- Working the Mississippi: Two Centuries of Life on the River by Bonnie Stepenoff
Joining many recent publications that link spatial and social history, Bonnie Stepenoff’s Working the Mississippi: Two Centuries of Life on the River examines the complicated encounters “between workers on the boats and workers in the riverfront cities and towns on the middle Mississippi between St. Louis and Memphis” (p. xix). Stepenoff narrates her story of this corridor in a way that takes the reader on what feels like an actual trip on the river across time. She begins in the opening decades of the nineteenth century—when the Mississippi River was animated by emerging urban life owing to the arrival of the steamboat—and ends at a less fixed point in the twentieth century when “[f]reight traffic flourished” and passenger service waned (p. 20).
St. Louis is thus the book’s starting place, showing the transition from a frontier town to a bustling city. Stepenoff subsequently turns to other cities, including Memphis, and describes the various occupations of people along the river, including captains, pilots, deckhands, and “confidence men,” or con men, who represented the ubiquitous underworld that included gamblers, prostitutes, and entertainers like W. C. Handy. However, some readers, especially those interested in labor history, will want more documentation and precision than Stepenoff provides. For example, when did the young, mostly male, river [End Page 677] workers about whom she writes hate the forty-hour week, as she claims? Was it in the early nineteenth century, when laborers in eastern cities first made such demands, or at some other time? How, why, and when did living conditions on riverboats change for the better? Why did racial tension haunt river towns and levees, both before and after the Civil War?
In chapters that are sometimes as short as nine pages, Stepenoff makes it clear that violence and sorrow were ever-present on the celebrated Mississippi. For example, she describes the great fire that took place in St. Louis on May 17, 1849, which resulted in the destruction of twenty boats that were “‘packed together like sardines’” (p. 2). Here, Stepenoff quotes Mark Twain, to whom not surprisingly the book frequently returns. This reader wonders if, as David S. Cecelski’s study of antebellum black watermen on the Carolina coast suggests, working on the water brought as much danger as it did potential freedom for the enslaved people who did such work. Or, as sectional conflict loomed, did the relatively confined spaces of the middle Mississippi offer the enslaved fewer chances to seize freedom, a topic explored in David R. Roediger’s Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All (New York, 2014)? Additionally, how did the towns and cities on the Mississippi, which reflected the presence of early French settlers, compare with Ohio River cities like Cincinnati, where diversity was also manifested in the presence of Irish and German immigrants and people of mixed race? This book prompts many questions without always providing answers. Nevertheless, it is well worth reading.