Colonels, Hillbillies, and Fightin’: Twentieth-Century Kentucky in the National Imagination
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Colonels, Hillbillies, and Fightin’:
Twentieth-Century Kentucky in the National Imagination

When I announced in 2003 to my in-laws (born and bred in New York City) that I was going for an academic job interview in what to them was far off Bowling Green, Kentucky, they speculated about what the post-interview socializing might entail: “I guess you’ll be sitting on the porch drinking mint juleps,” suggested my mother-in-law. “Oh no,” corrected my father-in-law, “it’ll be fruit jars of moonshine!” Although speaking half in jest, their visions of, on the one hand, julep-sipping white-suited Kentucky colonels and southern belles luxuriating on a palatial estate with Thoroughbreds grazing in the distance and, on the other, unkempt, bearded, and barefoot rifle-toting hillbillies drinking homemade moonshine in front of a roughshod mountain cabin match the dominant public representations of the state and its people for much of the twentieth century. Although on the surface dramatically different cultural signifiers, these conceptions are united in that each encourages outsiders and, to some degree, Kentuckians themselves to envision the state and its people as existing in a persistent antebellum and pre-industrial past and sharing a culture defined by alcohol and the potential for gun [End Page 421] violence. These dual identities are also closely tied to the two parts of the state that have been most associated with the name “Kentucky”: the north-central Bluegrass region surrounding Lexington and the eastern Cumberland Plateau.

Although strikingly different culturally and geographically, they have been conflated into a single cultural space in the national consciousness.1 Over the course of the twentieth century, there were other important elements of the national cultural identity of Kentucky: a land of natural beauty and historic significance; a place with an abiding commitment to the “sporting life,” be it horse racing, boxing, or basketball; the home of “coal country” and its (largely) physically and socially destructive consequences; and more recently, a space of political and social conservatism and libertarianism (often defined in news accounts as one of the reddest of the “red states”). Reviewing the major twentieth-century literary, visual, and musical texts about Kentucky, however, leads me to conclude that the “Bluegrass colonel” and, to an even greater extent, the mountain “hillbilly” have been remarkably central and constant conceptual markers of “Kentucky” across the century in novels, films and television, music, advertising, and the public imagination. Only in the years surrounding the turn of the twenty-first century has the former’s potency faded away and the latter’s cartoonish uniformity begun to wane as the national identity of the state has become increasingly indistinguishable from the rest of the vast interior of the country, a cultural territory both derided and defended as “flyover country.”2 [End Page 422]

By the start of the twentieth century, the public conception of Kentucky had been in the making for well over a century and was rooted in two dominant cultural touchstones: a highly mythologized perception of the frontier heritage of the state—personified by the larger-than-life figure of Daniel Boone—and a view of the commonwealth as an extraordinarily violent place. First coming into Kentucky in 1769 and departing for the greener pastures of Missouri thirty years later, Boone would become and remain through much of the twentieth century the historical persona most associated officially and popularly with the state. Perhaps only Abraham Lincoln, to whom both Indiana and Illinois also lay claim, was more famously thought of as a Kentuckian. As most historians have stressed, Boone was in actuality an often-unsuccessful land speculator repeatedly in debt to creditors. He was also a man who disliked bloodshed and told his son that he was certain of having killed only one Native American foe in battle. Regardless, he was immortalized as both a ruthless Indian fighter and an upstanding family man in countless literary reincarnations including The Winning of the West (1899) by Theodore Roosevelt, who described him as “a tall, spare, sinewy man with eyes like an eagle’s, and muscles that never tired.” Through these writings Boone became the embodiment of a national myth, “the man...


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