Retelling “A Tale”: An Interview with Richard S. Dunn

Dunn Roundtable CoverWrapping up our roundtable review of A Tale of Two PlantationsThe Junto chats with Richard S. Dunn about microhistory as a “healthy antidote to top-down history,” and the archival surprises that reshaped his work. If you are near Harvard University on February 5th, come and hear more about the project. Continue reading

A Tale of the Classroom: Introducing Richard Dunn’s Book to Undergraduates

Dunn Roundtable CoverRichard Dunn has written a big book. Normally, big books like Dunn’s are primarily meant for fellow academics, grad students who need to pad their comps list, and the super-interested general public. (That category still exists, right? Right?) For academics, these types of books influence two aspects of our scholarly life: our own academic projects and our classroom instruction. The previous participants in the roundtable have focused on A Tale of Two Plantations’s contribution to the former category, while I would like to focus my remarks on the latter. So I am going to skip the basic parameters of a book review—namely, identifying the key arguments and weaknesses of the volume—and focus on how this book can work with undergraduate students.  Continue reading

In Media Res

Dunn Roundtable CoverThe most interesting thing about Richard Dunn’s “intergenerational study” of slave life in Mount Airy and Mesopotamia plantations of Virginia and Jamaica is its incompleteness. As Dunn notes, A Tale of Two Plantations is a narrative without “a proper opening or a proper conclusion.”[1] His source base begins relatively arbitrarily with a pair of masters who sought to improve their record keeping and ends with the institution of slavery itself. This is tragic, of course, for our knowledge of the lives of the enslaved persons of Mesopotamia and Mount Airy are circumscribed by the ability of whites to track them.  In Jamaica, that proves troubling in freedom while in Virginia and Alabama, thanks to better census taking, the lives of the families of Mount Airy are much easier to recover. These sources, of course, mirror the experience of slavery itself.

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Archives, Representativeness, and the Inner Life of Slaves

Dunn Roundtable CoverWhen Walter Johnson published Soul by Soul in 2001, he unleashed a critical analysis of the inner life of slavery.[1] More than just an exploration of the plantation complex, or even the indignities and tragedies of slavery, Johnson elucidated how the buying and selling of black bodies affected (in Johnson’s argument, corrupted) the participants in slavery. Johnson had identified a critical hole in the historiography. And now, Richard S. Dunn’s newest contribution to the scholarly discourse, A Tale of Two Plantations, compares life at two plantations—Mt. Airy (MD) and Mesopotamia (Jamaica)—to understand how slavery affected these two plantations, and conversely, how conditions on these plantations affected the enslaved.

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Roundtable: Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations

Dunn Roundtable CoverThis week The Junto is dedicated to a roundtable review of Richard S. Dunn’s A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014). Professor Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, Dunn’s previous publications include one of the seminal texts on Caribbean slavery and sugar plantation agriculture, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972). Dunn’s newest book is an unflinching study of Afro-Caribbean and antebellum U.S. slavery in the final decades of both systems. Continue reading

J. Franklin Jameson Superstar

It is not often that historiographical essays have a hero. But, in Al Young’s essay, “American Historians Confront ‘The Transforming Hand of Revolution’,” it’s hard not to see J. Franklin Jameson that way. Jameson was a New Englander by birth and character who helped found the American Historical Association in 1884. Never a prolific historian (or teacher, for that matter), Jameson’s greatest impact—beyond the important structural role he played in the emergence of History as a modern academic and professional discipline in the United States—came in the form of a small collection of four lectures originally written in 1895 but published largely in the form they were given at Princeton 30 years later. That small book, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement, is not just the starting point for Young’s assessment of the historiography of the American Revolution in the twentieth century, it is quite literally its genesis. Continue reading

The Masquerade

I’ve admired Alfred Young’s wonderful, if unwieldy, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York: Knopf, 2004) since I first encountered the book in an undergraduate classroom a decade ago. Young’s biography of Sampson, which covers the life, career, and memory of this remarkable woman who “passed” as a man in the Continental Army for seventeen months, shares much in common with its intellectual sibling, The Shoemaker and the Tea Partythe detective-like level of historical research, the concern with the constantly shifting nature of memory, the drive to capture the life of a common person who left an uncommon historical legacy. New concerns, such as the performative and unstable nature of gender, emerge in Masquerade as well. My most striking impression from this latest reread, however, is just how much the book is about the limits of the American Revolution. Continue reading