Book Review

THE AMERICANIZATION OF WEST VIRGINIA: CREATING A MODERN INDUSTRIAL STATE, 1916-1925. By John C. Hennen (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1996. Pp. xv, 217. $32.95.)

The winner of the 1995 Appalachian Studies Award, John C. Hennen’s

The History of How West Virginia was turned into a sacrifice zone.

The true and accurate history of how West Virginia was turned into a fascist state so that it’s now a sacrifice zone.

Americanization of West Virginia breaks new ground in the study of twentieth-century Appalachia and West Virginia. Seeking to demonstrate how a minority of state elites instilled in West Virginians an authoritarian ideology of American identity, Hennen argues that West Virginia’s “ruling classes,” consonant with national promoters of industrial capitalism, promulgated a value system that helped them seize “hegemony” and prevent the rise of “counterhegemonic alternatives.” The educational, political, and industrial leaders of the state “helped insure the state’s designated role as a resource zone.” The author also offers his book as a cautionary tale against what he sees as a resurgent hierarchical vision in post-cold war America and as a contribution to information that will be “a tool for social liberation rather than social control.”

Hennen notes that aside from extensive work on the coal industry, historians have neglected the World War I and postwar periods of West Virginia’s history. He addresses these lacunae and offers “a countervailing perspective to the generally hagiographic contemporary accounts in which West Virginia protagonists of this period are mentioned.”

The author explores manuscript and print sources largely unused previously by historians as he analyzes the mobilization of wartime public opinion in West Virginia. Inspired by the federal Committee on Public Information (the Creel Committee) and private patriotic organizations, West Virginia’s opinion makers and educators generally reflected national views. Using oral exhortations and written appeals in the state’s nearly two hundred newspapers, the leaders mobilized public opinion in support of the war effort and corporate capitalism. Hennen quotes extensively from this material to indict the Americanizers with their own rhetoric, which clearly assumed certain elements in society had a right and indeed a responsibility to govern and to set the standards.

According to the author, when the war ended, the elite classes applied the successful wartime engineering of consent to the “labor problem.” A coalition of West Virginia business leaders united in the American Constitutional Association, a private organization devoted largely to defeating industrial unionism in the name of “industrial Americanization” and the open shop movement. By 1923 anti-union forces had rolled back the wartime gains of the state’s largest union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).

Just as the schools had been used to mobilize opinion during the war, private associations such as the American Constitutional Association, the American Legion, and the West Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs were able to influence the school curriculum in the early 1920s with their own conception of Americanization. Hennen emphasizes that the Americanization drives of the 1920s differed from the prewar efforts to assimilate immigrants into American society. Industrial Americanization, he maintains, was the successful effort of a class-conscious minority to indoctrinate the mass of Americans with their hierarchical and undemocratic social views which urged upon workers the values of thrift, obedience, antiradicalism, and hard work.

Hennen argues that the elite closed the door to all democratic options to industrial capitalism and influenced workers to adopt the elite’s view. Most of organized labor, for example, including John L. Lewis’s UMWA, offered no suitable alternative because union leaders, even when their unions were suffering debilitating losses during the 1920s, expressed capitalist values similar to those of industrial Americanization. Hennen assumes the unity and the self-consciousness of the elite on the main issues and largely ignores party politics and differences between Republicans and Democrats or differences within parties over the economic, religious, ethnic, and cultural issues of the day.

A major contribution of this book is to place Appalachian and West Virginian issues in the American mainstream of the period rather than treating them as exceptional or peculiar. On both the regional and national levels, this was a time when molders of public opinion almost sanctified business values while condemning alternative visions as un-American. Twelve photographs from the collections of the West Virginia State Archives help to capture a sense of the era.

Hennen’s book is a welcome addition to the relatively thin shelf of critical studies of West Virginia’s twentieth-century history. Although his concept of the hegemonic elite in West Virginia could benefit from clearer definition, both academic and general readers will find this an insightful and provocative interpretation of the period. Hennen rests his case upon both primary data from extensive manuscript and periodical research and a substantial historiographical foundation of Appalachian and national revisionism.

Jerry B. Thomas
Shepherd College

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *