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American Literature 74.3 (2002) 637-638
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In recent years there has been a regular flow of scholarship on the Atlantic slave trade; comparatively little, however, has appeared on the internal transportation, distribution, and relocation of large numbers of these African men, women, and children, and their descendents, within the United States. Scholars of the Atlantic slave trade have explored its myriad dimensions imaginatively through impressive qualitative and quantitative analysis, but there is still much work to be done. This body of increasingly sophisticated inquiry should serve as a reminder that the domestic trade in slaves within slave societies and other territories of the Americas should not be neglected; it is an important part of the larger picture of the forced migration of people of African descent across the Americas over several generations, and of the roles these people played in the development of numerous societies. Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul draws attention to the internal slave trade of the United States in the years preceding the Civil War, focusing specifically on the New Orleans slave market. While the domestic slave trade is obviously related to the larger forced migration of enslaved people, Johnson does not generally employ theories about the causes, structure, and dynamics of migration to explain the significance of the New Orleans slave market. Even so, his treatment of the forced migration that fed the New Orleans market does contribute to a more nuanced appreciation of their interdependence.
Johnson sets out ambitiously to probe the mysteries of the slave market through the marketplaces of antebellum New Orleans, which in the mid-nineteenth century was "on the verge of becoming one of . . . America's leading cities." His careful, relentless, and insightful scholarly probe turns out to be a sustained search for meanings that can be squeezed out of the conditions and coded processes of the slave-trading business in this city. In the introduction, [End Page 637] seven dense and closely argued chapters, and an epilogue, Johnson opens up the past worlds and experiences that converged in the slave trade in New Orleans, focusing on multiple interactive features of those worlds, including the persons who inhabited and shaped them, particularly the buyers and sellers of slaves, and the slaves themselves who were degraded from human beings to commodities and property.
Visitors to the antebellum New Orleans slave market would have seen only the tip of the iceberg: much about the business of selling slaves would have been hidden from view. While Johnson delves deeply and presents a striking "story of back and forth glances and estimations, of hushed conspiracies and loud boasts, of power, fear, and desire, of mistrust and dissimulation, of human beings broken down into parts and recomposed as commodities, of futures promised, purchased, and resisted," his complex story is still not the whole account of antebellum slavery. This micro-investigation is, however, a valuable piece of the larger puzzle that allows us to probe the shadowed corners of slavery and its role in shaping the development of the United States.
To a great extent, the idea that the New Orleans slave market might be taken to represent the workings of slavery in the United States serves Johnson well methodologically, driving him to dig ever deeper for the meanings of layers of representation. This is accomplished in remarkably thorough and revealing ways in the chapters of the book that deal with the commodification of slaves, the contextualization of slave prices, race and the bodies of slaves, processes of sale, and life in the shadow of the slave market. Each chapter weaves its way into a discussion of complex sets of historical relations, often exposed by the author but just as often left for readers to uncover. Although readers will encounter instances of repetition, Soul by Soul demonstrates with considerable force how much can be accomplished, and suggests how much remains to be done, through the social and cultural examination of the trades that...