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Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South

Author(s):Giesen, James C.
Reviewer(s):Hall, Randal L.

Published by EH.Net (January 2013)

James C. Giesen, Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. xvi + 221 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-226-29287-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Randal L. Hall, Department of History, Rice University.

James C. Giesen, an associate professor of history at Mississippi State University, has completed a challenging task in Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South. He has written the first monograph on the boll weevil in the U.S. South, and he succeeds in exploring this long-snouted insect?s effects on both the economy and the culture of the region from the 1890s to about 1930.

Long present along the Rio Grande, the boll weevil caused major problems in the United States only when large-scale cotton production in Texas extended far enough south to offer the beetle access to a nutritious pathway from Texas to Virginia. The female weevil punctures immature cotton bolls with its probiscis and then lays an egg inside, ending the cotton fiber?s development. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) identified the boll weevil as a pest in Texas in 1894. It slowly made its way across the South, destroying vast amounts of cotton in each state along the way. The weevil reached Louisiana in 1903 and Georgia in 1915. Giesen explains succinctly the popular image of this infestation?s agroecological effect: ?Newspapers, entomologists, family storytellers, traveling country and blues singers, tenant farmers, and planters have presented the boll weevil as a wrecker of plantation agriculture, an unstoppable natural disaster that swept through the South unchecked and brought ruin to its people? (p. xi).

Giesen points out, however, that southerners in 1930 were growing more cotton than they were when the weevil started its trek across the region. By relying on pesticides, cotton varieties that matured early, field rotation, and other techniques, farmers continued to grow cotton despite the weevil. Depictions of a cotton regime utterly devastated by the insect were obviously exaggerated, and Giesen analyzes why so many southerners contributed to the myth of the boll weevil juggernaut. The book includes four roughly chronological case studies tracking the boll weevil from Texas to Georgia. In each location, particular southerners turned a seemingly ?natural? environmental and economic menace to their own advantage.

Examining Texas and Louisiana during the early years of the boll weevil?s spread, Giesen shows that USDA employees and their state-level counterparts seized on the threat to advance their own goals: they ?saw in the pest a solution to the South?s overdependence on cotton and a way to overcome farmers? unwillingness to employ modern, scientific farming methods? (p. 2). The weevil increased the importance of agricultural bureaucrats like Seaman Knapp and their research and educational efforts. Tenant farmers in these states and elsewhere, in turn, migrated from farm to farm in search of better treatment or land free of the weevil. Those journeys entered the cultural record in the many blues songs featuring weevils.

The case study that perhaps contributes most explicitly to economic history is Giesen?s look at the fertile Yazoo-Mississippi Delta region, particularly the Delta Pine and Land Company?s experience. The weevil caused this massive corporate plantation to abandon its initial plan to grow long-staple cotton; instead, it profited from selling not only short-staple cotton but also seed varieties best suited to beating the weevil. The white managers and owners of this plantation, as well as the many others in the Delta, carefully constricted the flow of information about the weevil to their black tenant workforce. White people feared that the black workers would leave. As Giesen explains, ?The region was home to a fully articulated form of racial capitalism where the system of labor was a system of racial control? (p. 53).

Giesen?s study of southeastern Alabama reveals market forces at work in ways that could not be stymied. For decades, agricultural experts had extolled the virtues of diversification to cotton farmers engaged in monocrop cultivation. With the weevil threatening wholesale destruction, farmers in this corner of Alabama briefly heeded the advice; the environment there allowed them to turn to peanuts, an alternate crop promoted by Alabama researcher George Washington Carver and others. The relative opportunities for profit during the 1920s nonetheless returned the area to a heavy reliance on cotton.

Giesen?s final case is that of Georgia, where white people blamed the boll weevil for the so-called Great Migration of black farmers to northern industrial cities. In that way, white Georgians could avoid admitting that black people were leaving in large part because of the other defects of a violent, racist state that allowed them few opportunities.?

Giesen explains up-front that ?cultural interpretations of the boll weevil lie at the heart of my argument? (p. xv). Nonetheless, his careful research, clear writing, and subtle interpretations offer considerable insight into southern economic history. He adds depth to our understanding of how white southerners were able to thwart free operation of the labor market for a time and how government research supported private profit. He also contributes to the growing body of work showing that capitalists often adapted well to conditions in the U.S. South.

Randal L. Hall (rh@rice.edu) is managing editor of the Journal of Southern History at Rice University and is the author of Mountains on the Market: Industry, the Environment and the South (University Press of Kentucky, 2012).
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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII