They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History (review)
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They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History. By Alessandro Portelli. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 446. $34.95 cloth)

Harlan County may be the most famous and most studied county in Kentucky. In 1984, when I was preparing to do my doctoral research in eastern Kentucky, my advisor suggested that if I wrote an ethnography about Harlan County, I could later transform it into a marketable book. Like a good student, I followed his advice only to have my choice subsequently questioned by an anonymous reviewer: do we really need another study of Harlan County? Yes, in fact, we did need another study of Harlan County, and we still do. I think we will always need another study of Harlan County, because the county has so much to teach us about American politics, about capitalism, and the struggle for justice in an imperfect democracy.

Like others on the Left, including myself, Portelli was initially attracted to Harlan County because of its reputation as a place where class conflict and the injustices of capitalism have erupted in violence while simultaneously producing a rich, poignant folk musical legacy. From the writings of John Dos Passos and the labor-union folksongs of the 1930s ("Which Side Are You On?," "I Hate the Capitalist System") to Barbara Koppel's "Harlan County, USA" (1976), Harlan County has been portrayed repeatedly as a hardscrabble place where people must struggle to survive—struggle against the elements, the mountains, their bosses, and other workers (those who would take their jobs during strikes). Actually, judging from many accounts of the place, it is hard to imagine why anyone would live in Harlan, much less love it (as many of us do). Portelli's account helps to solve that mystery. It captures a reality that is far more complicated than the stereotypical versions of this iconic Appalachian locale suggest—whether they be positive, romanticized notions of working-class heroes or laughable hillbilly clowns. [End Page 383]

Portelli's well-crafted, multicolored "quilt" of a book presents a local account of the history of Harlan County from the early settlement period in the late 1700s to 2007 (p. 11). The scope of the book is as impressive as is its attention to detail. Portelli deftly weaves the words and stories of Harlan Countians with academic accounts to produce a history of the place that is, at once, locally grounded and scholarly rigorous. Though Portelli is a skillful and knowledgeable historian, he does not burden his reader with an abundance of jargon or theoretical exegesis, thus, making this work especially appealing to a general audience. They Say in Harlan County should find a welcome place on the bookshelves of many, especially in Harlan County where it will likely serve as an inspiration and resource to students, local historians, activists, and others who seek to build a better future based on the lessons and struggles of a sometimes difficult past.

As Portelli so aptly illustrates, Harlan County is not just about the class conflict and exploitation for which it became famous in the 1930s; nor is it only about poverty or drug abuse for which eastern Kentucky has more recently become infamous. Harlan is a strikingly beautiful place where everyday people—strong, weak, nurturing, violent, determined, frustrated, hopeful, and disheartened—have made their lives. The story of this place, told through the words of the people who live there, is a compelling story. It is a story that speaks to all of us because it reveals so much about American politics, economy, ideology, folklore, and, if there is such a thing, the American spirit.

Shaunna L. Scott

Shaunna L. Scott teaches sociology and Appalachian Studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Two Sides to Everything: The Cultural Construction of Class Consciousness in Harlan County, Kentucky (1995) and is currently researching the impact of a coal-waste disaster in Martin County, Kentucky.

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