Reinterpreting the Cotton Kingdom
Book Review

Donegan, Connor
Date Written:  2014-05-01
Publisher:  Against the Current
Year Published:  2014
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20438

Book review of Walter Johnson's "River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom."



Dark Dreams is an ambitious history of the Cotton Kingdom from the Louisiana Purchase, and the ensuing ethnic cleansing that captured the region for the United States in the first third of the 19th century, to the invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua in the 1850s in the lead-up to the Civil War.

Both of Johnson's books contribute to the scholarly movement of the past two decades away from the highly influential perspective of Eugene Genovese -- whose theory of "paternalism" in particular has been singled out as a refurbished version of the planter-class' own ideology -- while also challenging some of the latest trends in the field. Genovese left a tremendous legacy in providing a comprehensive picture of Southern society that tied together the supposedly "precapitalist, quasi-aristocraticic" character of the planter-class with their tradition-bound and paternalistic culture.(2)

Dark Dreams rarely makes reference to Genovese or his arguments but offers a similarly impressive, "comprehensive" analysis of the Cotton Kingdom to displace Genovese's: for Johnson, the Cotton Kingdom was a ruthlessly capitalist economy, fully integrated into the circuits of global capitalism, and bent on imperialist expansion. The planters’ power rested not on "paternalism" and negotiation but on terror and torture.(3)

Drawing extensively from slave narratives and other personal accounts, Dark Dreams is a neo-abolitionist history which offers an original perspective on what is certainly among the most formative episodes in U.S. history.

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