Intersections upon a Dark River

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.

What is most striking, however, about River of Dark Dreams is that Johnson’s latest work may provide us with a way out of one of our most tangled historiographical messes. I have heard from some of my generation of historians of slavery—in seminars, over drinks, at conferences—that their field has lost its way. The dominance of cultural historians of slavery, they argue, has caused the most important reality of slavery to be lost, i.e., that “property-in-man” was an economic and legal construct above all else. Debates over slave resistance and agency, they argue, have obscured the central role of the history of capitalist development in the evolution of American slavery. As the New York Times says: we are all historians of capitalism now. I have heard the opposite argument made by as well. That the project of cultural history is far from complete and we have not fully integrated gender or sexuality or, even, race into our narratives of the history of slavery. There is, these colleagues argue, more work to be done before we move on to a new historiographical moment.

River of Dark Dreams is fundamentally a book about intersections—of a single bale of cotton with trans-Atlantic capitalist development; of the dark dreams a of filibusterer and European and American empire; of a lazy steamboat ride up the Mississippi and the deforestation of river valley. Johnson’s work also sits at the intersection of the scholarly debate discussed above. He provides us with novel readings of texts—both well-worn ones like Melville’s Confidence-Man and more obscure travel narratives—and material objects, such as steamboats and cotton bales, found in the best sort of cultural histories. All of this cultural history, however, is done with an eye towards the broad structural developments of the nineteenth century global economy. Throughout the book our traditional scholarly distinctions break down; between cultural history and economic history, between global history and regional history. River of Dark Dreams is a work of synthesis and, in that, provides a way out of the historiographical tangles. The story Johnson tells is truly multi-faceted where each facet is fully given its due.

The only subject that is given the short-shift in Johnson’s narrative of the development of the Cotton Kingdom is religion. The history of Christianity – either black or white – is largely absent from his analysis.[1] This is truly a shame because fuller discussion of religion would have shed further light on many of the time themes of River of Dark Dreams. The growth of evangelical Christianity in the Deep South linked to trans-Atlantic “Benevolent Empire” of Christian reform in the same way that the cotton market linked Southerners to a trans-Atlantic capitalist economy or filibustering to nineteenth century imperialism. Johnson briefly touches on such possibilities—for example by noting how noted con-man and criminal John Murrell was able to cloak himself as an itinerant Methodist minister (60)—but he never fully explores this aspect of the intersection of the local, regional, and global in the antebellum Mississippi Valley.[2]

This is a quibble about an otherwise masterpiece of scholarship. River of Dark Dreams is sure to dominate graduate seminars and examination reading lists. Johnson’s latest work is a wonderful example of a regional history done on a global scale. This book, as I noted at the very beginning of this review, belongs in the company of the other great sweeping studies of the Old South on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the pre-Civil War United States.

[1] As far as I can tell, for example, there is no entry in the index for “Christianity,” “evangelicalism,” or even “religion.” Neither is there a related sub-heading under “slaves” or “slaveholders.”

[2] Johnson uses the story of Murrell to explore a lot of tensions in southern society and its economy – counterfeiting, slave stealing, the cash nexus. Murrell’s use of the disruptive potential of itinerates is left largely unexamined. For a very good treatment of this issue see: Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

2 responses

  1. Pingback: A View from Beyond the Valley « The Junto

  2. Pingback: Roundtable Review: Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams (Introduction) « The Junto


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