Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams”

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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.

Johnson interjects the most rudimentary, biological aspects of plantation life, what he terms “bare-life processes and material exchanges”—the sun and soil, semen and shit, blood and milk—into the history of “slavery” and “capitalism” that underwrote the Cotton Kingdom (p. 9). In so doing he illuminates the process by which the natural world was cultivated, while focusing on the under-examined material circumstances of the lives “enslaved human beings” (Johnson uses the latter terminology with the effect of consistently confronting the reader with the morbidity and moral depravity of the Cotton Kingdom, which may sometimes get lost in the word “slave”). Emerging from this narrative are the stories of people who slaveholders tortured with their own excrement; stories of slaves who bled from whips until they lost consciousness and sometimes life; stories of women who slaveholders raped to produce new labor in the form of an infant child; stories of men, women, and children forced to work from sunup to sundown, to the limits of natural light, to produce profit at its extreme; and so on. Through this perspective on bare-life, the stuff that literally made the Cotton Kingdom, River of Dark Dreams breathes a new life into historians’ more abstract conceptions of “agency” and “resistance.”  With focus on what life was like—by imagining the physical and sensory experience of servitude—Johnson chronicles the brutality of a world in which some people used graphs and charts to calculate other people in terms of profit. Such calculation, or commodification, was what Johnson calls “the Cotton Kingdom’s ruling trinomial: bales per acre per hand” (246). The calculation of a person in direct proportion to the crop they could cultivate.

Johnson expands upon the history of bare-life and material exchanges to explain the process by which “slavery” and “capitalism” produced “slave racial capitalism.”   Slaveholders of the Mississippi Valley, Johnson explains, made a world in which capitalism and slavery became part of the same historical process, formed at the juncture of “ecology, agriculture, mastery, and economy”—in “weather patterns, crop cycles, work routines, market cycles, financial obligations” (10). In other words, when slaveholders turned the wilderness-into-cotton and people-into-property, they produced a political economy of interdependent parts.  This meant that “the commercial standards of the wider economy” (i.e. the value of cotton at any given moment in any given market) could shape the “labor practices of Louisiana,” (i.e. the number of lashes a slave might receive for dropping a bale of cotton or trying to escape, 110). The vectors of historical circumstance and influence thus reached from the field to the market just as much as the market pressurized the bodies of the enslaved with the harder and faster ethos of productivity. For a world in which one group of people (slaveholders) were profoundly dependent on another (enslaved men, women, and children), there was a sort of corresponding interdependence between the market mechanisms that made cotton the cornerstone of the political economy, and the enslaved whose labor produced that cotton for the market. Ultimately, one could identify capital and labor, or the global economy, in the body of the enslaved—even in that of “a tiny child” (27).

A major intervention of Johnson’s book is its re-examination of space and dominion in the Cotton Kingdom. On the one hand, Johnson maps out the geography of slaveholding power—the ways in which slaveholders reduced the wilderness to a single, hybrid strain of “pickable” cotton called Petit Gulf, which was cultivated in “clear-cut fields and parallel rows” that provided slaveholders with “a visual grid they could use to measure their slaves’ labor” (160). On the other hand, Johnson incorporates the nationalist narrative of the Cotton Kingdom, and the struggle between “North” and “South,” into the history of United States imperialism abroad. He reveals that in the 1850s, the majority of slaveholders in the Mississippi Valley pursued a slave-based empire in Cuba and Nicaragua, with ambitions to reopen the Atlantic slave trade that had been outlawed in 1808. In other words, slavery was a dramatic re-organization of space (locally) with an expansionist logic (that made the institution imperial, and its proponents, international agents with a sort of violent militancy to annex and conquer sovereign nations).

