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. Continue reading

Archives, Representativeness, and the Inner Life of Slaves

Dunn Roundtable CoverWhen Walter Johnson published Soul by Soul in 2001, he unleashed a critical analysis of the inner life of slavery.[1] More than just an exploration of the plantation complex, or even the indignities and tragedies of slavery, Johnson elucidated how the buying and selling of black bodies affected (in Johnson’s argument, corrupted) the participants in slavery. Johnson had identified a critical hole in the historiography. And now, Richard S. Dunn’s newest contribution to the scholarly discourse, A Tale of Two Plantations, compares life at two plantations—Mt. Airy (MD) and Mesopotamia (Jamaica)—to understand how slavery affected these two plantations, and conversely, how conditions on these plantations affected the enslaved.

Continue reading

Is the History of Capitalism the History of Everything?

wallstreeteastfromnassaustreetSeth Rockman begins and ends his recent essay on the “new history of capitalism” by describing capitalism as an economic system; but one of the features of the movement he describes is that it rightly treats capitalism as much more than that. As Rockman admits, “it is difficult to say what exactly it excludes.”[1] What’s most provocative and powerful about the new history of capitalism is precisely the fact that it recognizes and tries to historicize the pervasiveness of capitalism as a system that touches every aspect of our lives—everyone’s lives. Capitalism isn’t just in the workplace and the marketplace; as Jeffrey Sklansky has suggested, it’s in our very ways of being, seeing, and believing. But if the history of capitalism is an empire with no borders, just what kind of claims can it be making?[2] Continue reading

A Confederacy of Kidnappers: Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”

django cotton“There are few sights more pleasant to the eye,” wrote Solomon Northup, “than a wide cotton field when it is in bloom. It presents an appearance of purity, like an immaculate expanse of light, newly-fallen snow.” For Quentin Tarantino, such a beguiling simulation of chastity, of endless untroubled whiteness, could merit only one response: blood must be spilt on it. Practically the only scene in which cotton figures in 2012’s Django Unchained comes when an overseer, galloping across a blooming field, receives a rifle shot to the torso. The newly fallen snow of cotton gleams pink with fresh blood. Continue reading

The Week in Early American History

TWEAHIt’s not every Sunday that we get to begin this recap with a genuinely fresh proslavery argument. But this week the International Herald Tribune ran a brief column by Humayan Dar, a self-described “Islamic economist” with a PhD from Cambridge.  Under the headline, “Modern slavery: how bad is bonded labour,” the essay decried “the negative perception of slavery and bonded labour,” and suggested that a legal forced-labor regime in Pakistan would “work for the mutual benefit of the parties, the employer and the worker and their families.”

Continue reading

Science, Meet Slavery: “River of Dark Dreams” and the Future of Slavery Scholarship

04b0c-johnsonI bet few graduate students these days haven’t read, or at least seen referenced, Walter Johnson’s essay “On Agency.” Published a decade ago, the essay was prompted by what had become hackneyed trope in slavery scholarship. Everyone seemed to ascribe slaves a role in shaping their lives—“agency”—despite the power asymmetries inherent in the slave-master relationship. Johnson famously called for an end to this kind of writing. But one of his subtler points may have been lost amid his overarching argument. It wasn’t that slave agency was unimportant, but that it had lost its contemporary relevance. Finding agency mattered in the Civil Rights Era, the years in which the scholarship flourished, because it bolstered African Americans’ claims on the nation’s past, and thus its future. Continue reading

At River’s End

On the Riverwalk, New Orleans (Jan. 2013)

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Walter Johnson’s “River of Dark Dreams”

cotton_boll_blue_sky

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. Continue reading

Roundtable Review: Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams (Introduction)

JohnsonThis week at The Junto, we are pleased to offer a roundtable review on Walter Johnson’s recent River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013). Johnson, whose Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Trade Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) went far in this year’s Junto March Madness, is the Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. River of Dark Dreams is a dense, learned, and sophisticated account of cotton culture, slave society, and global capitalism as experienced in pre-Civil War Mississippi Valley. It has somthing for everyone: race, slavery, capitalism, technology, regionalism, and globalism. As such, this week’s roundtable will offer five reviews from five different authors giving their take on what promises to 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 Georgini (Friday), and Eric Herschthal (Saturday). We hope that these various reviews will spark discussion and debate. Continue reading