t at all sure anyone would want to publish it.”

His one other book, Dark Hills to Westward , was published earlier this year. Part fiction, part history, it is a spine-chilling tale about a young woman named Jennie Wiley, who was carried off by Indians in 1789, saw her children murdered, and later made an epic escape through the Kentucky mountains. But there are still other stories, full of hilarious episodes and characters, and it is these he tells with the greatest zest, sometimes slapping his knee with one big hand, and at the finish tilting back his head and muttering, “Oh my, oh my!”