- Working the Mississippi: Two Centuries of Life on the River by Bonnie Stepenoff
Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2015
xxii + 182 pp., $36.00 (cloth); $36.00 (e-book)
The Mississippi River has seen a good amount of scholarly traffic in the last decade. Thomas Buchanan, Robert Gudmested, and Walter Johnson have plied its fast-moving and murky waters, examining, respectively, the black women and men who labored the river's vessels, the role of steamboats in the creation of the cotton kingdom, and the river as metaphor: the "dark dream" of expansionist planters' imaginings. Others, notably Ari Kelman and Christopher Morris, have examined the river as natural force, one that in concrete and occasionally violent ways has sculpted and resculpted the societies that have come and gone along its banks. In her slim volume, Bonnie Stepenoff bridges this divide, producing a labor history that is refracted through an environmentalist understanding. As she notes, "the complex interactions, for good or ill, between workers on the boats and workers in riverfront cities and towns . . . are the subject of this book" (xix).
Professor emeritus of history at Southeast Missouri University and volunteer director of the Cape River Heritage Museum, Stepenoff is especially interested in that part of the "middle river," the section that stretches between Memphis, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri. Hers is not a typical spatial framework, but it is an effective one; for in narrowing her geographic scope, Stepenoff is able to extend her chronological analysis, exploring two centuries of life on and along the middle stretch of the Big Muddy. The "on and along" matters deeply in Stepenoff's mind. What happens on the river, she reminds us, rarely stays on the river. Conceiving the Mississippi as more connective than disruptive, she makes an obvious but often overlooked point that no vessel, whatever its tonnage or draft, is or ever has been out of sight or sound of land. "Even in the dark, river boatmen can smell the plants and hear the animals and the people on the banks and the wharves," Stepenoff tells us (xv). Indeed, so deeply embedded is the river in the country through which it twists that disentangling riparian from terrestrial histories is an impossible task. Life and labor transcended ships and shorelines. Consequently, what Stepenoff offers is a longitudinal study that takes into account not only those who worked the river but also the legions who toiled on its banks: the men and women who eked out livings in the "boatyards, ferry landings, grocery and supply stores, and gambling dens" that lined the middle Mississippi. The river's fortunes were their fortunes too, for better and often for worse (xv).
Corralling all those agents is no mean feat. With firemen, deckhands, passengers, gamblers, confidence men, captains, cooks, musicians, mechanics, boarding-house keepers, merchants, and, for a time, slaves and their owners endlessly and repeatedly weaving life aboard into life ashore, Stepenoff has a daunting task on her hands. It is one she meets with a deceptively simple solution: rather than try to follow this complicated and omnidirectional flow of humanity over a two-hundred year period of study, she cracks it apart [End Page 126] along lines of labor and space. Working her way downriver and always attentive to the riparian context, Stepenoff alternates chapters about people with chapters about people in particular places. Starting in St. Louis and with ships' captains and finishing her trip at Memphis with their musicians, Stepenoff deftly moves her readers longitudinally through time, opening each chapter in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century in order to show how changes in the environment, technology, and economy intersected with and informed life and labor on both sides of the shore. For instance, in an early chapter on crews, she demonstrates how the grueling routines of early river men (a population who prepared their meals over fires kindled in the middle of wooden decks) gave way first to wood-fired steamboats with their high-pressure engines and then to the steel-hulled vessels that ply today's river. But while those crews...