Roundtable Review: Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams (Introduction)

JohnsonThis 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),  Joe Adelman (Wednesday), Roy Rogers (Thursday), Sara Georgini (Friday), and Eric Herschthal (Saturday). We hope that these various reviews will spark discussion and debate.

Many things can be said about River of Dark Dreams, so I’ll only highlight a couple that stood out to me. As a central thesis within the book’s audacious scope, Johnson boldly addresses a question dead-on that we typically avoid: what is the role of slavery in America’s economic development? The typical narrative, in which freedom and capitalism are nearly synonymous and the North’s victory in the Civil War marshaled in the nation’s economic modernity, is challenged by Johnson’s insistence that the capitalistic market was tethered so intricately to slavery that they were interdependent upon each other during the antebellum period. The rise of banks, the role of debt, and the use of technology, all factors in America’s developing capitalistic narrative, were connected to and experimented within the South’s slave economy. The rise of cotton culture, which refreshed a struggling southern economy, came to both connect the South to the broader global economy while at the same time cultivating a society increasingly foreign and unique, primarily due to the forced labor of black slaves on which it was built.

Indeed, Johnson astutely notes that recent historiographical concerns with slavery—its practice, its culture, its economy—has collapsed our framework to increasingly national and sectional tensions. This is well and good, and serves the purpose of uncovering many of the valances of this important subject, but it has also overlooked the global context of slave economy. (Eighty-five percent of southern cotton, for instance, was shipped to Britain.) This is an especially fruitful way to approach the issue when attempting to reconstruct the mental world of those with power over the slave system: how, Johnson asks, did slaveholders envision the future of their contested practice? The answer, this book demonstrates, is found in their broad capitalistic aspirations; as very commercially minded men, they understood slavery to be a direct link to the global economy and their contribution to and participation within a growing international free market.

But just like in Soul by Soul, Johnson’s strength is his ability to not only zoom out to these broader context, but also to zoom in to the lived reality. The book spends time on both the trade prices in Liverpool—a linchpin in the global economy—as well as the small cotton farm in rural Louisiana. It is here, in fact, that I found the book to be most moving. Johnson is perhaps the most physical writer I know; in reading his depictions on slave life, on corporeal punishment, and on anxiety over potential slave riots, one gets a nearly tangible understanding of both the gritty details as well as the moral dilemmas involved in human slavery. Johnson’s ability to incorporate numerous anecdotes and stories in order to tell the broader narrative makes the book more readable and real.

This book actually deserves much of the positive—and often exaggerated—praise that we tend to heap on similarly broad and dense volumes on important subjects, including magisterial, exhaustive, and seminal. Indeed, with this book, Johnson distinguishes himself as not only one of the top historians of American slavery, but also American history, in general. But the book also deserves one of the highest complimentary descriptions of all: provocative. His arguments concerning economy, race, regionalism, and globalism will surely cause much debate and discussion in the future, as historians of American slavery and capitalism must come to terms with its arguments. This week at The Junto, we aim to start the many responses hopefully worthy of the text.

Roundtable contributions:

8 responses

  1. Suggest move next and previous buttons to top .. Or both bottom and top..

    Wonder set of reviews. Wonder if Walter Johnson would , if asked, post a reply.

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