Tom Eblen: Book explores Lexington's rise, fall as 'Athens of the West'

Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852, was published in August by the University Press of Kentucky.  Photo provided
Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852, was published in August by the University Press of Kentucky. Photo provided Herald-Leader

Mayor Jim Gray often talks about Lexington aspiring to be a "great American city." But two centuries ago, that is exactly what it was. Many visitors hailed Lexington as the most vibrant and cultured city in what was then Western America.

The reality and myths surrounding Lexington's so-called Athens of the West era are explored in a new book of essays published by the University Press of Kentucky, Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852.

The book is already in stores, but it will be formally launched at a signing party Sunday, Sept. 16, at 4 p.m. at the Hunt Morgan House, 253 Market Street. The event is free and open to the public.

Bluegrass Renaissance grew out of a series of lectures in 2007 organized by the University of Kentucky's Gaines Center for the Humanities and others. Book editors James Klotter, Kentucky's state historian, and Daniel Rowland, a UK history professor and former Gaines Center director, compiled essays by 15 historians and writers, including my older daughter, Mollie, and me.

The book begins with essays by Klotter and Stephen Aron that place Lexington in the national context of the time and discuss the city's quick transition from frontier outpost to cultured metropolis.

Gerald Smith and the late Shearer Davis Bowman write an essay about slavery, the "peculiar institution" that built the region's wealth and would eventually play a big role in both economic and moral bankruptcy.

Randolph Hollingsworth writes about the role women played in early Kentucky, while Maryjean Wall looks at the origins of the signature horse industry. Mark Wetherington and Matthew Clarke profile several influential characters, while John Thelin explores the role higher education played in development and civic pride.

Nikos Pappas writes about musical culture, and Estill Curtis Pennington explains how outstanding portrait painters helped bring artistic culture to Central Kentucky and left what little visual evidence we have of that era's key players.

Patrick Snaden writes about how Lexington's leading citizens embraced early America's most accomplished architect, Benjamin Latrobe. He was commissioned to design six Lexington buildings. Only one survives: Pope Villa, one of the most avant-garde pieces of architecture built during America's Federalist period.

Mollie and I wrote about Horace Holley, a minister lured to Lexington from Boston, and his role in transforming Transylvania University into one of early America's most highly regarded universities. Transylvania played a central role in Kentucky's early education accomplishments and Lexington's "Athens of the West" reputation.

The book's dates are somewhat arbitrary: 1792 is the year Kentucky became a state, while 1852 is when Henry Clay, Lexington's most famous citizen, died. In reality, Lexington's heyday didn't begin until after 1800, and its economic, if not cultural, fortunes started waning around 1815. By the end of the 1830s, Lexington had begun a long slide into mediocrity and provincialism.

Lexington's early prosperity was the result of rich soil, slave labor and the city's prime location as a hub for early Westward migration and trade. But the city began to struggle after the invention of steamboats allowed two-way commerce on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, which favored river cities such as Cincinnati and Louisville.

Slavery became a huge economic and social liability for Lexington beginning in the 1840s, limiting economic innovation and sparking increased social and racial strife. By clinging so long to slavery, a huge amount of Lexington's economic capital was wiped out by the Civil War; racism and violence that followed stifled growth and new ideas.

Lexington had lost its economic edge and pioneer spirit. With a few notable exceptions, such as the creation and growth of the University of Kentucky, the city remained intellectually and economically stagnant for nearly a century.

In a short essay that ends the book, Gray makes the point that the past informs the present, and history provides valuable lessons for those who seek to shape the future.

Mollie and I certainly discovered that while researching and writing our chapter. The spectacular rise and fall of Holley at Transylvania in the 1820s reflected issues and attitudes that have shaped two centuries of Kentucky history.

Holley saw huge potential in Kentucky and its people, but was bedeviled by religious disputes, power struggles and petty politics. He finally gave up and left Kentucky, frustrated by an anti-intellectual governor who saw more political advantage in building roads than investing in education.

This book's title is something of a misnomer: "renaissance" means "revival." The Athens of the West era was actually Lexington's "naissant" period. Achieving renaissance is our challenge, and we would be wise to learn lessons from the past.

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