In the first instance, Johnson’s analysis of “space” reveals the ways in which slaveholders had to “police” their way into authority, to limit the consequences of enslaving people who were resistant, itinerant, and of independent will. The grid-like, cleared cotton fields created for slaveholders a “field of visual mastery,” which was the fundamental means by which they controlled the lives and movements of the enslaved (168). To be enslaved, in this sense, was to be seen.  Those with the technologies of rule had the power of authority through sight. As Johnson explains in his discussion of a runaway slave amid cleared lands: “the transformation of the landscape imposed a corresponding set of transformations on the human beings who populated it, conferring a sort of supersensory power on slaveholders, who could now see things—people—that had previously remained out of sight and optically rendering a black figure who sought to cross that landscape into a new sort of hypervisibility” (221). The system of policing slaves, by watching them, was part of a larger structure of slaveholding power—wherein slave catchers used horses to cut across the open fields and roads through which slaves escaped; and dogs to find those who fled into the darker margins of cultivation, the neighboring swamps and woods where horses could not easily go and where slaveholders could not very well see (222-225). The enslaved, Johnson explains, had local knowledge of the landscape that was necessitated by their work (moving cotton to the market, herding cattle, gathering food from the woods, and so on) and this provided them with an alternative geography with which their masters were not familiar, and which they tried to control by limiting black mobility. Johnson poses this friction between mastery and slavery in a single question asked of “a black body on an open road,” namely, “a question that was always already structured by a supposition,” i.e., “Whom do you belong to?” (225-6). Ownership and belonging were constituent parts of what Johnson terms “the carceral landscape”—a spatial organization of nature geared towards the logistics of ruling people who had every intention of escaping.

From within the logic that transformed nature and human beings into moneyed profit, Johnson identifies the international politics and militancy of “proslavery imperialism.”  The ideologies of space and race that transformed Native lands into the Cotton Kingdom were part of the same logic that led pro-slavery expansionists to look the Caribbean (Cuba) and Central America (Nicaragua) to expand slavery’s dominion. Yet, as Johnson explains, this history had more to it than that.  By the 1850s, the price of slaves had reached an exceptional high. This “Negro fever,” as slaveholders called it, produced a problem: class conflict between white men, the slaveholders and the nonslaveholders. The exorbitant purchasing price of slaves rendered the possibility of white entitlement to black labor an impossibility for most all nonslaveholders. The Mississippi Valley’s slaveholders had an invested interest in resolving this tension because they depended on white men to believe in the entitlements of white supremacy; without the possibility of social mobility for white men, slaveholders feared that poor, angry whites would align themselves with enslaved blacks and revolt (373). To resolve this class conflict and potential rupture to the racial order, slaveholders set their eyes on annexing new lands to their dominion. This would also solve the very real problem of dealing with an economy overinvested in land and slaves, by opening up the South to the commerce of the West (annexing Cuba would open up a profitable network of trade between the island and the U.S., while taking Nicaragua would grant control over trade routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific).

Johnson’s analysis of the search for a slave empire offers a rich, gendered reading of pro-slavery imperialism: namely, it explains the ways in which the South’s white men asserted their “natural right” to dominate Central America and its people.  Namely, women whom they perceived as sexually available, and black and indigenous peoples whom they perceived as racially inferior.  To assert such authority would be to live out the promises of white manhood, and to cultivate civilization from the chaos of wilderness. Johnson identifies the violent assertion of white manhood in the Southern campaigns to annex Cuba; and in the filibustering campaigns of William Walker in Nicaragua, where Walker declared himself President, stole land from Nicaraguans for white Americans, and (re)introduced slavery.  The campaign to reopen the slave trade, to forcibly transfer Africans to the Americas, was the final manifestation of Southern, proslavery imperialist logic.  Johnson’s history thus takes seriously the unrealized ambitions of Southern slaveholders.  What didn’t happen is part of what always was.  And this history had transnational spatial coordinates, removed far beyond the conventionally nationalist framework of the histories of the pre-Civil War era. Through laser-like focus on the South, on slaveholders’ concerns and anxieties, Johnson maps out the global aspirations and whitemanism of “slave racial capitalism.”

Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams is written with a commitment to revealing the under-examined sensory violence of slavery and mastery, and the meaning of what it was to commodify human beings as capital, both at home and abroad. The books excels in its insistence that enslaved peoples’ “resistance” and “agency” existed on a continuum of their pain, torture, and despair; broken families, bleeding bodies, and flesh-eating dogs. The book thus moves between the extremes, of enslaved peoples’ resistance and slaveholders’ policing of that resistance, while retaining a focus on the material condition(s) of enslaved humanity.  The larger global economy becomes the backdrop to the unrelenting quality of black suffering.

Read like a great novel, or a saga of the human condition, this history of the Cotton Kingdom will pull your center of gravity back into the core of the Mississippian empire, while moving you forward, slowly, and with expansive vision, towards the dreams of slavery’s dominion, that many had pursued, and that eerily might have been.

4 comments on “Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams”

  1. […] of enslavement. Through individual stories, Johnson conveys “what life was like,” a point that Mandy Izadi made in a review roundtable at The Junto. Even his work on filibustering centers around William […]

  2. […] Mandy, Matt, and Roy have done a marvelous job so far this week summarizing the arguments, the strengths, […]

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] 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 […]

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