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River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom Hardcover – 22 Feb 2013

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4.1 out of 5 stars 32 reviews from Amazon.com

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"River of Dark Dreams" is an important, arguably seminal, book...It is always trenchant and learned. And in highly compelling fashion, it helps us more fully appreciate how thoroughly the slaveholding South was part of the capitalist transatlantic world of the first half of the 19th century.--Mark M. Smith"Wall Street Journal" (02/22/2013)

Johnson has written a book as big and bold as the Mississippi River valley region it surveys. In it, he maps the various interlocking connections among slavery, land surveys and speculation, steamboats, capital and credit, cotton planting, and more to show how President Jefferson's promise of an 'empire for liberty' to come from the Louisiana Purchase became instead a place of people grasping for advantage, gouging for wealth, and gaining through will and brutality. Readers will find Johnson's discussions of steamboat technology, adaptations of new strains of cotton, and credit and market arrangements especially compelling as he makes the case for a modernizing, slave-based cotton empire that sought to extend its reach across the continent and, through violence, to claim Central America and Cuba as well...An essential book for understanding the dynamism and direction of American economic ambitions and the human and environmental costs of the physical, political, and social energy that drove such ambitions and ended in civil war.--Randall M. Miller"Library Journal (starred review)" (03/15/2013)

[Johnson] firmly believes that the booms of the early 1830s, followed by the devastating collapse of cotton prices and fortunes in 1837 and then the same cycle again in the 1850s, culminated in the Civil War. For those who have the penetration to see it, the cycles were written on the land, the technology, the crafty new financial instruments, and the bodies of the enslaved. Johnson never misses a chance to remind us of the relevance of all this today: the deregulation, speculation, profit, bubble, bust, misery, and war...Johnson's book attempts something daring and bold. Instead of perpetuating the regularly compartmentalized treatment of American slavery and the global antebellum political economy, he follows the example of Eric Williams's "Capitalism and Slavery" (1944) by bringing both together. He does this with an eye toward the enslaved on the ground, observing what they ate and produced, how they lived, how they were brutalized and died. Johnson is brilliantly attuned to the stories of the enslaved whose lives were coexistent with the cycle of production, who planted and harvested cotton but were at the same time commodities themselves, whose every biological function (reproduction, waste elimination) was an economic calculation.--Lawrence P. Jackson"Los Angeles Review of Books" (05/30/2013)

Johnson paints a picture of slavery in the Mississippi Valley as rich in twists and surprises as the Mississippi itself...A seminal study.--D. Butts"Choice" (07/01/2013)

This most impressive piece of history writing will be a source of inspiration and debate for many years to come. It demonstrates the national significance of regional history and the transnational scope of 'slave holding agro-capitalism.' It has an overarching story to tell and argument to make, but many of its meaty chapters take a vital area of research and decisively reorder it.
--Robin Blackburn"Dissent" (07/01/2013)

With deep insights, original readings, expansive vision, and dramatic narratives, Walter Johnson reconfigures both the political economy of American slavery and the landscape of struggle in the slave South.--Steven Hahn, author of "A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration"

Walter Johnson's "River"" of Dark Dreams" is a unique, brilliant, and relentless critique of the sordid logic of American slavery as it unfolded on cotton plantations, aboard steamboats plying the Mississippi, and in toxic proslavery adventures that spilled across the country's borders. The next generation of debates over slavery in the United States must wrestle with Johnson's startling and profound insights.--Adam Rothman, author of "Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South"

"River"" of Dark Dreams" solidifies Walter Johnson's standing as a brilliantly gifted interpreter of the past, whose work sets the benchmark for a powerfully lucid--sometimes heart-wrenching--vision of what enslavement meant for slaveowners, for the women and men they enslaved, and for the nations that participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.--Jennifer L. Morgan, author of "Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in New World Slavery"

Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams" shows how the Cotton Kingdom of the 19th-century Deep South, far from being a backward outpost of feudalism, was a dynamic engine of capitalist expansion built on enslaved labor.
--A. O. Scott"New York Times" (09/27/2013)

