Charting the Path of Twentieth-Century Kentucky: Current Courses and Future Directions
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Charting the Path of Twentieth-Century Kentucky:
Current Courses and Future Directions

History abhors a vacuum, a void in the literature. Over time, historians discover the holes in the existing story, begin to fill in the gaps of the past, and thus produce a new, better narrative. A clearer picture of the present results, and the blurry images of the future become sharper. History gains; we all gain.

In my first days in the profession, back in the 1970s, the dark hole of Kentucky historiography was the twentieth century. Other than a few forays in general histories, very few scholars had explored that aspect of the state’s story. The Civil War had ended over a century before, but historical analyses of Kentucky’s past had seldom ventured beyond the confines of frontier and antebellum life. A few biographies, an occasional examination of politics, a rare peek at regionalism, all meant that, for the most part, historians could look out at virgin historical territory, ready to be explored.

At the same time, events within the profession made those explorations more likely and more possible. An emphasis on history “from the bottom up” combined with the growth of professional oral history to heighten interest in the lives of all people at all times. The wider availability of sources, and guides to them, made research [End Page 171] material more accessible, as well. And as time passed, and events became more distant, the narrow myopia of presentism faded and more insightful perspectives on the recent past increased. But, more than anything else, as the many new graduate students sought out fresh subjects in uncharted historical lands, untouched by previous work, they discovered the less-traveled roads of twentieth-century Kentucky.

Seeking to stimulate further exploration of that Kentucky historiographic wilderness, I penned surveys of the status of Kentucky history in 1982 and again in 1999. Those articles identified what had been done and what subjects still needed greater historical study. The first of those studies, over three decades ago, noted certain areas of need. African Americans “remain second-class historiographically” it stressed; gender studies had made some headway in the search for understanding, “but women’s history has several furlongs to go before the finish line is even in sight.” It emphasized that while some good biographical work was taking place, the need for full-fledged, broad, interpretive studies continued. Several specific examples of needed topics included labor-management relations, social history, military history, urban history, regionalism, ethnicity, crime and violence, science and technology, intellectual history, county history, and the study of history itself in the state. In the field of politics, the 1982 piece noted that work should be done on the prohibition issue, on party factionalism, and on changing voting patterns.1

Soon after that, a relatively strong, if uneven, burst of historical writing about the twentieth century in the Bluegrass State exploded. Now the objects of study included such areas as religion, racing, red-eye whiskey, regionalism, race, roads, and more. The 1999 article did identify some of the same needs—broad, interpretive studies, women’s history, and environmental history, as well as examinations of the judiciary, the economy, medicine, and sports. Specifically, it mentioned that students of Clio should focus on the home front in [End Page 172] war, non-Appalachian regionalism, religious institutions’ stands on public issues, labor relations (especially outside the coalfields), the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, the era of the 1960s, the role of distilleries, and the growth of black businesses, among other topics. It noted that since the earlier essay, some areas—such as black history—had seen much productive work, while in others, such as the history of sport, shockingly little had occurred. Like its previous counterpart, the 1999 essay closed with a summary of what had happened to date and what needed to happen in the future.2

Now, more than a decade and a half later, where do we stand as we look over the historical horizon? Do we see many newly plowed fields or much still-untouched soil? What remains yet undone? And what new needs have since come to light? Where do the...