American Pests

The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT

James E. McWilliams

Columbia University Press

American Pests

Google Preview

Pub Date: June 2008

ISBN: 9780231139427

312 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $35.00£30.00

Pub Date: June 2008

ISBN: 9780231511360

312 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $34.99£30.00

American Pests

The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT

James E. McWilliams

Columbia University Press

The world of insects is one we only dimly understand. Yet from using arsenic, cobalt, and quicksilver to kill household infiltrators to employing the sophisticated tools of the Orkin Man, Americans have fought to eradicate the "bugs" they have learned to hate.

Inspired by the still-revolutionary theories of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, James E. McWilliams argues for a more harmonious and rational approach to our relationship with insects, one that does not harm our environment and, consequently, ourselves along the way. Beginning with the early techniques of colonial farmers and ending with the modern use of chemical insecticides, McWilliams deftly shows how America's war on insects mirrors its continual struggle with nature, economic development, technology, and federal regulation. He reveals a very American paradox: the men and women who settled and developed this country sought to control the environment and achieve certain economic goals; yet their methods of agricultural expansion undermined their efforts and linked them even closer to the inexorable realities of the insect world.

As told from the perspective of the often flamboyant actors in the battle against insects, American Pests is a fascinating investigation into the attitudes, policies, and practices that continue to influence our behavior toward insects. Asking us to question, if not abandon, our reckless (and sometimes futile) attempts at insect control, McWilliams convincingly argues that insects, like people, have an inherent right to exist and that in our attempt to rid ourselves of insects, we compromise the balance of nature.

The originality of American Pests comes in the impressive sweep of its analysis and the integration of heretofore fragmented events into a coherent story.

Jeffrey A. Lockwood, professor of natural sciences and humanities, University of Wyoming

James E. McWilliams deserves high praise. He has given us the best in-depth study of the poorly conceived, terribly managed, and utterly futile war on insect pests in the United States. Sweeping in its scope, acute in its analysis, and balanced in its judgments, American Pests should precipitate a national dialogue about how we attempt to manage the insect world, whether in our farms and orchards or in our own backyards.

James H. Jones, Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville

[A] colorful chronicle of pest management in the United States... As well written as it is thorough.

Publishers Weekly

[McWilliams] knows how to address unusual historical topics in rich detail... Poignant... Thorough... Recommended.

Library Journal

"[An] articulate, well-organized... excellent primer.

Irene Wanner, Seattle Times

[McWilliams'] book should resonate in these times of GM temptations and global food shortages.

Times Literary Supplement

Highly recommended.


a solid contribution to U.S. environmental history, one that is refreshingly ambitious in its chronological scope.

Sarah T. Phillips, American Historical Review

An engaging and important book.

David Kinkela, Technology and Culture

...a rewarding read...

Joshua B. Buhs, Journal of Southern History
Introduction. "The Dunghill of Men's Passions": The Insect Paradox
1. "The Insect Tribes Still Maintain Their Ground": Insects and Early Americans
2. "There Is No Royal Road to the Destruction of Bugs": The Rise of the Professionals
3. "Let Us Conquer Space": Breaking the Plains and Fighting the Insects
4. "A Great Schemer": Charles V. Riley and the Broken Promises of Early Insecticides
5. "Let Us Spray": Mosquitoes, War, and Chemicals
6. "Vot Iss de Effidence?": Residues, Regulations, and the Politics of Protecting Insecticides
7. "Complaints Are Coming In": A Year in the Life of an Insecticide Nation, 1938
8. "Let's Put Our Heads Together and Start a New Country Up": Silent Springs and Loud Protests
Epilogue. "Some Very Learned Men Are the Greatest Fools in the World": In Praise of Localism
Web Features:

  • Listen to an interview with McWilliams on KUT radio in Austin, TX
  • Take the Pesky Quiz and test your knowledge of the history of American attempts to wipe out insects.
  • Read an excerpt from book’s epilogue, "In Praise of Localism," posted on Celsias.
  • Read a review from the Seattle Times

CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, 2008

About the Author

James E. McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos and a recent fellow in the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, among other publications, and he is the author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America and Building the Bay Colony: Local Economy and Society in Early Massachusetts.