"River of Dark Dreams" is at its best when it focuses on the day-to-day lives of slaves in
the valley. Johnson empathizes with his subjects, allows them to speak for themselves
through written records they left behind, and is a gifted enough writer to make the past
come alive in his prose...Few books have captured the lived experience of slavery
as powerfully as River of Dark Dreams.""
--Ari Kelman"Times Literary Supplement" (07/26/2013)

Johnson shows in horrific detail how the culture of slave society--intellectual, social, sexual--arose out of the imperative of more and more cotton cultivation. In a brilliant chapter titled 'The Carceral Landscape, ' Johnson's book reads as a kind of scholarly companion to Quentin Tarantino's studiously gothic film Django Unchained."..What makes Johnson's book more than a catalogue of horrors is its account of how slave-owners, too, were caught in the cycle of fear...As new technologies (not only the cotton gin) and new markets (Europe as well as the industrializing North) drove the expansion of cotton production against any and all compunction, talk of ending slavery, which had once been central to debate about the future of the republic, became a deadly threat to the economy of the South and, to a significant degree, of the whole nation...Johnson's point is not to equate the suffering of slaves with the anxiety of slaveholders; but his book has the effect of showing their interdependence in a way that makes the abstractions of political history--'property, ' 'expansion, ' even 'slavery' itself--feel vivid and immediate.
--Andrew Delbanco"New Republic" (08/19/2013)

The artistry of River of Dark Dreams" lies in the close-up--in Johnson's mesmerizing attention to the 'material' in historical-geographical materialism. In the pointillist style so dexterously displayed in his reconstruction of the New Orleans slave market, Soul by Soul," Johnson zooms in on the 'nested set of abstractions' that made the Cotton Kingdom run: money, markets, maps, labor...River of Dark Dreams" delivers spectacularly on the long-standing mission to write 'history from the bottom up': from the soil tangy and pungent with manure, and the Petit Gulf cotton plants rooted into it, and the calloused fingers plucking its blooming, sharp-edged bolls. This is a history of how wilderness became plantations that became states, nations, and empires--of how an overseer's lashes sliced into a slave's back turned 'into labor into bales into dollars' into visions of America's future in the world... Johnson recreates the grinding, sometimes deadly work of moving in the Mississippi Valley with such originality that it doesn't much matter that the analytical payoff rests largely in metaphor...Whereas Johnson's analysis of steamboat imperialism turns on metaphor, his detailed description of slavery acts as a rebuke to the oversimple metaphors that are used to describe slaves' lives and labor: money and markets.
--Maya Jasanoff"New York Review of Books" (10/10/2013)

As the Harvard historian Walter Johnson explains in his bracing new history of slavery and capitalism in the Deep South, River of Dark Dreams," the slaveholders were the quintessential American capitalists River of Dark Dreams" casts his insight about slavery-as-capitalism onto a broader canvas: the history of the Mississippi Valley and its political economy in the first half of the nineteenth century. Johnson, of course, is hardly the first historian to think about slavery in the context of capitalism But Johnson moves in another direction. The relationship between slavery and capitalism, he insists, does not depend on any connection between American slavery and European (or American) industry. On the contrary, plantation slavery was" capitalism.--Robin Einhorn"The Nation" (02/11/2014)"

[One] of the most impressive works of American history in many years.--Timothy Shenk"The Nation" (11/05/2014)

An important book Johnson sees slavery not just as an integral part of American capitalism, but as its very essence.--Sven Beckert"Chronicle of Higher Education" (12/12/2014)"

About the Author

Walter Johnson is Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.


