Title Reviewed:
A New History of Kentucky

Author Reviewed:
Lowell H. Harrison; James C. Klotter

John M. Glen


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 94, Issue 4, pp 362-363

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A New History of Kentucky. By Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Pp. mi, 533. Maps, illustrations, tables, appendices, selected bibliography, index. $34.95.)

Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter have been busy lately setting Kentucky's historical house in order. Five years after they served as associate editors of The Kentucky Encyclopedia (1992), five years after Harrison traced Kentucky's Road to Statehood (1992), and one year after Klotter produced Kentucky: Portrait in Paradox, 1900-1950 (1996), the two historians have collaborated in writing the first comprehensive history of the state in sixty years. The standard history of the state had long been A History of Kentucky (1937) by Thomas D. Clark. Harrison and Klotter's work now becomes the new standard account of Kentucky's past. It reflects the challenges and benefits of writing the histories of states and state-level history.

Telling Kentucky's story, the authors believe, not only contributes to a deeper understanding of the nation's heritage but also helps define the state's identity. Kentucky was the first state west of the Appalachian Mountains, a border state during the Civil War, and a state whose residents generally regarded themselves as southern. Harrison and Klotter faced the formidable task of telling this story while coordinating dozens of subjects from the Cumberland Gap to the Ohio River and involving a cast of thousands, from pioneer Daniel Boone to suffragist Madeline McDowell Breckinridge to boxing champion Muhammad Ali. The authors also show how state history can recognize both the prominent and the voiceless, include government and politics as well as economics and culture, illuminate issues involving race and gender, and incorporate geographic areas usually overlooked.

The result is a largely successful history of Kentucky. Harrison surveys the period before 1865, while Klotter covers the years from the Civil War to the mid-1990s. Both authors rely mainly on secondary sources, make politics the centerpiece of their narratives, and occasionally offer wry commentary.

There are, however, some contrasts between the two authors' perspectives. The chapters written by Harrison reflect the many years he has lived in the western part of the state. It is a solid, traditional narrative, emphasizing the process by which white men in central and western Kentucky settled the land, established the state, and battled Indians, Britain, France, Mexico, Spain, and often each other. Klotter more directly addresses recent scholarship and is more attentive to the "many Kentuckys" (p. 219) that have appeared over time. Chapters in which he takes the long view, such as one entitled "Bourbon Barons, Tobacco Tycoons, and King Coal, 1865-1995," are particularly effective.

Indiana readers will find little material in this study that specifically refers to their state and its relationship to Kentucky. Harrison and Klotter have nonetheless established a model for other state histories.

JOHN M. GLEN, professor of history, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, is working on a history of the war on poverty in Appalachia and a history of Indiana since 1945.

Published by theĀ Indiana University Department of History.