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High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta
328 pp., $25.00
Yeoman of the New South
In recent years the publishing world has seen a spate of books devoted to the proposition that history can be profitably viewed through the lens of some single commodity: salt, say, or potatoes. Gerald Helferich works hard here to make the same case for the cotton grown on the Mississippi Delta, those 7,000 square miles squeezed between the Yazoo, the Tallahatchie, and the namesake great river. Without cotton, he insists,
slavery would not have taken root so deeply in the South, loosing the economic and sectarian tensions that led to civil war. Without cotton, in all likelihood there would have been no Republican Party, no Reconstruction, no battle to reclaim civil rights … . Today's racial landscape would be unrecognizable as well, for the enduring rift between black and white is also part of the legacy of cotton.
Call it the great crop theory of history. Call it, too, the weakest part of what in certain respects is a very fine book. There are passages here that deserve the back-cover praise "in the tradition of Tracy Kidder and John McPhee." But there's also lots of padding, and missed opportunities.
Helferich is out to tell the story of one Delta cotton farmer, Zack Killibrew, his first wife's cousin. Killibrew farms 1,700 acres, most of which he leases, on four parcels around the county seat of Lexington, Mississippi. He is meant to be emblematic of the embattled small farmer in America, sustained by his "prodigious know-how and Rebel stubbornness," but in the end "his financial success or failure is largely subject to impersonal meteorological forces—just as it's been since the first settlers began planting cotton in the Delta."
And indeed the loveliest scenes in the book all involve Killibrew's intense sense of husbandry—his visceral feel for how the seedlings are developing beneath the soil, his agony when the elements go awry:
"It's jus like a baby bein' born," he tells me in his deep southern timbre. "You have the due date, and you're just waitin'." ...