My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver

By Bennett, Evan P. | The Journal of Southern History, November 2012 | Go to article overview

My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver


Bennett, Evan P., The Journal of Southern History


My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. By Mark D. Hersey. Environmental History and the American South. (Athens, Ga., and London: University of Georgia Press, c. 2011. Pp. [xviii], 290. Paper, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-3870-5; cloth, $69.95, ISBN 978-0-8203-3088-4.)

George Washington Carver must rank as one of the least known well-known individuals in American history. While he remains a popular figure, academic historians have largely determined that Carver's influence on the course of both African American history and agricultural history was minimal. To many, the narrative of his life is a last vestige of contributionist history. In this well-written biography, Mark D. Hersey argues that historians should not dispense with Carver so quickly and instead should recognize him as an important figure in the early-twentieth-century conservation movement.

In Hersey's telling, Carver was a "voice alone ... calling not in the wilderness--like his more famous contemporaries--but in denuded and depleted fields white with bolls of cotton" (p. 220). Hersey attributes this voice to four sources: Carver's rural upbringing; his religious faith; his training at the Iowa Agricultural College (IAC, now Iowa State University); and his experiences working with black farmers in Macon County, Alabama, after he came to Tuskegee Institute in 1896. Of these, the last was most important. In the black belt, Hersey argues, Carver developed a "genuinely distinctive environmental and agricultural vision" that was "remarkably farseeing, emphasizing ecological ideas to a greater extent than virtually any other endeavor in the nascent conservation movement of the Progressive Era" (p. 98).

At IAC, Carver studied under some of the era's leading agricultural thinkers and imbibed their faith in agricultural education and practical ecology. …

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