Ben, Mandy, Matt, and Roy have done a marvelous job so far this week summarizing the arguments, the strengths, and a few of the (few) weaknesses of River of Dark Dreams. I therefore want to confine myself to just a few general thoughts, and then focus in on the area where my expertise lies: what this book means for the non-expert in slavery studies. Continue reading
Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams is the best big book on slavery I have ever encountered. This is not faint praise; there is some about the subject that causes its best historians—Eugene Genovese, Winthrop Jordan, Kenneth Stampp and more—to write in at bullet-stopping length. Johnson’s volume stands out due to his ability to seamlessly place the history of antebellum slavery at the intersection of three of the nineteenth century’s key themes—imperialism, capitalism, and technological development. He does this, as other contributors to this roundtable have noted, at the sweeping level of the very geography of Mississippi River Valley and at the much more intimate level of the lived experience of enslaved laborers. Continue reading
Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams is a meditation on the making of the Cotton Kingdom in the nineteenth century American South. The book is rich with the intimacies and delicacies of detail—details that describe the fundamental material circumstances in which enslaved men, women, and children forcibly transformed Native America into cultivated grids of mono-crop culture at the behest of “Manifest Destiny”; details that are gut-wrenching in their vivid depictions of the social relations of white supremacy—the torture, the hunger, the bleeding, and the raping of the enslaved—the malignant, violent underbelly that made and forcibly maintained the Cotton Kingdom; details that connect the smallest common denominators of plantation life, whether measured in lashes (upon flesh), or pounds (of cotton), or any other metric of rule—to the global economy, which itself connected slaveholders and merchant capitalists from the fields and riverbanks of New Orleans to the factories of Manchester and Liverpool. Continue reading
This week at The Junto, we are pleased to offer a roundtable review on Walter Johnson’s recent River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013). Johnson, whose Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Trade Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) went far in this year’s Junto March Madness, is the Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. River of Dark Dreams is a dense, learned, and sophisticated account of cotton culture, slave society, and global capitalism as experienced in pre-Civil War Mississippi Valley. It has somthing for everyone: race, slavery, capitalism, technology, regionalism, and globalism. As such, this week’s roundtable will offer five reviews from five different authors giving their take on what promises to be a classic text. After my brief overview and introduction, we will post one review each day from Mandy Izadi (today), Matt Karp (Tuesday), Sara Georgini (Wednesday), Joe Adelman (Thursday), and Roy Rogers (Friday). We hope that these various reviews will spark discussion and debate. Continue reading
Unfortunately, we were unable to post the final scheduled post for the roundtable, which was set to be on race. So instead of someone trying to scrounge up a full post last-minute on this important topic, a few of us decided to put up some brief concluding thoughts on various topics related to the New New Political History. We ask that these be read as more informal than the previous three posts, and more as a touchstone for possible discussion. If things go right, we should have a response to the roundtable from Andrew Robertson sometime soon.
Besides engaging with any points in this or other posts in the roundtable, please feel free to bring up any other issues that we didn’t address related to the NNPH. Continue reading
Historians of early America often stereotype each other as being adverse to the use of theory. However, a closer look at the historiography of early America over the last century does not bear out that claim. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Progressives derived their materialist conception of history from Marx. The Progressive interpretation held for decades until the 1960s when a group of historians based at Harvard University displaced it with an interpretation influenced by the sociological theories of anthropologist, Clifford Geertz. Even though postmodernism and postcolonialism, as theories, never took a strong hold on the field, there have been early American historians who have sought to incorporate, in a general sense, their broader modes of inquiry. The historiography of early America has hardly been devoid of theory over the last one hundred years.
Nevertheless, a deeper look into each of these examples shows us that early Americanists’ relationship with theory has been anything but obsequious. Perhaps, it is best defined as casual or, better yet, utilitarian. The Progressives appropriated the generalities of Marx’s historical materialism without embracing either his sociological analysis or his broader dialectic. Similarly, the ideological historians of the 1960s and 1970s used Geertz’s definition of ideology as the mediation of experience into the structure of consciousness without attempting to apply the rest of his intricately complex theory regarding cultural systems. Following in that tradition, early Americanists over the last twenty years, particularly those associated with the New New Political History, have loosely appropriated the Habermasian concepts of the “public sphere” and “civil society” while casting aside both small but fundamental details and the much larger particulars of Habermas’s argument. Continue reading
I consider myself a child of the ‘new new political history’. When I first started in graduate school, books like Simon Newman’s Parades and the Politics of the Street and David Waldstreicher’s In The Midst of Perpetual Fetes helped a constitutional geek recognize the necessity of taking a broad definition not just of political activity, but also of political actors. Beyond the Founders was a wonderful introduction to the possibilities of political history – the way in which a whole host of diverse experiences influenced and shaped political culture during the early republic. Their portrayal of early American political culture was a welcome change from previous histories focusing excessively on elites (and thus tending to promote ideology ahead of political action), or social histories whose model of class consciousness seemed a bit too heavily grafted on to a period in which some (if by no means all) elite political leaders possessed a real claim to widespread popularity.
Of course, the plea to get historians to move ‘Beyond the Founders’ hasn’t been a wholesale success. While Chris Beneke may have suggested that the plethora of books about ‘Founders’ would inevitably slow down, even some Beyond the Founders contributors themselves contributed essays to Alfred Young, Ray Raphael and Gary Nash’s recent Revolutionary Founders. In both popular culture and in academic circles, the trope of ‘founders’ or ‘framers’ or a ‘revolutionary generation’ still looms large. The question I want to explore in this blog post, then, is this: If the NNPH promised to provide a history that synthesized political narratives with social and cultural history, why do we seem to find it so hard to move beyond the founders? My suggestion will be this: for all that the NNPH revitalized political history after the ‘social turn’, much of it was strangely detached from high politics. Continue reading
This will hopefully be the first of many roundtables hosted by The Junto, in which a bunch of young whipper-snappers take aim at various topics of early American history, with the occasional response from seasoned scholars to set us straight. This particular roundtable, which will hopefully set a pattern for others to follow, includes contributions every day this week, each on a different topic related to the broader theme, and then a conclusion/response next Monday. We hope these roundtables, starting with this one on the current state of political history, will start a fruitful discussion both on the blog and elsewhere.
In 2005, Chris Beneke published an essay in Reviews in American History titled “The New, New Political History.” This label did not originate with him—indeed, one of the chapters in the book he was reviewing used the same description—but it was meant to capture the arguably fresh take on early American politics. The editors of Beyond the Founders, Beneke wrote, “enter a nearly decade-long discussion on the direction of political history.” Was the field thriving or faltering? Well, he reasoned, it depended on how you defined the field. And after looking at this manifesto-volume, Beneke concluded that the movement was diverse, scattered, and unsystematic, yet promising. In the face of the ever-constant “founders chic,” a continuation of America’s fascination with a small group of people who allegedly embodied America’s pride and glory, this historical movement sought to widen the scope and centralize the peripheries. Sometimes, for academics, the Joseph Ellises and David McCulloughs of the world are not quite enough. Continue reading