- River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson
Long awaited by scholars of slavery, Walter Johnson’s latest work is in many ways two books in one. The first, encompassing roughly the first nine chapters of River of Dark Dreams, details the evolution of a plainly capitalist landscape in the Mississippi Valley during the first half of the nineteenth century. Integral to the financial and cotton markets at the center of the era’s global economy, grounded fundamentally in commercial imperatives, and reliant to its core on the ruthless exploitation of millions of enslaved laborers, the Mississippi Valley in the decades before the Civil War made systematic mockery of the republican yeoman paradise Thomas Jefferson envisioned for the region. Although the Cotton Kingdom was in fact almost pathologically expansive, it was hardly the kind of place whose development might provide middling independent and self-sufficient farmers with a sturdy foundation for their families. On the contrary, Johnson describes an economic environment that was dominated by planters and as slapdash and anxiety-ridden as it was dynamic and explosive.
The scale of their ambitions and self-regard matched only by that of their obligations to factors in New Orleans and ultimately to bankers in New York and Liverpool, planters relentlessly sought to turn work, soil, and seed into cotton and thus into capital with a total neglect for economic logic or human life. In so doing, [End Page 779] they crafted a Mississippi Valley whose contours reflected nothing so much as their own shortsighted recklessness and their own fears. They created speculative cotton booms that led inexorably to crippling busts, and they desperately attempted to game the cotton market in an effort to rise above the pressures of chronic indebtedness. They stood atop a social world riven by fissures of class, haunted by the specter of racial unrest, and ferociously intolerant of even the hint of either. They embraced the steamboat as an avatar of commercial progress, and in turn produced both widespread ecological devastation and horrific accidents that were as spectacular and deadly as they were utterly predictable. And they lived in a region known internationally for its agricultural fecundity yet dedicated themselves to cotton production so singularly that they had to import food simply to sustain themselves.
This was a world capable of doling out more than its fair share of misery, and bearing the brunt of it was of course the enslaved population of the Mississippi Valley, whose experience and circumstances Johnson delineates in extensive, visceral, and often riveting detail. Here we see the Cotton Kingdom essentially as a landscape of incarceration in which planter pretenses to paternalism were little more than a sick joke, and where slaveholders considered the humanity of the enslaved only to the extent that it could be useful for the production of cotton. Effectively reconditioning and disciplining their workforce to become a series of “hands” able to carry out the particular tasks of getting cotton out of the ground as quickly and in as much volume as possible, slaveholders wielded dominion over their slaves through systematic torture and deprivation, bolstering it with ideological constructs positing a racial hierarchy in which blacks deserved to be treated little better than animals. While Johnson argues that the lives of the enslaved could never be reduced entirely to the fact of their enslavement, he also insists that their lives were indeed profoundly defined by that fact. Such a position enables him smartly to assert that notions of slave resistance can be understood only in terms of the particular structures of dominance and concrete material cruelties of enslavement, and that despite the very real contingencies such “agency” introduced to the workings of slavery, they could never entirely obviate the blunt truth that black suffering and the capital embedded in black bodies ultimately underwrote the Cotton Kingdom and a significant portion of the industrial capitalism with which it was impossibly entangled.
That economic as well as social contingencies might obtain in the Cotton Kingdom was...