Facebook Pixel Department of History Staff | Western Kentucky University

Department of History Staff

Tony Harkins
Tony Harkins
- Professor; Cultural Enhancement Committee Chair; Program Coordinator for PCAL Dean
Research Interests

I am a scholar of American popular culture history, particularly its connections to rural America and Appalachia. My first book Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2004) won the 2005 Susanne M. Glasscock Book Prize for Interdisciplinary Humanities Scholarship from Texas A&M University. Hillbilly draws on a wide array of popular culture genres that featured hillbilly images including literature, country music, comic strips and cartoons, films, television shows, local festivals and the Internet to examine the evolution of one of the most pervasive and enduring icons of twentieth century American popular culture. I argue that the hillbilly has served as a continually negotiated mythic space through which modern Americans have attempted to define themselves and their national identity and to reconcile the past and the present.

My most recent publication is Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia University Press, 2019) co-edited with Meredith McCarroll. The book won the 2020 Appalachian Studies Association Weatherford Award for best nonfiction book on Appalachia and the Walter & Lillian Lowenfels Criticism Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The book is a retort, at turns rigorous, critical, angry, and hopeful, to the long shadow Hillbilly Elegy has cast over the region and its imagining. But it also moves well beyond Vance’s book to allow Appalachians from varied backgrounds to tell their own diverse and complex stories through an imaginative blend of scholarship, prose, poetry, and photography. Complicating simplistic visions that associate the region almost exclusively with death and decay, Appalachian Reckoning makes clear Appalachia’s intellectual vitality, spiritual richness, and progressive possibilities.

I have also published related articles on the hillbilly image in Studies in American Humor, Appalachian Journal, The Journal of Appalachian Studies, was the co-editor of the Media section of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2006), and have served as a historical consultant on numerous film documentaries including Hillbilly (2018) and The Feud (PBS, American Experience, 2019). My article “Colonels, Hillbillies and Fightin’: Twentieth-century Kentucky in the National Imagination” appeared in the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society in 2015.

In the last few years, I have also focused on other topics.  I have published on the influential career of Kentucky native and WKU graduate Julian Goodman who was president of NBC from 1966 to 1978, and have explored the origins, development and potential consequences of envisioning the great center of the nation as "the middle of nowhere" from the perspectives of both coastal commentators and self-defined "Flyover People." In particular, I have investigated the impact of central transportation and communication developments (especially transcontinental passenger air travel, the interstate highway system, and television) on the changing ways Americans envisioned the cultural and geographic boundaries and intersections of the nation and how this has impacted the Midwest in particular.  My chapter “Rethinking ‘Flyover Country’ in the Age of American Hyper-Polarization” will appear in the forthcoming book Flyover Fictions (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2024).

Links to many of these articles are available on the Digital Commons.

Teaching Interests

I teach the second half of the World History survey, both halves of the U.S History survey, the U.S. since 1945, History of U.S. Popular Culture since the Civil War, the History of Appalachia, and graduate seminars on most of these topics as well as one on 20th century U.S. social and cultural history. In addition, most. Years I team-teach the American studies survey exploring themes such as justice, dissent, utopias/dystopias, and the American Dream.


I am Program Coordinator for the PCAL Dean and serve as the chair of the PCAL Cultural Enhancement Series committee and the Adopt a Nonprofit initiative.  I also am the PCAL liaison to the Office of Scholarly Development and the WKU Fulbright faculty liaison. I have served as a member of the Kentucky Oral History Commission since 2020. For the History Department, I currently serve on the History Fair Committee. I served as interim department chair in Spring 2020.

Back to Listing

 Visit us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram


Some of the links on this page may require additional software to view.

 Last Modified 8/8/18