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The town of Harlan is located in southeastern Kentucky, in a section of the Appalachian Mountains known as the Cumberland Plateau. It was originally founded in 1819 by immigrants from the British Isles. Throughout the nineteenth century, two Harlan families, the Howards and the Turners, fought regularly, often killing one another.
The Howards and Turners were not the only families killing one another in Appalachia at the time. Other notable examples include the famous Hatfields-McCoy feud, the French-Eversole feud, and the Martin-Tolliver feud, which ended with one hundred fighting a two-hour gun battle. Over a fifty-year period, there were one thousand murder indictments in a circuit court clerk’s office for a single Cumberland Plateau town.
The reason for the pattern of violence is a “culture of honor.” In mountainous regions, where farming is not possible, economies revolve around livestock herding. Because theft of livestock can be ruinous, herdsmen learn to be aggressive and to follow through with threats. Over time, reputation becomes increasingly important. Much of Appalachia was settled by Scotch-Irish immigrants, herdsmen from a violent region who reproduced their culture in America. In such a culture, there are far more murders, especially by an individual who knew the victim, but fewer property crimes.
In the 1990s, University of Michigan psychologists Dov Cohen and Richard Nesbitt conducted an experiment on the culture of honor. Students were asked to fill out a questionnaire and turn it in at the end of a long, narrow hallway. The control group filled out the questionnaire and left, but students in the other group were blocked by an individual looking through file drawers. When a student tried to pass, the individual (who was part of the experiment) would bump the student with his shoulder and mutter, “Asshole.” Following the encounter, the experimenters gauged the firmness of the students’ handshakes, measured their levels of cortisol and testosterone, and recorded their reactions to an incomplete story about a male student trying to kiss another male student’s girlfriend. Cohen and Nesbitt found out that the key variable in how strongly students reacted to being blocked and insulted in the hallway was geographic in origin. The ones with the strongest reactions were predominantly from the South.
Gladwell points out that the students were not herdsmen nor even children of herdsmen. Cultural legacies are passed down, much like accents, even after environments that produced them have long been left behind. If upbringing and opportunities shape one’s success, then the traditions and attitudes one inherits also play a role.
Culture and heritage have an effect on individuals even generations removed from the place of origin. Setting the scene in Harlan, Kentucky, Gladwell introduces two of the town’s founding families, the Howards and Turners. He notes that these feuding families and others like them were the rule, not the exception, in Appalachia. He explains that these feuds were part of a culture of honor, a term coined by sociologists. Once again, Gladwell turns to a psychological study to show the impact of background on present actions. He details a 1990s study on the culture of honor that showed students from the South reacting more aggressively to an insult than those from the North. He reiterates the strength of cultural legacy long after the economic, social and demographic elements behind it have passed. Gladwell reviews the elements of success, then poses a question to setup the rest of the book: “Can we learn something about why people succeed and how to make people better at what they do by taking cultural legacies seriously?” Where their families come from significantly impacts how individuals navigate the world around them.