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Boll Weevil Blues

Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South

Between the 1890s and the early 1920s, the boll weevil slowly ate its way across the Cotton South from Texas to the Atlantic Ocean. At the turn of the century, some Texas counties were reporting crop losses of over 70 percent, as were areas of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi. By the time the boll weevil reached the limits of the cotton belt, it had destroyed much of the region’s chief cash crop—tens of billions of pounds of cotton, worth nearly a trillion dollars. 

As staggering as these numbers may seem, James C. Giesen demonstrates that it was the very idea of the boll weevil and the struggle over its meanings that most profoundly changed the South—as different groups, from policymakers to blues singers, projected onto this natural disaster the consequences they feared and the outcomes they sought. Giesen asks how the myth of the boll weevil’s lasting impact helped obscure the real problems of the region—those caused not by insects, but by landowning patterns, antiquated credit systems, white supremacist ideology, and declining soil fertility. Boll Weevil Blues brings together these cultural, environmental, and agricultural narratives in a novel and important way that allows us to reconsider the making of the modern American South.

240 pages | 5 halftones, 4 maps, 10 figures, 7 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2011

History: American History, Environmental History


“James C. Giesen follows the march of the boll weevil—‘a cross between a termite and a tank’—across the South from Texas to Georgia. Although it pays due respect to the economic conditions facing southern farmers in the early twentieth century, this fascinating book is really about the blues, about race, and about the cultural impact of the boll weevil on the region and its history. Boll Weevil Blues is interdisciplinary history as it should be written.”

John Dittmer, DePauw University

“There’s a reason why the story of the boll weevil became a deeply embedded staple of southern legend and lore. In fact, there are several, as James C. Giesen shows in a remarkable study that not only demonstrates the profound economic, racial, and cultural ramifications of the boll weevil myth but exposes the ugly realities behind it as well.”

James Cobb, University of Georgia

“This is an original, smart, and sophisticated book. Boll Weevil Blues will make an important contribution to our understanding of American history, particularly the agricultural, social, and racial history of the cotton South. James C. Giesen destroys the myth that the boll weevil ruined cotton production, causing us to rethink the reasons for the failure of cotton farming, as well as its continuation and expansion during the years when the boll weevil allegedly threatened the South with destruction. The boll weevil be damned—this book will leave its mark on the field of southern history.”

R. Douglas Hurt, Purdue University

“Original and altogether fascinating. . . . for those interested in the march of the boll weevil, Giesen’s smart and creative book is now the place to begin.”

Environmental History

“As engaging as it is ambitious. . . . Students of agricultural history will find much to appreciate in Giesen’s excellent book. Whether it be rice, tobacco, wheat, sugar, corn, or soy, staple crops have a way of sinking into societies that, with endless ingenuity, exploit these plants and the people whose hands touch them. The boll weevil demonstrates how it is possible in these monocultural worlds for things to radically change while they stay the same.”

Southern Historical Quarterly

 “[Giesen’s] 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.”


“[A] fine-grained study of the impact of the weevil.”

The Historian

Boll Weevil Blues is a good read and an example of the importance of balancing the reality of the boll weevil with the rhetoric surrounding it. It is impossible to understand the cotton South without understanding its agriculture; it is likewise impossible to understand cotton culture without understanding the boll weevil’s roll in the region’s history and myth. Giesen offers an integrated treatment that contributes to understanding both of these points.”

Journal of American History

“Vividly written and carefully documented, this original book addresses a seemingly familiar topic from a new angle, forcing the reader to reconsider former assumptions about the region’s history. Giesen’s interdisciplinary contribution is essential reading for anyone interested not only in the boll weevil story, but in the social, economic, environmental, and agricultural history of the twentieth-century South.”

American Historical Review

“Giesen’s greatest strength lies in his ability to explain the local politics surrounding the boll weevil. Further, his work highlights the importance of the South as a region with diverse landscapes, each facing a similar problem differently. Particularly, useful to agricultural historians, Boll Weevil Blues adds to the growing canon of environmental history in the South.”

Alabama Review

Table of Contents


Chapter 1  Myth Making on the Cotton Frontier

Chapter 2  Cultures of Resistance in Texas and Louisiana: Tenants Make Sense of the Boll Weevil

Chapter 3  “Map Maker, Troublemaker, History Maker”: The Boll Weevil Threatens the Delta

Chapter 4  Delta Solutions Big and Small

Chapter 5  “The Herald of Prosperity”: The Promise of Diversification in Alabama

Chapter 6  “You Will Be Poor and Ignorant and Your Children Will Be the Same”: The Boll Weevil Myth Transformed

Chapter 7  Cotton’s Obituaries: The Boll Weevil in Georgia

Conclusion  The Boll Weevil’s Lost Revolution





Frances S. Summersell Center / University of Alabama: Deep South Book Prize

Southern Historical Association: Francis B. Simkins Award

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