Road to Poverty

Review: James Oberly on Dwight Billings and Kathleen Blee

Dwight B. Billings and Kathleen M. Blee, The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiv + 434 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-521-65229-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James Oberly, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Published by EH.NET, July 2001.

Sociologists Dwight Billings (University of Kentucky) and Kathleen Blee (University of Pittsburgh) have collaborated over the years on how historians and social scientists can build on the work of ethnographic and folk studies scholars who did so much in the mid-twentieth century to document rural American life. Billings and Blee have together researched and written a fine cultural and economic history of Clay County, Kentucky, focusing mainly on the years from the county's founding in 1806 up through the time it became nationally famous around 1900 for a series of deadly family vendettas and feuds. Clay County has been well-studied by social scientists throughout the entire twentieth century, and Billings and Blee want to correct what they see as a set of ahistorical biases in the sociological and ethnographical literature. In their own way, the authors want to do for Clay County what historian Stephan Thernstrom did for "Yankee City" (Newburyport, Massachusetts) in an earlier correction of an ahistorical ethnographic study. [1]

Billings and Blee are particularly interested in dismantling the two reigning paradigms about the sources of poverty in rural Appalachia. The first they label the "culture of poverty" hypothesis, which attributes the economic lag of the mountaineers to their peculiar culture. The authors see this as a form of blaming the victim. The second paradigm they reject is the "colonized region" hypothesis, which holds that Appalachia was impoverished by the workings of the coal market in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Their choice of Clay County is, on the face of it, enough to reject the second hypothesis because Clay was never a major part of Coal Country, yet it was still one of the poorest counties in the entire United States up to and after the 1960s War on Poverty.

If the mountaineers are not to blame, and the coal companies not relevant, Billings and Blee turn back to the nineteenth century for answers. They conduct a careful investigation of the economic and cultural history of Clay County before and after the Civil War, and it is in the nineteenth century that they locate their explanation for the roots of Appalachian poverty. Clay County had an early growth period as a salt manufacturing center. The salt-makers shipped their product downstream on the Kentucky River until their industry went into crisis either immediately before or immediately after the Civil War (the authors do not make the timing clear). Slave labor was an important part of the salt manufacture and a few leading families emerged in the antebellum period that came to dominate the politics and culture of Clay County. The elite families controlled the best land, sometimes intermarried with one another, but early on (the 1840s) engaged in some bitter personal and political struggles. The authors see the origin of the 1890s feuds in the rival manipulations of the first families of Clay County. After the Civil War, subsistence agriculture supported most families, and as population grew through natural increase, pressure on the land increased. Poverty and immiseration, it seems, was due to the family strategies followed by Clay County farmers. Eventually, in the twentieth century, Clay County solved some of its problems through the export of its people, just as countless other rural areas have done. Still, those left behind in Clay remained poor and came to depend on wage labor to supplement their hard-scrabble farms.

Authors Billings and Blee do not have one simple hypothesis to explain Clay County's enduring rural poverty. Instead, they attempt to tie together three causative factors that they think explain the history better than "culture of poverty" or "King Coal." Their alternative combines the workings of the market, the use of state power, and the cultural strategies of the residents. Separate chapters on these three areas of inquiry form the middle part of the book. All have promise, but all have problems bearing the interpretive loadasked of them.

The history of the salt manufacture in Clay County represents the authors' belief that markets arrived in the county early on, and that the workings of the market poorly served the inhabitants. Here, in this reviewer's opinion, the authors needed to do some more theorizing about the types of manufacturing in antebellum American and which types led to economic development, as well as economic growth. Moreover, the authors' own data on property-holding in Clay County shows that it lagged far behind the Bluegrass counties in wealth accumulation from the early nineteenth century onward. Clay County started poor and never had a boom period.

The chapter on state power is the weakest in the book, again in this reviewer's opinion. "State power" consisted of the county courts, ruled by justices of the peace appointed for life by the governor. The authors theorize that state power was used for the benefit of the "ruffle-shirt" gentry and to the detriment of most of the populace. In the conclusion, almost at the end of the book, the authors parachute in sociologist Robert Putnam's theory about social capital and democracy as an explanation for the failures of state power in Clay County. They take Putnam's hypothesis about the late twentieth century, retroject it back to the nineteenth and then apply it unevenly. They might have better spent their time looking for Tocqueville-style civic society in Clay outside the courtroom if they wanted to apply social capital theory. Most telling is their omission of the effect of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Clay County. How many men from the County served in the war and on which side? To what extent were veterans' pensions a part of the local economy? How did the county emerge as a Republican Party stronghold in the Cumberlands? How and why did the families of the region not take advantage of their party ties to further economic development?

Finally, the authors modify E.P. Thompson's "moral economy" argument about early modern British rural society and apply it to late nineteenth century Clay County. They find a patriarchal moral economy of subsistence agriculture led to increasing poverty. This is different than a "culture of poverty" but it does offer a local explanation for local poverty.

A great deal of work in the manuscript census and local court records supports this book. The authors have certainly succeeded in bringing alive the nineteenth-century economic and cultural history of Clay County. Less certain is their attempt to offer a new theory about why Clay County in particular, and Appalachia in general, became poor.


[1] W. Lloyd Warner and Paul Lunt, The Social Life of a Modern Community, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941; Stephan Thernstrom, Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964. An exception to the authors' dislike of the ethnographic literature of Appalachia is James Brown's Beech Creek: The Social Organization of an Isolated Kentucky Mountain Region, Berea, KY: Berea College Press, 1950, a book about Clay County mountaineers, for which Billings and Blee have high regard.

James W. Oberly (Professor of History, University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire) is currently at work on a project, "The Mohicans of Wisconsin: Land, Population, and Conflict in an Indian Homeland, 1820-1995."

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Posted: 30 July 2001