A View from Beyond the Valley

35817-johnsonBen, 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.

River of Dark Dreams is, as each of the reviewers has noted in one way or another, a massive book with arguments that will entice and intrigue historians for a long time. Johnson covers considerable ground by skillfully connecting a broad range of historical questions about slavery, imperialism, nationalism, space, the environment, political economy, business, race . . . and possibly others. The strength of the book lies in Johnson’s ability to weave together these historiographic trends seamlessly both with one another and with a narrative that keeps you turning the pages. (A note of caution to the graduate students who will be reading this as part of a seminar or for their comps: the book does not lend itself to skimming, but that means that deep reading is well-rewarded.) As someone who is not deeply invested in the history of slavery or the South, I tried to take from the book thoughts on two questions as they related to non-specialists: first, how the book should change how we as researchers and writers approach our own subjects; and second, how it will change what I do in the classroom.

First, research and writing. As Mandy, Matt, and Roy make clear, the book is a model of scholarship in both ways. Johnson makes use of an incredibly broad array of sources, from literary works such as escaped slave narratives and Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, to newspaper accounts, political and legislative debates, and plantation account books. No stone is left unturned. At the same time, every chapter in the book threads a wonderfully written narrative, even when dealing with sources (such as those account books, ledgers, and other economic) that in most cases lend themselves more readily to turgid than lyrical prose. In many ways, therefore, it’s a fantastic model for other historians to use to think about how to put together a historical narrative, how to construct an argument, and most importantly how to do those two things at the same time. In addition, Johnson points the way to how we can successfully integrate a discussion of seemingly disparate topics. He’s not the first one to do this, of course, but having an example for how to talk about a spatially oriented racial order that relied on a globalist political economy undergirded with imperialist ideology is, in a word, helpful.

Second, the book confirms the historiographic trend of thinking more in terms of the Atlantic and the global and further extends that into the nineteenth century with regard to teaching. It’s difficult to corral the material in the U.S. history survey, as I’ve discussed in other posts, but it’s simply impossible to come away from River of Dark Dreams without re-working my lectures and discussions on the 1840s and 1850s to reflect more definitively the imperialist adventures of the South. For instance, I always mention efforts to purchase Cuba in the late 1840s, but almost always put it in the context of the potential price tag, comparing it to the similar sum proffered for vast expanses of the Southwestern United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. It’s all within the context of discussing manifest destiny, but Cuba is essentially a one-liner in the presentation. Having read Johnson, I may use Cuba instead to re-emphasize the importance of American expansionary tendencies, and bring in Nicaragua as well. It would be a subtle shift, but one that I think could produce a much more nuanced understanding of manifest destiny and the conflicts over slavery.

Johnson’s thick descriptions also may shape how I read and teach individual texts. For instance, Johnson spends a great deal of time discussing steamboats, and in particular the racial mixing that occurred on their decks (see p. 130). I typically assign to students and excerpt from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, almost always Chapter 12, which depicts the activity of a slave trader on board a steamer on the Ohio. Johnson’s recounting of the descriptions offered by Matilda Houstoun, a passenger on the Leonora, reinforce the fears of “social contagion” that permeated those trips, particularly in places of unfiltered interaction such as the deck.

In closing, I’d like to add one additional deficiency to Roy’s suggestion yesterday about religion, which in a way grows out of the example cited above: in the range of issues that Johnson addresses, only rarely does he bring gender into focus as an analytical tool. It appears at a few points—he includes, as noted above, the voices of women, and he has several passages that allude to the sexual power inherent in master-slave relationships—but the analysis is underdeveloped. Engaging further with or drawing more explicitly on Stephanie McCurry’s work on yeoman farmers, or Stephen Berry’s on honor and manhood in the Civil War South, to name just two other scholars, not to mention that of others on the sexual and gender dynamics of slavery and imperialism, would have further enriched the work. Indeed, several of the images at the center of the book (which get little explicit discussion in any case) seem to beg for a gendered analysis along the lines of Kristin Hoganson, who deftly dissected the underlying themes of manhood and masculinity that were central to imperialist adventures at the end of the nineteenth century.

That being said, River of Dark Dreams remains a momentous accomplishment, and looks to be a work with which we will all grapple for years to come.

One response

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


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