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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 …