Longing for Belonging
Updated: Jul 7
I've written about Harry Caudill in this blog before -- a guy Wendell Berry held in great esteem but who exemplified the good and evil that can coexist so astonishingly in some people ("Curating the World"). Caudill was the small town lawyer who, for decades, railed against the coal companies and their enablers who raped eastern Kentucky with impunity. I came across Mr. Caudill again this month in a short essay by Wendell called "Harry Caudill in the Cumberlands."
In it, Wendell asks and answers a really interesting question: how was Harry Caudill able to sustain his passionate defense for Appalachia all those years? "In that same twenty years, hundreds of spokesmen in the same cause have come and gone, hundreds of protests have flared and burned out, hundreds of 'concerned' officials have made wages or made hay and gone on. Harry Caudill is one of the few who have endured."
It's not moral outrage or a sense of justice that kept Caudill in the fight all that time, says Wendell. "A sense of justice, though essential, grows pale and cynical when it stands too long alone in the face of overpowering injustice." And moral outrage? "By itself (it) finally turns intelligence into rant."
No, Berry thinks there's something deeper going on here -- something more elemental than principle that stoked the furnace in Harry Caudill.
Berry has spent his life defending, explaining, rendering,imagining this superpower. It is, he finds, the quality of belonging to one's place.
And on writing that, I can feel my synapses starting to fire. But not quite in the same way they used to.
That idea -- belonging to one's place, braids my strongest urges, strokes my most tender sentiments. I suspect I am not alone in this. Within these words -- especially "belonging" and "place," reside the sweetest of tonal notes: home, security, continuity, nature, legacy, commitment and family. My lifelong devotion to Wendell Berry's vantage is probably explained by this one idea: that we can belong to our place. I just saw In the Heights by the way -- I KNOW this is a big deal, to people everywhere.
Wendell might be right that Harry Caudill's inextinguishable defense of Kentucky's Cumberland mountains did arise from the man's origin and longevity right there beneath those mountains. Those who didn't last in the fight were the justice-seekers, drawn there by the cause. Caudill, however, was from there. He was born there. More tellingly, he was happy to have been born there. Like Berry, he returned home after completing graduate school to "serve with devotion" the people and place that raised him.
I used to leave it at that. As I said, I've always been a sucker for that romantic storyline, for these brilliant scamps who spit in the eye of convention to pursue lives of humble purpose in neglected but lovely backwood home towns.
Only now, having spent several months educating myself more rigorously about the idea of inclusivity, do I notice a slightly sour tang in that version of the narrative.
The trouble begins with history, as usual. Harry Caudill belonged to his place by virtue of being born there, and digging in. But Mr. Caudill has no claim on Letcher County, Kentucky, except that his forebears settled there. Like everywhere, they did so at the expense of indigenous people, like tribal members of the Cherokee and Shawnee, whose forebears themselves had been hunting and fishing and sleeping in Letcher County for thousands of years. By the early 19th century, the US government removed tribal members and forced cessation of native land claims through military force. By 1860, more than 100 black and mulatto slaves were working in the county, where coal would soon be discovered -- sealing the fate of the place and giving rise to Caudill's lifelong dissent.
The hypocricy is hard to miss. In the 20th century, eastern Kentucky became a "national sacrifice area" where the land and its (white) people were ruined by the same US government that was now entirely in thrall to coal companies, and infected with the same rapacity that cleared the land for white settlers in the first place. Having removed the tribes, we removed the mountaintops, removed the coal, and destroyed the lives of people trying to raise families and food in the hills and hollows that remained. That destruction continues to this day. The average life span in Letcher County is 71 years now compared to 77 years nationally. The Covid vaccination rate there is 37 percent.
So it's a little hard to celebrate Harry Caudill's defense, or even Wendell's eloquent review of Caudill's book The Mountain, The Miner and the Lord, which prompted this blog. Caudill, we know from my prior post, was so extreme in his white supremacy that even unintelligent and undereducated white people were viewed by him as needing eugenic intervention. And Wendell's praise for Caudill's life's work, including this little book, insists we take Caudill seriously -- that we not categorize the storytelling in this volume as "folk" material. Berry sees in Caudill something that transcends their place in Kentucky, and something universally applicable -- the "native properties of an able, cultivated, accomplished, powerful and decent mind."
Accomplished and powerful, yes. Decent? Absolutely not.
I think where I'm breaking with Wendell now is on history and decency. Because he's absolutely right that "belonging" is a superpower, and "belonging to one's place" is like hooking that power to a battery that never needs to be charged. (Imagine not only having a sense of love and acceptance around you every day, but having it in a neighborhood, or village where it's yours alone, and yours unencumbered). But who "belongs" and where we "belong," and the very concept of belonging are too often left out of his analysis.
With Wendell, it does seem that one's belonging is printed on one's birth certificate -- a trust accont that pays interest to those who stay put. In his fiction, he describes it as an inalienable membership claim, available to everyone in the community, no matter if it's understood, or wanted, or not.
But I've learned that that's not how it works at all. Belonging is what we all want and need. It is a superpower for those who have it. But it is a social and political construct before all else, and as it is conferred, so too can it be revoked. The history of Appalachia is not a history of belonging, not even in Harry Caudill's example. It is a history of the revocation of belonging, for red, black and white people alike.
His origin and commitment to the Cumberlands may have sustained Harry Caudill in his fight for justice against coal, and his cultivated mind wielded a terrific and noble defense. But an even more "accomplished and powerful mind," and one that was actually decent, would have questioned whether his belonging and the injustice he was fighting might have had something do with each other, and why in that fight, he was so alone.