We live in one of the many coal regions in the world. If we could read Spanish or Chinese we would discover many corresponding woes have been written about the coal industry, but since we are English speaking, I will focus on two writers in our language—Harry Caudill (1922-1990) and George Orwell (1903-1950).
Harry Caudill is a native son who wrote Night Comes to the Cumberlands in the 1960s. He considered his work a biography of a region and its people. This history of the Cumberland Plateau spans hundreds of years and starts with the people who settled in the mountain areas. Their frontier way of life continued on in the beautiful isolation of nature. However, like many areas without schools and roads, the people of the region went about their way of life oblivious that the majority of the nation was moving on in education and job skills.
When outside industry came into the region the people were not prepared to stand up for their land or themselves. It started with the timber companies, and then the coal companies followed. Coal became king, and the people became serfs to the companies and the nation’s need for coal.
Though this work was written in the 1960s, I found it full of interesting insights to much of what happened in the mountainous area of our state. However, as I read I had underlying concerns about some things that were being said about the people. On one hand, Harry seemed to state that education of all of America’s citizens should be a priority and the strength of the nation. Yet, he seemed to express some hopelessness in doing so among the mountain people.
This conflict within Harry came from William Shockley’s work on human intelligence and eugenics. Shockley was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, but it was his political views that caught Harry’s attention. These opinions added doubt to the equation of the education of mountain people and of the poor in general. Shockley believed people of low IQs should be paid to voluntarily be sterilized. He thought that the breeding of lower IQ people added to the weakness of the nation. In Harry’s writing, you can hear an inward struggle over the two opposing views of education vs. sterilization in dealing with America’s poor. He does not speak about such eugenics in his book, but the reader is aware that some kind of conflict is going on as Harry discusses the high birth rate of mountain people, low intelligence, and their use of the welfare system. Yet, he also addresses the need for good schools, better roads, and shoes for the children to wear as they walk mountainous terrain to school.
I believe the power of education won the battle inside Harry’s heart and mind, possibly thanks to the influence of fellow Kentuckian Jesse Stuart, who wrote, “Not let the talent of any pupil born upon this earth with a fair amount of intelligence, be lost to the whole of humanity. Teach them to protect, and where possible rebuild natural resources that had been selfishly destroyed by lust for the dirty dollar. Teach them to think about good, honest government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” As a lawyer, Harry saw a lot of defeat in the eyes of those who walked through his office, when educator Jesse Stuart saw the spark of interest in his poor students.
Whether the student is a turtle or a rabbit or anything in between, education is crucial in making America strong with skilled and informed citizens. Poverty is a smothering state that can suck the life and ambition out of any human being, no matter their level of intelligence. The longer you live in poverty, the more despair and defeat makes you settle with your enemy—a Stockholm syndrome of circumstances. Harry witnessed this defeat daily in the people and children around him.
This brings us to George Orwell and his work The Road to Wigan Pier. Most of us know George Orwell because of his fiction; however, Orwell considered himself a journalist addressing issues and revealing how the lower and working classes lived. George was raised middle class, and openly confesses he was taught to loathe and mock those “beneath” him. As an adult, he made it one of his missions to report on the lives of human beings trying to make their way through poverty. Orwell uses dashes of humor, irony, and sarcasm in his reporting as he tries to reach his middle-class peers.
Orwell’s work takes place between the World Wars and is part investigative reporting, and part an epistle to his own social class. The main focus is Wigan Pier, located on the canal between the cities of Liverpool and Leeds in northwestern England. He writes about the working and living conditions of the coal miners and their families, addressing the diet, health, injuries, clothing, bed linens, and human waste, as well as, how coal miners lived when unemployed or homeless. He talks about the British version of the welfare system, and he does not leave out what coal mining was doing to the land in Wigan Pier. In the latter part of the book, George addresses class barriers and how, even during his lodging with the coal miners, it was hard to transcend this barricade.
Harry and George recorded what they observed in their generation regarding the utilization of the land and people by the coal industry. We need to learn from what they wrote and from others who followed them. If we read about the past, we will not be blindsided again and again. We need to do as Jesse Stuart said: “Teach them (the students) to protect, and where possible rebuild natural resources that had been selfishly destroyed by lust for the dirty dollar.” If we teach ourselves and our children our beautiful land will suffer less in future generations.
Jesse Stuart’s quote is from The Thread That Runs So True.
Here are other books to check out at your library dealing with the subject of coal:
- Stand Up That Mountain by Jay Erskine Leutze
- Coal Wars by Richard Martin
- Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal edited by Silas House
- Moving Mountains by Penny Loeb
- Plundering Appalachia: The Tragedy of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining
- Daughters of the Mountain: Women Coal Miners in Central Appalachia by Suzanne E. Tallichet
- A Guide to Historic Coal Towns of the Big Sandy River Valley by George D. Torok
- The Buffalo Creek Disaster by Gerald M. Stern
- Muddy Branch: Memories of an Eastern Kentucky Coal Camp by Clyde Roy Pack
- Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields by Members of the National Committee for the Defense
- Work and Faith in the Kentucky Coal Fields by Richard J. Callahan, Jr.
- Coal Miners’ Wives: Portraits of Endurance by Carol A. B. Giesen
- Women of Coal by Randall Norris and Jean-Philippe Cyprès
~ Article and graphics by T.J. Cunning