Socially Relevant History: Appalachian Kentucky in the Twentieth Century
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Socially Relevant History:
Appalachian Kentucky in the Twentieth Century

Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area has recently reached the fiftieth anniversary of its publication.1 That book, first appearing in 1963, explored the historical roots of poverty in eastern Kentucky, and its interpretations set the stage for analysis of regional history for the next several decades. Caudill argued that the history of eastern Kentucky was mainly a story of degradation and dysfunction, an approach that echoed media presentations of the region at that time and ever since. For Caudill, dysfunction came from both internal and external sources—internally from a deficient genetic stock at the time of white re-settlement, plus a recurring brain drain through out-migration, and externally through exploitation from coal corporations.2 Although stories of internal dysfunction in Appalachia (in Kentucky and elsewhere in the mountains) had a long pedigree, the indictment of the coal industry as essentially [End Page 321] exploitative was somewhat new in academic and popular discourse.3

Since the 1960s, popular narratives and academic narratives of eastern Kentucky have followed divergent interpretive paths, generally along one of the two paths that Caudill had set out. Caudill’s work thus represents an interpretive transition for Appalachian history, allowing us to talk about “pre-Caudill” and “post-Caudill” scholarship.4 Popular portrayals have continued on a pre-Caudill path, focusing on internal dysfunction—although rarely with Caudill’s emphasis on genetics. Academic writers, however, have extended a post-Caudill analysis, identifying corporate-based resource extraction as the main dynamic of the region’s damaging twentieth-century experience. In the same vein, cultural studies scholars have devoted considerable space to debunking claims that dysfunction was somehow inherent within the fabric of Appalachian society. Instead of internal dysfunction, scholars have emphasized more positive tendencies in Appalachian culture, especially resistance to the various forms of domination emanating from the corporate world.5 The battles over regional dysfunction and corporate influence remain at least subtext—and more often an overt theme—in recent scholarship, as scholars continue the intellectual struggles of the 1960s.

We have, in other words, a highly politicized historiography, based on a vibrant scholarship of grassroots activism. The political contests over historical interpretation have, perhaps ironically, generated a generally accepted and useful narrative of twentieth-century eastern Kentucky that is often glossed as some form of “modernization.”6 [End Page 322] The narrative goes something like this: the twentieth century opened with an established agrarian landscape, which then saw a resource extraction political economy imposed on top of it. Stresses to the mixed agrarian-extraction landscape in midcentury led to public intervention, starting in the 1930s and heightening in the 1960s and 1970s, which emphasized poverty relief, education, and infrastructure development. The combination of resource extraction, surface mining, and public intervention eroded the older agrarian landscape, while coal towns gave way to less concentrated settlement on newly paved roads. By the end of the century, eastern Kentucky looked much more like the rest of the nation, in all its economic, social, and cultural dimensions, and in its locations within national power structures.

If the broad narrative outline seems to achieve some level of consensus, evaluations of that narrative—namely, whether modernization has benefitted or harmed the region—revolve around the political concerns of the writers and the times in which they wrote. With different political perspectives, both pre- and post-Caudill academic scholarship has used Appalachia as a vehicle through which to comment on fundamental situations or transformations occurring in national and transnational life. As many commentators have explained, Appalachia is an intellectual construct as much as it is a historical and geographic region. Much of the history of the region, in fact, has been written as a history of the concept of Appalachia, how the region has functioned as part of national consciousness.7 Appalachian Kentuckians could be interpreted, depending on an author’s viewpoint, as embracing modernizing transformations, as standing outside them as an internal “other,” or as acting in resistance to them. During the early and middle twentieth century, scholarship tended to arise out of progressive action geared toward bringing...