Retelling “A Tale”: An Interview with Richard S. Dunn

Dunn Roundtable CoverWrapping up our roundtable review of A Tale of Two PlantationsThe Junto chats with Richard S. Dunn about microhistory as a “healthy antidote to top-down history,” and the archival surprises that reshaped his work. If you are near Harvard University on February 5th, come and hear more about the project.

JUNTO: As you explain, the story of slave life at the Mesopotamia and Mount Airy plantations has no clear beginning or end, so the narrative begins in media res. How did that writing choice shape the book’s structure and the website’s creation?

RICHARD DUNN: It is indeed a challenge to start in media res, and I had to spend quite a bit of time framing my narrative. I would have liked to start at the beginning with both plantations, had the sources permitted, but 150-160 years of narration would have been even more challenging. And I do show the two plantation slave communities in action for 70 years, which is long enough to show the Mesopotamia people trapped in a dysfunctional and collapsing Caribbean slave system and the Mount Airy people trapped in an ever stronger U.S. slave system. I have tried to take full advantage of my sources on the website by presenting all the members of seven enslaved families over four or five generations.

JUNTO: You reconstruct an impressive amount of detailed family history in A Tale of Two Plantations. In your research, how and when did the archives surprise you?

DUNN: I was continually surprised by what I found, which is what sustained my interest over many years. Let me cite some of the surprises, chapter by chapter.

In chapter 1, I was surprised to find that, despite the high death rate, many of the Mesopotamia slaves lived into their 60s and 70s. There were more old people in Mesopotamia than at Mount Airy. My first draft of chapter 2 focused on Sarah Affir and her son Robert, and I was surprised to uncover her granddaughter Jane’s quarrel with the missionaries, which greatly strengthened this family story.

While drafting chapter 3, I was surprised to find Bill Grimshaw’s letter (pp. 121-122), and even more surprised to uncover Juliet Grimshaw’s letter (pp. 118-119), which gave my presentation a much needed personal touch. In drafting chapter 4, I was surprised to find (Appendix 16) that I could actually demonstrate a significant difference between the health and durability of agricultural versus craft workers at Mesopotamia. I was also surprised to find (Appendix 19) that over half the Mesopotamia women had no recorded births, while 6 women working in the first field gang bore 8-14 children.

In chapter 5, I was surprised to find via the Mount Airy work logs that I could calibrate (pp. 190-200) the huge variety of tasks performed by the agricultural and craft workers during the year. In chapter 6, I was particularly struck by reading the Minutes of Mesopotamia Conference (pp. 260-264), which revealed how salvation by lot worked at Mesopotamia.

In chapter 7, I was greatly surprised by the large size of Sally Thurston’s and Franky Yeatman’s extended slave families (pp. 309-311 & the website). In chapter 8, I was surprised by the contrast between the Mesopotamia head people who protected their plantation against rebel attack and the equivalent Mount Airy craft and domestic workers who rebelled when they had a chance.

And in chapter 9, when tracing what happened to the Mesopotamia and Mount Airy people after emancipation, I was surprised to find that the Mesopotamia people abandoned their sugar estate while the Mount Airy people tended to move away briefly and then returned to their old plantations by 1870. These decisions, I believe, held great consequences for the next generations of black people in both places.

JUNTO: Walter Johnson, Ed Baptist, Greg Grandin, and others have argued that slavery was inherently expansionist. Do you agree with this analysis?

DUNN: Not entirely. I agree that U.S. slavery was inherently expansionist, mainly because the growth of the U.S. slave population gave the slaveholders more and more manpower for their agricultural operations. But in the Caribbean, where the slave population was continually shrinking and had to be renewed from Africa, slavery was NOT expansionist.

JUNTO: The chapter documenting the antebellum exodus of Mount Airy slaves from Virginia to Alabama called to mind Walter Johnson’s assertion that historians can risk conflating the agency of enslaved people with direct resistance to slavery. Can you talk about how you identified and developed the set of “pull” factors (i.e. family reunion) that encouraged individual slaves to migrate? How do these finds fit with wider scholarly debates about portraying the agency of enslaved people?

DUNN: My book is a grim story of entrapment, both in Jamaica and Virginia, and some readers will want greater emphasis on resistance or slave agency. In chapter 7, I argue that the Tayloe slaves probably wanted to migrate from Virginia to Alabama, and I see this willingness as a form of agency. Echoing Herbert Gutman, I believe that family ties were very strong among the Mount Airy people, but I have an elastic view of family ties, which, again, may not convince my readers. For the Mount Airy parents, the constant breakup of families was terribly painful, but their children I believe felt a pull factor to migrate to new work sites, and they were buoyed by migrating in company with young siblings and cousins. The same pull factor helps to explain why by 1870 these freed people had bonded together at Oakland and Larkin for mutual protection against their white oppressors.

JUNTO: How did the experience of historical editing—producing volumes of William Penn’s and John Winthrop’s papers—shape your reading of primary sources for this book?

DUNN: I have been greatly influenced by my efforts at historical editing, which requires very close observation and questioning of documents. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the finicky work of reconstructing slave lives and slave actions from the Mesopotamia and Mount Airy records. And, as an historical editor should, I try to present my findings so as to encourage the reader to draw her/his own conclusions.

JUNTO: Over the past few decades, professional views on the practice of microhistory have shifted. Where do you see this analytical method fitting into the future of American history-writing?

DUNN: I have always seen microhistory as a healthy antidote to top-down history via kings, presidents, and generals, and in the classroom I assigned books such as The Return of Martin Guerre. But I worry about getting buried in minutiae, and I think the microhistorian should work hard to provide framework and context, which is what I have tried to do in A Tale of Two Plantations.

JUNTO: You began this work in the 1970s. If you were to begin writing this book today, how might your approach change?

DUNN: I see my project as a combination of big and small: to contrast Caribbean slavery with U.S. slavery is a very large topic, whereas microhistorical exploration of slave life on two plantations is a very restricted topic. Today I probably wouldn’t attempt the Caribbean-U.S. comparison; with all of the current specialized scholarship on various aspects of U.S. and Caribbean slavery, my single-minded emphasis on demography would seem too naive and simple. So I am glad that I started when slave history was at a more rudimentary stage, because I continue to believe that population loss and gain is the key to understanding the two systems.

JUNTO: Finally, in what ways can your book and website operate in an undergraduate classroom?

DUNN: I think that certain chapters of my book, particularly chapter 2 on Sarah Affir and chapter 3 on Winney Grimshaw, can provoke good discussion in an undergraduate class. In both chapters I try to avoid dictating to the reader, hoping to elicit a variety of responses. Similarly with the website, I present a variegated cross-section of 431 short biographies, hoping that undergraduates will take up the questions raised in the “Analysis” section and figure out for themselves how to interpret conditions at Mesopotamia and Mount Airy.

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