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Is Kentucky Southern?

How the Bluegrass State was (re)born.

12:25 PM, Oct 28, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Among those regions of the country that are culturally self-conscious--northern New England, Southern California, Appalachia--the South has been especially occupied, during the past two centuries, in defining what constitutes its distinctive character. As with any such topic, there is no end of debate, and no conclusion on the horizon. And the discourse has yielded a vast library of studies.

Is Kentucky Southern?

Of which How Kentucky Became Southern is a notable addition. Kentucky, of course, is the quintessential border state--you can cross the line into Virginia to the east, Illinois and Indiana to the west--and while not a part of the Confederacy, its sentiments were generally pro-Southern on the antebellum debates about the extension of slavery. Its greatest statesmen, however, was (and remains) Henry Clay, a proponent of union and “the American system,” author of the great legislative compromises on slavery in the West, and not least, young Abraham Lincoln’s beau ideal. So is Kentucky “Southern,” and if it is, when did it become so?

Maryjean Wall, veteran turf correspondent of the Lexington Herald (where this reviewer was once associate editor), considers the question from the point of view of horseflesh. West of the mountains, Kentucky’s rolling terrain and “bluegrass” landscape were considered uniquely hospitable to horse culture, and at a time when thoroughbred breeding and racing were nearly extinct in the North, antebellum Kentucky became its natural homeland, and Lexington its capital. All of that changed in the wake of the Civil War, and a fatal postwar combination of property destruction, lawlessness, poverty, and political violence came close to destroying the horse culture that had largely fled north.

It is Maryjean Wall’s thesis that Kentucky’s deliberate Gilded Age decision to revive the horse industry coincided with accumulated regional resentments from the Civil War, and propelled not only the revival of Kentucky in the late 19th century as the historic heartland of thoroughbreds and racing, but promoted a well-advertised image of the Bluegrass State as a land of retired colonels, peaceful stud farms, mint juleps, chestnut mares, and gracious living, Southern-style. To what extent any of this stereotypical imagery is representative of reality, and to what extent it plays into the notion of being “Southern,” is explored in detail in this fascinating--and groundbreaking--study.

How Kentucky Became Southern: A Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders by Maryjean Wall, Kentucky, 280pp., $29.95

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