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Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South by James C. Giesen (review)

From: Alabama Review
Volume 66, Number 1, January 2013
pp. 67-69 | 10.1353/ala.2013.0006

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The boll weevil’s arrival in the South brought an opportunity to wean planters from their dependence on cotton. In some counties the boll weevil reduced crop yield by up to seventy percent. While historians such as Pete Daniel have long noted the economic disruption caused by the boll weevil, James Giesen suggests that the effects of destruction were vastly overstated. Cotton production actually increased throughout the boll weevil plight from the 1890s to 1930s. Nonetheless, Giesen argues that the myth of the boll weevil loomed large over southerners who believed that this enormous swarm of insects posed the greatest threat to southern life since the Civil War (p. xii). The boll weevil became an excuse for hardships in the South. It was not antiquated farming techniques, but a pest that hindered prosperity. Giesen poses, “It was the idea of the boll weevil, more than the physical destruction it wrought, that most profoundly changed the region” (p. xi). Giesen’s work is an intrepid effort to merge agricultural, environmental, and social history to identify the myth of the boll weevil and measure its effects.

Chapters in Boll Weevil Blues flow chronologically and geographically, beginning with the arrival of boll weevil in the 1890s in East Texas, its spread to the fertile Yazoo–Mississippi Delta, down to Southeastern Alabama, and up through central Georgia by the 1920s. With limited research in pesticides, crop diversification proved to the best way to reduce losses. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) special agents proposed that Texas farmers adopt the “cultural method,” which called for farmers to burn their fields after the cotton harvest and diversify their crops to reduce the weevil’s spread while simultaneously restoring soil quality. Despite advocacy of USDA’s efforts in local newspapers, skeptical farmers were reluctant to adopt the strategies.

In the Yazoo–Mississippi delta, white corporate landowners established cotton plantations built on Old South social norms while embracing mechanization. Giesen argues, “The weevil forced planters to tighten their grip on Delta society, meaning everything from ownership and control of farmland to the movement of people, credit, and even knowledge” (p. 48). Delta blues singer Charley Patton vocalized the frustration of the tenants. In “Mississippi Bo Weevil Blues,” the boll weevil whispers to his wife, “I believe I may go North, I won’t tell nobody” (p. 97). Written at the beginning of the Great Migration, the boll weevil blues made the threat of migration clear to all listeners.

Giesen next identifies two factors that gave crop diversification a chance when the dreaded insect infested southeastern Alabama in 1910: the inability to efficiently grow cotton on all acres and the research on the boll weevil conducted fifteen years prior to the insect’s arrival. Spurred by George Washington Carver’s research into the uses of the peanut, Alabamians briefly embraced diversification. However, high prices lured farmers back to cotton. Potential profit remained too great. Furthermore, Giesen points to endemic racism that doomed crop diversification. Extension service agents believed black tenants were incapable of understanding the importance of diversification. By contrast, black extension agents lacked funding, which limited their ability to instruct rural farmers. Thus, the boll weevil had little lasting positive effect on agricultural modernization in southeast Alabama.

Only in Georgia did crop diversification succeed. While Georgians later attributed diversification to the boll weevil, poor soil quality forced diversification anyways. Furthermore, Giesen contends that it was the myth of the boll weevil that led previous historians to attribute the Great Migration to the pest and not the increasing debt of sharecroppers and poverty across the South (p. 163). In the end, it was migration, debt, and declining land fertility that led Georgians to diversify their agricultural economy. Giesen’s nuanced argument that the myth of the boll weevil forever changed the South is problematic at times. Despite the overhyped threat of the pest, few farmers changed their methods in Texas and Mississippi. In Alabama, crop diversification was only temporary. Only in Georgia did diversification succeed, but forces other than the myth of the boll weevil led to diversification. The monopoly of the landowners, the distrust of government and academic scientists, and the rampant racism in the South all existed...


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