Last week, the Mississippi River surged against the levees, finally shattering restraints near St. Louis. Up and down the waterway, authorities hurried to secure hometowns, farmlands, and highways against the potential breach. “It could be anytime,” the Rivers Pointe fire chief told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The hope is to keep Highway 94 open.” Even now, watching the water flow higher and faster still, it is worth thinking about how or why Americans have chosen to embrace life along the river: the shifting networks of politics and profit, the deep imprint of slavery on the region’s past, and the legacy of a South that may or may not have grown closer to the world, in the many ways that the Confederates or others have intended over time. This conscious construction of a river culture—as it was made and understood by the region’s black and white nineteenth-century predecessors, men and women who were also sensitive to sudden danger, but eager to maintain the dense traffic of the cotton trade—permeates Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams and guides his expert analysis through their winding stories.
There, as other roundtable contributors have observed, Johnson skillfully recovers both the spectacle and the soundtrack of slavery. Deploying a wide and well-considered source base, Johnson shifts easily between different narratives by giving equal time to con men, runaway slaves, gamblers, and the vast corps of “translocal” workers who people the Cotton Kingdom. Grand in scope and minute in detail, Johnson largely succeeds in crafting a precise and balanced analysis, though it is worth echoing that a more sustained look at the role of religion in river culture might have sharpened the project. If the book’s first chapters act to frame the logistics and beauty of the “steamboat sublime,” then the following pages provide some much-needed dissonance, via Johnson’s thick descriptions of slaves’ family life and punishment.
Beyond the buying and selling of blacks, Johnson is interested in the scientific theories used to describe slaves. His investigation of the cultural vernacular that entrenched the “peculiar institution” of black slavery—while constricting white slave-owners to the plantation sphere—is thoughtfully done. Operating at a slightly different economic level than plantation masters, the slave traders who learned to speak that language of racial “suitability” also shaped a fractured future for the Mississippi’s many neighborhoods: “Slaves’ skin color came to articulate the distance between the sphere of (white) consumption and that of (black) production, between slaveholders’ houses and their fields, between intellectual and cultural attainment and gross physicality and unending toil” (160). Johnson persuades us here, and later on, that these cultural attitudes ultimately grew pervasive enough for Southerners to lead the charge for a “Mississippian Empire.”
River is ambitious in scope, with a well-selected set of illustrations to match Johnson’s key themes in a series of military maps, Land Office gridwork, prints of slave sale inspections, and bird’s eye views of New Orleans and the region. Special attention given to the visual record of slavery and the effects of toil in the transnational Cotton Kingdom makes the reader feel powerfully present. Long after the concluding chapter, one photograph still hung in my mind: No. 19, that of a black child and a white baby, paired in a gilt frame and simply captioned: “Caretaker and child, slave and owner.” With River, Johnson pulls off a major feat of historiography, provoking us to reconsider what “antebellum” river culture can serve as a prequel to understanding about America, apart from the Civil War. The answers he has sketched out here— in capsule histories of globalization, race theory, environmental use, and Southern intellectualism, just to name a few—all open up opportunities for new research.