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Hard to cotton to ‘Big Cotton’ 

An entertaining but undisciplined look at a major subject.

UNDISCIPLINED: 'Big Cotton.'
  • UNDISCIPLINED: 'Big Cotton.'
Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map By Stephen Yafa, Viking/Penguin, New York, hardcover, $24.95. The 19th century was about cotton as much as the 20th century was about oil. Cotton had already brought forth the industrial revolution in England in the 18th century, and after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1791, it became the commodity that shaped the erstwhile colonies into a great and powerful nation. The South grew it, the North milled it, and together they wove it into an economy that would ultimately conquer the world. Cotton also caused the United States more problems than any other fiber, or any other anything, ever has. It beguiled us into an acceptance of slavery that soon became a dependence upon slavery, and the consequent moral crisis tore the nation apart, and we’ve been trying to patch it back together for a century and a half, with mixed results. Manifest Destiny was about cotton, the Civil War was about cotton, the Old South and the New South were about cotton, Jim Crow was about cotton, sharecropping was about cotton, the Great Depression was about cotton. Beneath everything else, it was cotton that gave birth to the blues and the civil rights movement. Cotton is in our bones and gonads and imaginations to such an extent that you wonder if the very strands of our DNA aren’t cotton, or even the infinitesimal strings that physicists now think might be the stuff of creation. It is, in short, a very large topic, one deserving of profound consideration and exhaustive explication by a book writer bold enough to take it on. “Big Cotton,” by Stephen Yafa, has the requisite audacity and enthusiasm to be that big book that cotton deserves, but it finally doesn’t measure up. The tale told here certainly has an entertaining assortment of cotton lore, but it’s not a methodical tale. It isn’t a disciplined tale. It’s not a comprehensive tale. It doesn’t even qualify, as it sometimes threatens to do, as a romp. One is tempted to say it just isn’t well woven. If the book were cotton instead of about cotton, it might turn out as an amorphous garment with four or five sleeves and no neck hole or opening for the nether appendages. You wouldn’t want to discard it - you might even admire it in a way, or in some ways - but you’d finally resolve to put it in a drawer somewhere until you could decide what ought to be done with it. I mean this is a book in which blue jeans get more attention than the Industrial Revolution. The boll weevil gets more ink than the first 5,000 years of cotton history. In another book those might just be considered quirks; here they are strangely disconcerting. Maybe blue jeans are more interesting to hip young American book-buyers, but higher responsibilities are somehow being neglected when such an audience as that is, er, cottoned to in such a way. The book has a good deal of material about how England stole the cotton industry from India (and then just went ahead and stole India) but before we get very far into the workhouse and brownlung horrors that the cotton mills brought upon modernity, “Big Cotton” like the Mayflower pilgrims turns its gaze to the New World and really never looks back. We drop in on Francis Cabot Lowell and Simon Legree and Levi Strauss and wind up at the Gap with Brooke Shields teasing us about how nothing, nothing comes between her naughty bits and her Calvin Kleins. One starts to grow impatient. There’s not enough here of the natural history of cotton, and cotton science becomes the scrivener’s stepchild too. Cotton’s technology is a booger for even the most patient of technical writers, and while “Big Cotton’s” author gives it a shot from time to time, his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. Lots of banging and hissing and breathing the dust and laboring children losing pinkies but I still don’t have the foggiest how they can take a washpan full of the stuff and prestidigitate it into tuck hankies for Martha Washington’s cleavage. Or Crisco. Rebel Gold: One Man’s Quest to Crack the Code Behind the Secret Treasure of the Confederacy By Warren Getler and Bob Brewer, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, New York, $12. This book was published under a different title two years ago, and pretty much disappeared without notice. But the enormous recent interest in “The Da Vinci Code” brought it to the attention of followers of the fact-or-fiction historical-mystery genre. ABC’s Nightline devoted a couple of intriguing programs to the book not long ago, and this bigger, mainline publisher now brings forth a spiffy new popular edition. Its premise is that as the Civil War was about to end, Confederate officials hatched a secret scheme to move what was left of the Confederate treasury - supposedly millions of dollars in gold and silver bars and coins from the official holds to distant hiding places in the west South and the Southwest, from which it might someday be retrieved and used to finance another rebellion. A supersecret organization called the Knights of the Golden Circle and thought to be associated with the Masonic Order hid the money and developed an elaborate coding system to mark the locations of it. The code was only disclosed to a small but wide-scattered network of “sentinels,” who were to retrieve the money when the time came, if it ever did, which of course it didn’t. One of the sentinels was an Arkansas man who lived over near Hatfield in the western Arkansas Ouachitas. And this man’s great-nephew, Bob Brewer, who grew up in the same small place, has spent most of the last 50 years investigating (with some success) the Golden Circle mysteries, cracking the elaborate location codes, and interpreting the alleged treasure markers that were said to designate the cache sites. It’s an immense, fabulous, old-fashioned, seeking-the-lost-gold frontier adventure tale, perhaps more fascinating then persuasive, but certainly a swell addition to Arkansas lore. You don’t have to swallow it all, or even most of it, to enjoy it thoroughly. Stock Market Knowledge for All Ages: Answering Questions About Stocks, Bonds, and Mutual Funds By Susie Vaccaro Hardeman, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif., paperback, $9.95. The author has been associated with several Little Rock investment firms. Her book is intended as a primer for young people interested in learning about the stock market, and for would-be dabblers of all ages who might not be quite ready for the in-depth introductions. Very basic, and the colorful illustrations will keep even grade-schoolers entertained. Dutch Ovens Chronicled: Their Use in the United States By John G. Ragsdale, Phoenix International Inc., Fayetteville, paperback, $16.95. This is the third book on Dutch ovens by John Ragsdale of El Dorado, who is described in the publicity as “a leading expert on the development, care and use of Dutch ovens.” One might suppose the description is unique to him. The latest work is mainly pictures and recipes, and while one can hardly fail to appreciate the author’s unbounded enthusiasm for the venerable iron cooking pots, both pictures and recipes leave much to be desired. Shortcuts to Life’s Secrets: The Collected Thoughts of Hayes McClerkin By Hayes McClerkin, Mountain State Publishing, Martinsburg, W.Va., paperback, $18. The author was a young, semi-goofy Speaker of the House in the Arkansas General Assembly 35 years ago, and has since learned wisdom and a Confucius-like writing style as a career lawyer and businessman in Texarkana. Of the hundreds of aphorisms collected here, remembering even one five minutes after closing the book is a challenge. Losing Patience By Joyce Faulkner, Red Engine Press, Key West, Fla., paperback, $15.95 A nice short-story collection by a Pennsylvania writer who grew up in Fort Smith. The title is apt for some of the stories, but others are genuinely touching. The writer’s sincerity grows on you. Broken Water By Paula Martin Morell Another story collection - these tend to focus on family relationships by a Little Rock writer who teaches writing online.
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