- Introduction:Building a History of Twentieth-Century Kentucky
It seems as if it’s always 1826 in Kentucky history. Or maybe 1792 or 1836 or 1862 or 1899. Less often do we see Kentucky in the historical literature in reference to 1915 or 1945, 1968 or 1993—or any other semi-random selection of years in the twentieth century. The academic study of twentieth-century Kentucky history is a relatively new field; relative, that is, to the much better-trod and more beloved eras of Daniel Boone, Henry Clay, John Breckinridge, or even William Goebel. While the history of nineteenth-century Kentucky could reflect national questions on western expansion, partisan politics, the Civil War, or early progressivism, the commonwealth does not seem to be a crucial site for exploring questions central to the twentieth century. That, at least, has been the perception within the historical profession and in popular consciousness.
Kentucky’s “historical stasis” is not just chronological—it is interpretive as well. While the state remains stuck in the middle of the antebellum era, it also remains (as one of the essays herein suggests) the land of “feudists” and “colonels.” We remain fixed in action as well as in time. In part, this interpretive stasis reflects a popular perception of history. For most Kentuckians, and for most Americans, history simply is an unchanging picture of the past. Early in her seventh grade year, Tom Kiffmeyer’s daughter proudly [End Page 163] announced that, in her social studies class, she learned what historians did: “they record the past!” That popular assertion is why historians experience so much resistance when they attempt to introduce new ideas into Kentucky’s story. If history is simply a “record,” as most people believe, then there is nothing to add, no new events, no new people, and, most significantly, no new ways of understanding that past. Once it is “recorded,” it becomes permanent. Unfortunately for the scholar, this is “History” for most people—an unchangeable past. Time and again, during the time we spent working on this special edition of the Register, we heard comments such as “Harry Caudill had it right,” or “Didn’t Dr. Clark already talk about that?” For many Kentuckians, once they read one book on a particular era or event, all the questions had answers, all the issues had resolutions. History immediately became “history.”
The essays in this edition of the Register, however, tell a different story. These essays present the case that Kentucky, as a state, has retained its historical relevance even after the turn of the twentieth century. They argue that the experiences of Kentuckians continue to inform, challenge, and enrich national and global narratives in political, economic, social, and cultural history. They expose those times and places where the “record” is incomplete. Taken as a whole, this special double issue lays out the contours of twentieth-century Kentucky history as it now stands in the scholarly literature. It explores current interpretations of salient events in their Kentucky context, extends the conversations in new ways, and suggests avenues for further research and writing. Ultimately, we intend the scholarship presented here to stimulate an appreciation for Kentucky’s continuing historical relevance and to provide a springboard for new research.
The scholars involved approach their task in different ways. Some of them provide a sweeping vista of their field, emphasizing historiography and evaluating interpretations. Others take a more empirical tack with a tighter focus. These scholars take specific events or circumstances and use them as an opening to explore larger themes. Some essays argue strongly that history can be understood effectively [End Page 164] through state-level studies, while others incorporate Kentucky into larger regional or national interpretations. Most of the essays note and lament the paucity of secondary sources published on their topics. That dearth is both a source of frustration, as authors experience the difficulty in assessing the state of the field when the field is more poorly developed for Kentucky than for other states, and of excitement at seeing new opportunities and new trails to blaze. For some of the contributors, scholarly neglect of Kentucky is simply a reflection...