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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars 32 reviews
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Groundbreaking Scholarship, Riveting Read 7 Dec. 2013
By Dominick - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams weaves its way through the history of slavery and economics in the Mississippi River Valley, he does everything in his power to dispel all romanticized notions of the antebellum South. Johnson crafts a unique narrative that reinvigorates the scholarship on this time period with an impressive grasp of the impact of human nature on historical events, as well as an innate ability to expand and connect broader regions and themes. While the book revolves around, and always returns to, the history of the rise of the Cotton Kingdom, Johnson integrates this development seamlessly with the rise of northern banking capitalism and industrialization as well as the broader Atlantic world through fears of slave revolts inspired by the Haitian example, and ambitious imperialist designs of expansion into Cuba and Nicaragua. Despite this broad range, Johnson maintains a close connection with the people and land of the river valley. His insistence on delving into the evils of slavery, rather than taking it as a given, provides a sharp bite to the work. Opinionated, occasionally superfluous, and stocked with an ostentatious lexicon, Johnson’s style of writing may not appeal to every casual reader. Yet for those willing to overlook those blemishes, this book provides a perception-altering account. Potentially groundbreaking within the context of its historiography, this work is a must read for any scholar, armchair or academic, within the field and should be strongly encouraged inclusion in the material for relevant upper level college courses.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book, despite some of the purple prose 6 Oct. 2013
By W. P. Gardner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I read this book straight through in about a week, ignoring everything else I had planned to read in that time. I found it really interesting. Some key images I had not known about really stuck in my head: for example, the poor diet of the slaves, consisting mainly of pork and corn (maize). I had thought, naively, that most plantations grew most of their own food, in addition to whatever cotton they grew -- no, they were devoted to cash crops (and heavily in debt for them) to the point that they bought food principally from Northern farmers. What they bought was not very nutritious and many masters starved their slaves in order to control them better.

I know a lot about this subject already (I was born in New Orleans, my father's family comes from Mississippi, and I had read a great deal before), but still, the odd detail can shock me. For example, before Emancipation, if the state put a slave to death for some crime, it had to reimburse the slave's owner for his loss. (Why? Surely they would have regarded the owner as an accessory, or would have said the owner did not control the slave.... How naive I am: the slave owners controlled the state governments.)

I plan to continue now with Johnson's book _Soul by Soul_...
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative but not Exhaustive 7 Dec. 2013
By Alexis - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom was a very interesting read. It seeks to give its reader a full understanding of life in the Mississippi River Valley during the 19th century. The book concentrates on men of the white planter elite and their slaves. There are the expected chapters that examine life on the cotton plantations. Johnson borrows from historian Mart Stewart in his understanding of planter imposition of strict order on land and labor in the interest of profit. But Johnson takes it a step further by emphasizing the human element of the plantations, using information from multiple slave narratives to piece together their lives. Unexpected chapters that examine the development of the steamboat economy and slaveholder attempts to bring slaveholding Cuba to the Union. Although these chapters add to the understanding of the Mississippi as a whole, they stand out from the rest, and are awkward. I was also displeased by the lack of information on women and Native Americans in the narrative. Even though Johnson declares in his title that he will focus on those people who fit under “Empire” (the white planter elite) or “Slavery,” the book would have been more complex with the incorporation of these groups. Nonetheless, River of Dark Dreams was a fascinating book. I gained a greater understanding of the Mississippi Valley and of the violence, oppression and greed that characterized antebellum life there.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On a scale of 1 - 5 stars, I give it 6. 11 Mar. 2015
By Robert Bain - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom offers, is the critical scholarship that our assessment of the slavery institution has needed as it that has everything to do with what we are were as a nation and perhaps even why, in large part, we remain there; chained but unlinked, as it were, to our national past. Bookended with Edward Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and he Making of American Capitalism we are far better able to reckon with past tense as present tense toward a future tense. As ably said by William Faulkner: "the past is not dead, it's not even past." Like Edward Baptist's, this work warrants, on a scale of one to five stars, nothing less than six stars -- both important reads for us all.
5.0 out of 5 stars One Great Historical Addition to the Saga of Slavery in America 26 July 2014
By Agyaaku - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a riveting account of slavery in the Mississippi Valley during the antebellum. With great prose, Walter Johnson dissects the cruelty and brutality meted out to African slaves by slave masters and their overseers, It is an account of how capital was accumulated through the cultivation of cotton with use of free labor. Walter Johnson's writing is lucid, very well researched and easy to read. His prose keeps you on edge and fills you with a roller-coaster ride of emotions, now angry at the inhumanity of the slave holders and pity for their insecurity. Totally enjoyable tome.
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