Interview With Historian Walter Johnson

Harvard University Press sent along a review copy of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom even before its publication, but I have yet to make much headway. It’s a beast of a book. Here is an interview that Johnson did with Deirdre Cooper Owens from the University of Mississippi.

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Dr. Johnson was the Jordan-Gilmer Lecturer this year. I went to his talk last Wednesday, where he discussed the “Negro Fever” of southern slaveowners and the movement to reopen the slave trade in the late 1850s. He repeats many of his comments I heard that night in the video above, particularly his emphasis on the Mississippi Valley’s place within in the world market and the rise of industrial capitalism. His lecture focused on the debate among Deep South slaveowners about reopening the slave trade in order to remain competitive in the cotton trade with the industrial centers in Great Britain. Of course this contributes to his larger argument that the cotton South should be in the forefront of people’s minds when thinking about the emergence of a global capitalist market in the nineteenth century.

What struck me as fascinating in his lecture was the paramount belief by southern planters in the feasibility and desirability of reopening the slave trade. According to Johnson, the Louisiana State Legislature came within a few votes of passing a bill to reopen the slave trade. Such legislation would violate federal law, as well as be opposed by Great Britain, and appears from my understanding to be a complete fantasy on part of slaveowners. My curiosity about this fantasy is focused on its source as either the anxiety of slaveowners or the arrogance of slaveowners. Johnson’s lecture demonstrated a continuity among certain southerners, such as Edmund Ruffin, that would later appear in the early years of the Civil War as the Confederacy’s expectation of Great Britain’s assistance because of the importance of King Cotton. I look forward to reading his book.

PS: Dr. Cooper-Owens is an amazing scholar and an appropriate choice to discuss these issues with Dr. Johnson. She is one of the best scholars I know and a great influence in my own work.

It’s a good book. I bought it several weeks ago as reading for the new book I’m working on since I am dealing with the descendants of Mississippi Valley planters. Along the way, I learned new things about steamboat technology that I thought were fascinating. But then, I’m a nerd like that.

So, I am sitting here wasting time on Facebook reading your response to Brian’s shopping spree at Dillard’s and then a comment comes through here. Let’s throw in social media nerd to boot. :-)

Maya Jasanoff’s review is very favorable, but it faults the treatment of the development of imperialism. Here is what it says:

“The chapters on imperialism lack the material richness that memorably characterizes the rest of River of Dark Dreams; the chronology confuses, the arguments grow diffuse, the book ends without a conclusion. This is unfortunate, because it leaves unvoiced a vital argument about the connections between American continental imperialism and American imperialism overseas. For northern victory didn’t just change the way the Civil War was understood; it also rewrote the history of American imperialism. Standard histories of the United States turn on an east–west axis: first America “expanded” west, the story goes, and only afterward did the US become in any way “imperialist,” by considering the acquisition of overseas colonies.”

Here is a link to the full review:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/oct/10/our-steamboat-imperialism/

Thanks. I am going to hold off reading it until I finish the book. Interesting choice of reviewer.

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