A Golden Weed: Tobacco and Environment in the Piedmont South by Drew A. Swanson (review)
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A Golden Weed: Tobacco and Environment in the Piedmont South. By Drew A. Swanson. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2014. Pp. 342. $45.00 cloth)

Drew A. Swanson’s in-depth examination of the history of “bright” tobacco in the Piedmont, or “Southside,” district of the Virginia/ North Carolina border provides the reader with a thoughtful analysis of how dependence upon a single crop (in this case a regional variety of tobacco which was cured, or prepared for market, in a unique manner) can not only shape an entire region’s agriculture but also the cultural identity of its residents and the physical environment in which they live.

From the outset, Swanson signals the ambitious agenda he intends to pursue by boldly stating that he will address the “schizophrenic place” farmers hold “in American history.” He notes that tobacco farmers, in particular, have long served as a “prototype” of the kind of farmer who “abuses landscapes and then moves on to fresh ones, driving national expansion through carelessness and waste rather than industriousness” (p. ix). Instead, Swanson argues that his research provides conclusive evidence that the Southside’s tobacco growers “consistently sought what they believed to be the best use of [their] local landscapes . . . [and] spoke in a language of permanence and stability . . . rather than exploitation” (p. x). He also maintains that through his exploration of the bright tobacco grower’s view of the world, he can both “recover a world that has been all but lost” and help the reader “to understand how the modern world came to be” (p. xi).

In his effort to do so, Swanson devotes most of the first half of the book to a detailed analysis of how bright tobacco, which was not purposely cultivated until the early 1840s, rose to dominate the agricultural, economic, and social lives of the residents of the South-side by the 1860s. Concentrating his research on three contiguous Piedmont communities (Halifax and Pittsylvania counties in Virginia and Caswell County in North Carolina), Swanson skillfully traces the origin of bright (or “yellow”) tobacco, separating the probable truth [End Page 746] of its discovery from the apocryphal in the process, while offering a well-thought-out explanation of its appeal to both growers and consumers alike. While doing so, Swanson is able to illuminate how the Southside’s unique geography and soil conditions, in combination with the introduction of new methods of curing (by the use of flues), marketing (through the introduction of the loose leaf auction), and consuming (through cigarettes) tobacco led to the wholesale adoption of bright tobacco as the region’s primary agricultural product, or “cash crop.”

The remainder of the book outlines the social and economic reasons why the Southside’s farmers (both black and white) continued to cultivate bright tobacco well into the twentieth century, long after it had ceased to be either truly profitable or sustainable. Swanson describes, in stark terms, just how devastating the Southside’s near universal reliance upon bright tobacco was upon the region’s physical environment, the results of which are still visible to this day in the form of deforestation, erosion, and gullies. He also makes it clear, however, that the Southside’s farmers’ continued reliance upon bright tobacco was neither due to backwardness nor to a lack of agricultural skills on their part. Instead, Swanson persuasively argues that farmers continued to raise their annual tobacco crop largely out of a deep-rooted belief in both the “worth” and “rightness” of tobacco and a desire to continue farming as a way of life. This, along with his thought-provoking analysis of the role that racism played in the long-term survival of bright tobacco culture, makes the book both a compelling read and an important new contribution to the small but growing literature on the nation’s tobacco cultures. [End Page 747]

Jeffery A. Duvall

JEFFERY A. DUVALL is the assistant editor of the Frederick Douglass Papers and a research associate at the Institute for American Thought at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. He holds a PhD in history from Purdue University.

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