Truth often is stranger than fiction, and on the antebellum southern frontier the wild life of Virgil Stewart verifies the wisdom of the (fictional) Simon Suggs, who says that “it is good to be shifty in a new country.” In Flush Times & Fever Dreams, Joshua D. Rothman has given us both a rich microhistory and a wide-ranging interpretive [End Page 604] essay about the fluid cultural milieu of the lower Mississippi Valley in the age of Jackson (or better, “Mike Fink”).
If the larger early American experiment involved “self-creation” on a national scale, Rothman’s story begins with the same exercise on an individual level. In chapter one, “Inventing Virgil Stewart,” we meet our protagonist as he makes his way in 1833 to the Choctaw Cession in northern Mississippi. Seeking the fastest road to fame and fortune, Stewart bought land, made friends, and looked for opportunities to strike it rich. Chapter two, “Inventing John Murrell,” introduces the antagonist, a slave-stealer and all-around trouble-maker, whose schemes Stewart makes it his mission to expose. As much a literary wannabe as real-life rascal, Stewart spins out a published yarn, known as The Western Land Pirate, in which he chronicles his exploits (real or imagined) in pursuit of Murrell, a tale involving a burgeoning cast of characters as likely drawn from Gothic fiction as from life. His publication, in turn, offends his friends and enemies alike, generates his own notoriety, and drives events that swirl around the veracity of his claims and accusations.
Beneath the tangled narrative web of Rothman’s story lie the deep anxieties of this “new country” dedicated to white men’s freedom, black people’s enslavement, and the unrestrained pursuit of filthy lucre in the new-formed market economy. Patronage, connection, graft, and preferment constantly undermine the superficial promises of this egalitarian frontier paradise. Men such as Stewart respond to perceived unfairness by cheating others gleefully. Rumors of slave insurrections (either real or imagined) stir up hysterical reactions throughout the region. Another perennial concern—slave stealing—activates much of the narrative thread in a world where such valuable property carried no license plates, serial numbers, or other discouragements to artful pilferage. The degenerate influence of professional gamblers so threatened perceptions of respectability that in 1835 the citizens of Vicksburg executed five such reprobates without benefit of any trial. (This outrageous vigilantism backfired, staining the reputation of the city far more than did any gamblers.) [End Page 605] Ubiquitous betrayals, especially the casual failure to honor commercial agreements, shake the foundations of social intercourse at a time when courts and contracts had not yet sufficiently evolved as to bring a modern semblance of order to business transactions.
Flush Times & Fever Dreams is a fine example of historical detective work, anthropological analysis, and lively narration. Readers looking for a richly colored portrait of a time and its problems will enjoy it immensely. On the other hand, graduate students looking for its contribution to antebellum historiography may be frustrated by the fact that, while the case at hand nicely reflects the light of what we think we know about “capitalism and slavery in the Age of Jackson,” its original contribution—its own light, if you will—may seem to get lost in the wash of incredible detail. This is not to fault Rothman but to point out a problem with microhistories in general: they consume huge inputs from the writer/researcher while often returning less on that investment than harried scholars demand. The result is a virtuoso performance the original contribution of which, however, remains elusive. This does not offend me in the least—but at my age I have more time to savor performance than youngsters “on the make” in the rough-and-tumble economy of our own academic frontier.
John Lauritz Larson teaches history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. He is the author most recently of The Market Revolution in America...