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

Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South. By James C. Giesen. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 221. $40.00.)

History and legend alike have credited the boll weevil with destroying the South's plantation system, impoverishing its people, driving the great northern migration of black laborers, and ushering in a modern agricultural system that transformed the region's economy and reordered rural life. In this fine-grained study of the impact of the weevil--somewhat surprisingly, the first book-length treatment of its kind--James C. Giesen argues that this received interpretation is, in a word, "hogwash." And yet, Giesen adds, the threat or "idea" of the boll weevil was never lost on Southern policymakers, bureaucrats, educators, business leaders, cotton planters, and tenants, who exploited fear of the pest to advance their own interests and, in the process, created a powerful, enduring myth (xi).

To be sure, the weevil was a force with which to be reckoned. From its appearance in the Texas borderlands in the 1890s until the end of the twentieth century, the boll weevil destroyed tens of billions of pounds of Southern cotton. As it migrated east, the pest ravaged fields, displaced tenants, and significantly lowered land values. In marginal lands where the soil was thin, such as the wiregrass region of southeast Alabama, the weevil put an end to cotton production altogether. Yet elsewhere, Southern cotton farmers adjusted. Although insecticides proved largely ineffective against the weevil, new varieties of seed and careful conservation practices enabled farmers to minimize the impact of the pest and grow cotton profitably in spite of it. By 1930, cotton production actually exceeded preweevil levels in every Southern state except Georgia, whose cotton economy was already in trouble when the weevil invaded in the 1910s.

The most enduring impact of the boll weevil grew out of the fear it evoked. The USDA, state extension agencies, and land-grant universities stoked these fears to justify larger budgets, and Giesen attributes much of their growth in the early twentieth century to their aggressive antiweevil campaign. In the Mississippi Delta, the world's wealthiest and most anxious cotton planters, hoping to prevent a labor exodus, sought to control the public discourse over the weevil by refusing to let the government experts meet in their communities. For their part, tenants tried to leverage planter anxiety over the weevil to negotiate better leases and gain more autonomy. And at the ragged edges of rural culture, black bluesmen found in the weevil a metaphor for life and wrote the weevil myth into popular song.

Yet in the end, the boll weevil changed very little about the cotton South. The dire warnings of educators and experts fell on deaf ears. Short-term experiments in crop diversification, like peanut farming in Coffee County, Alabama, might succeed for a day, but Southern farmers could not long resist the lure of cotton. As the fear of the boll weevil passed into myth, Southerners came to blame it for their poverty and backwardness, but it was only a convenient scapegoat that masked the hard realities of a rural economy built on sharecropping, racism, lynching, crop liens, perpetual debt, and enslavement to monocrop agriculture.

Peter N. Moore

Texas A &M University-Corpus Christi
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Author:Moore, Peter N.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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