A New History of Kentucky

Article excerpt

A New History of Kentucky. By LOWELL H. HARRISON and JAMES C. KLOTTER. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. xvi, 534 pp. $34.95.

IN 1992, playwright Robert Schenkkan won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for The Kentucky Cycle, a dramatic retelling of the state's history in microcosm that won initial praise seemingly everywhere except in the place that reluctantly served as its setting. There, Kentuckians lambasted the six-hour production as nothing more than a California dilettante's dark, overwrought recycling of the same tired stereotypes that for over a century have depicted the state as a place of ignorance, moonshining, rape, murder, and feud violence. Not coincidentally, the debate over The Kentucky Cycle and the state's national image occurred during a decade when Kentuckians themselves were reexamining and rewriting the essential history of the commonwealth. In the same year that Schenkkan won his Pulitzer and narrowly missed a Tony award, George C. Wright and Marion B. Lucas's exceptional History of Blacks in Kentucky appeared, as did editor John E. Kleber's eminently useful work The Kentucky Encyclopedia. In A New History of Kentucky, a worthy successor to Thomas D. Clark's standard but now decades-old volume, History of Kentucky, noted Kentucky scholars Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter continue that welcome scholarly trend. In so doing, they present what might be described as the real "Kentucky cycle."

In a manner typical of similar volumes, the authors present the state's history chronologically and meticulously from its earliest inhabitants and experience as a frontier wilderness, through its creation as an extension of Virginia, to the Kentucky of today. A slave state bordered by the Ohio River and beyond it the American Midwest, Kentucky from the first marched to the beat of a different drummer, never becoming either truly "southern" or "northern." During the Civil War, twice as many Kentuckians wore blue as wore gray, stars represented the commonwealth in both national flags, and only emancipation and Reconstruction finally cemented the state's identification of itself as a part of the South. Subsequent discord and racial and political violence contributed to the creation of a national image of Kentucky as a backward and dangerous place. Events like the so-called Black Patch War, an armed struggle between tobacco-farming Night Riders and corporate processors; the 1900 assassination of Democratic Governor William Goebel by disgruntled Republicans; and the union struggles of the early twentieth century cemented that reputation. …