Reading Harry Caudill in Trump’s Kentucky


I wrote about Harry Caudill and the contemporary relevance of his magisterial Night Comes to the Cumberlands for Louisville Public Media/WFPL earlier this week. The piece is here.

Here’s a snippet:

Night Comes to the Cumberlands is one of those strange books that is more known about than read. Similar to W.J. Cash’s The Mind of the South, much of Night’s power stems from the poetic conviction and narrative verve of the author.

That’s really just a way of saying that if Caudill wrote today, the book wouldn’t survive a dissertation defense. The book lacks footnotes. It privileges robust truth over rigid fact, often playing loose and fast with minor details. The book exudes a manic energy, a relentless moral inertia. This is an ungainly metaphor, but Caudill writes like he’s falling down a staircase — he may not touch each step as he tumbles, but for the most part he ends up at the bottom of things.

400 Years of White Trash

WT 1b.jpg

Over the summer I reviewed historian Nancy Isenberg’s masterful White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. Along with a handful of other books – such as Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in their Own Land – Isenberg’s ambitious and compelling book has become one of the primary post-election reads.

From the review:

Of course, at heart we know that class marbles American society. Most Americans acknowlege that they come from a class that doesn’t satisfy the definition of an elite. Isenberg attends to this, writing that since the 1980s the idea of white trash has been “rebranded as an ethnic identity, with its own readily identifiable cultural forms: food, speech patterns, tastes, and, for some, nostalgic memories.” Yet this kind of class pride doesn’t assume inferiority. Folks self-identify as white trash while still assuming that there is a promise of class mobility in America. This attempt to co-opt the term fails as a tool for empowerment and becomes merely a cultural designator more than a marker of a position in the economic and political continuum of the country.

The cynical exploit and manipulate this belief, which is something to keep in mind during our strange election season. “We are a country that imagines itself as democratic,” Isenberg writes, “and yet the majority has never cared much for equality. Because that’s not how breeding works. Heirs, pedigree, lineage: a pseudo-aristocracy of wealth still finds a way to assert its social power.”

Appalachia Used to Be Simply Scary. Now Its Hipness Is Frightening.

AppalachiaToday The New Republic posted my piece on the culture’s recent rash of pop-yokelism and our changing cultural depictions of Appalachia. Here’s the link.

Here’s the opening of the essay:

For four decades Ned Beatty has been the unofficial spokesmodel of Appalachian tourism. Even if Beatty, scrambling around in the woods wearing his tighty-whities, isn’t anchored in your somatic memory—even if you have no idea who Ned Beatty is—you know what his character endured in the 1972 film Deliverance. Four words: “squeal like a pig.” With that scene, Appalachia, a complex, beautiful, troubled region running from Mississippi to New York and home to 25 million people, became synonymous with a rape joke. The image of backwoods Appalachian viciousness wasn’t born with Deliverance—the Appalachia of the American imagination took form following the Civil War, when urban journalists scribbled about the hardscrabble mountain primitive for such publications as The Atlantic—but the film did present the most lurid, popular modern image of the hillbilly grotesque.

Our Favorite Weapon – Glock

This Sunday’s New York Times Book Review includes a review I wrote of Paul Barrett’s Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun. Pull the trigger here.

A snippet:

The Glock is everywhere, in innumerable TV shows and movies, strapped to most law enforcement personnel, name-dropped in hip-hop songs. The no-­firearms sign posted at airports features the distinctive, squat Glock silhouette. As Barrett writes, the Glock is “the Google of modern civilian handguns: the pioneer brand that defines its product category.” Barrett argues that the Glock achieved such market penetration and cultural cachet as much because of timing and marketing as any native characteristic of the gun. Barrett’s argument isn’t unique — what business thrives without luck and opportunism? — yet on balance “Glock” offers an instructive examination of American weapons fetishism.

Louisville Music

I don’t really write about music – most people shouldn’t write about music. Seems to me that more you feel the songs, the more opaque, the less transparent the writing. So I’ll just say this: Louisville is on fire right now with King’s Daughters & Sons, Seluah, and Nathan Salsburg (Nathan’s not a native, but I’m drafting him).

They’re all so very different – from KD&S’s dreadfully beautiful epics and Seluah’s crushing Sabbath-inspired ferocity, to Salsburg’s staggering acoustic guitar show pieces – but all so very brilliant. These folks are all the real deal. Click through the complete post for more songs. And after that don’t be a prick: buy these records as soon as possible.

King’s Daughters & Sons, “The Anniversary”

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The 37th (And Final) Hour

My Louisville office.

Today the LEO published a short essay on the experience of writing – and receiving feedback on – the NYT piece. This will surely be the last bit of life left in that assignment. It was flattering and fun to write for the LEO, but the piece itself proved difficult. I’m a bit conflicted about it. Be careful what you ask for and all that.

In any event, you can find the essay here. Spoiler alert: you’ll learn in the first graph that David Copperfield isn’t quite as magical as he pretends. You’ll also learn that I have a history of deception.

…and 15 Minutes of Fame.

...or make Louisville Stranger.

I have no scruples about self-promotion. Here are a couple of things that were let loose on the world after last week’s “36 Hours in Louisville” piece. I was thrilled that the piece hit a nerve in the city. With very few exceptions, the response was positive.

Anyway, earlier today Cindy Lamb posted a piece on Cindy’s piece focuses on the Whiskey Row/Iron Quarter issues playing out on Main Street.

And according to the Courier Journal I was part of this week’s BUZZ.

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