Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792–1852 ed. by James C. Klotter, Daniel Rowland (review)
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Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792–1852. Edited by James C. Klotter and Daniel Rowland. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2012. Pp. x, 371. $40.00 cloth; $40.00 ebook)

This excellent edited collection charts the formative years of Bluegrass development and, in particular, sets out to understand the precocious development of Lexington and its cultural achievements. In these early decades, agriculture shaped the land, roads and factories were built, and the population expanded rapidly. Small towns blossomed and at the heart of the Bluegrass, Lexington thrived. A university was chartered, a public library was founded, societies for learning and debating were formed, shops sprang up, race courses and jockey clubs abounded, and musical recitals and theatre productions entertained. In recognition of its devotion to learning, its preference for neoclassical architecture, and its commitment to republican democracy, Lexington became known as the “Athens of the West.”

Bluegrass Renaissance makes a convincing case that cultural history is best studied in the making, as a new society establishes itself. American settlement of the Bluegrass came at a price and with a compromise. American Indians were dispossessed of their land and driven west after years of bloody conflict. Moreover, the high-minded desire to replicate the refinement, civility, and sociability of eastern communities was accompanied by a willingness to utilize slavery, an institution most contemporaries recognized as flawed, to achieve this aim. Economic inequality and landlessness, the repression of women, and a propensity towards violence (both on the individual and collective levels) also formed part of the Bluegrass story. These “darker hues” (p. 22) in the Bluegrass portrait are brought to the fore by coeditor James C. Klotter and carried forward in the essays of Shearer [End Page 107] Davis Bowman and Gerald L. Smith. Indeed, Bowman identifies a compelling likeness between this “Athens of the West” and its classical counterpart by focusing on the two cities’ reliance on slaves.

On balance, however, it is the Bluegrass accomplishments that leave a lasting impression in this collection. The early history of Transylvania University is dealt with comprehensively. Tom and Mollie Eblen examine the presidency of Horace Holley who led the transformation of the institution from “little more than a grammar school” to a first-rate university with a large student body and a distinguished academic staff (p. 205). John R. Thelin identifies Transylvania University as one of many “booster colleges” established after the American Revolution, comparing its fortunes with the universities of Nashville and Virginia and South Carolina College. Matthew F. Clarke focuses on the “frontier science” of one of the Transylvania professors, Constantine Rafinesque, finding it both radical and nationalist in its interpretation of American flora, fauna, and archaeological sites.

What is remarkable is just how daring this new Bluegrass culture would become, albeit briefly, before conservatism triumphed. Nikos Pappas argues that Lexington was “thoroughly modern” (p. 266) in its musical choices, with public recitals of some contemporary European composers performed in the Bluegrass in advance of eastern cities. Estill Curtis Pennington explores the regional appetite for portraiture as it sustained a “Kentucky school” of artists led by Matthew Harris Jouett. Patrick Snadon examines the Kentucky work of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and he finds in the Pope Villa, “the most avant-garde house designed in America in the federal period” (p. 299). Contributions by Mark V. Wetherington, Randolph Hollingsworth, and Maryjean Wall explore the quest for political office and the opening of the West, the lives of women and the idea of womanhood, and the emergence of the Bluegrass as horse country, respectively.

State historian James C. Klotter and Lexington mayor Jim Gray open and conclude this collection by hoping that these essays might inspire readers to “reimagine and reinvent Lexington’s future” (p. 346). [End Page 108] The titular “renaissance” is to be one for the twenty-first century, based on the best aspects of this historic, western, American Athens. Stephen Aron also spots potential by looking back—reflecting on Kentucky’s awkwardness in fitting with regional histories (neither wholly “West” nor “South”), he identifies “the possibilities that follow from being between . . . here people can find their place because no one knows...