Book Review Archives

Kentucky Anthology: Two Hundred Years of Writing in the Bluegrass State

By: Wade Hall, ed.
Reviewed by: Jessica Hume
The University Press of Kentucky, 2005
$45, Hardcover

Before leaving Kentucky to return to his birth state, Alabama, Wade Hall composed a work of honesty and devotion for what he left behind. In this case, however, what he left behind was not a lover, but an intimate relationship with the craft of writing in Kentucky, and Hall’s Kentucky Anthology: Two Hundred Years of Writing in the Bluegrass State is not simply a love letter. The anthology, which includes a wonderfully articulate and sometimes pleasantly surprising selection of historical, literary, and creative works spanning the entire history of the commonwealth, is a prime example of Hall’s inspired and meticulous work. Hall, it would seem, has trod the “dark and bloody ground,” smelled the black heft of coal silt, heard the echo of Appalachian voices off dripping limestone, and seen new generations dawning across the bridges of the Ohio River, all through the words set down by Kentucky’s writers. His gift to us is that he, like any master craftsman, brings all the elements together in one work which sings the gritty harmonies of Kentucky’s dark and beautiful past so that we, too, may experience Kentucky as both history and home.

Hall’s bluegrass tapestry, which includes 179 notable writers, also offers some remarkable features. The most integral of these is his understanding and acknowledgment that a writer need not be an original citizen of a state in order to appreciate and expound on its unique history or lush and sometimes tragic beauty. In his introduction, Hall defines a “Kentucky writer” as one who “has lived in the state long enough to relate intimately to the Kentucky land, heritage or history and whose writing . . . reflects this relationship.” He is quick to clarify that this definition need not always apply, thus allowing him to include works by writers such as Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe, which create a multi-dimensional understanding of the evolution of writing in and about Kentucky. These voices are complimentary to the hearty melody of classic Kentucky writers ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Robert Penn Warren, from Jesse Stuart and Thomas Merton to Wendell Berry and Bobbie Ann Mason, and from Sena Jeter Naslund and Barbara Kingsolver to Silas House and Frank X Walker.

Another harmonic element in this chorus is Hall’s attention and homage to the wealth of students, teachers, publishers, occasional poets, and writers who have truly fleshed out Kentucky writing for the last several years, and perhaps many more to come. Of these are Jeffrey Skinner and Sarah Gorham of Sarabande Books, Frederick Smock, Maureen Morehead, John Gatton, Kathleen Driskell, and the up-and-coming Abigail Gramig. This collection demonstrates Hall’s passionate understanding of what it means to be a writer in Kentucky.

Other lovely elements of this volume are the unique pieces which open and close the collection. In the first section of the book, a selection of historical writing by authors such as John Filson and John James Audobon creates a brilliant foundation for the rest of the compilation, an invaluable foundation which could not be found collected elsewhere. The final element of the anthology, an index of writers’ biographies, adds yet another rich and complex dimension which completes the history of writing in Kentucky.

In demonstration of his unfailing fidelity, Hall has left no chunk of limestone unturned and no hollow unsounded, and in this anthology he presents us with the most perfect examples of the voices of Kentucky.

Jessica Hume is a poet, a teacher, and a graduate student in the MFA program at Spalding University.