Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to hear Walter Johnson speak at Georgetown University about his recently published book, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press, 2013). It's a marvelous book that has already garnered wide attention, including this very nice roundtable review at The Junto.

Johnson's work has been important in my own thinking, particularly his thoughts on the linkages between capitalism and slavery prior to the Civil War. There's plenty of food for thought on that topic in River of Dark Dreams, although if you read the book expressly for that purpose you will have to be patient to get to that material. That's OK, since Johnson has a lot of important things to say about the history of the Mississippi Valley, and I want to comment briefly on one which caught my eye.

Johnson has a marvelous chapter on steamboats which brings insight into an important point concerning the history of technology. High-pressure engine steamboats dominated the Mississippi. As Johnson writes:
The high-pressure engine was the defining technical feature of the Western steamboat. Whereas the low-pressure engines employed on eastern and European steamboats relied on precise tolerances to ensure the creation of a vacuum, high-pressure engines simply overcame any imprecision in manufacture (which caused leakage) through a vast overemployment of power. (page 93)
In the popular imagination, history of technology can look like a string of innovations, each better than the last. But in the case of these Western steamboats, Johnson notes that the technology actually was not improving. The high-pressure steamboats were "less efficient and more prone to explosion," they were "already antiquated at the moment of their increasing employment on the Mississippi." These boats' voracious appetite for wood, in turn, meant that "the deforestation ... of the Mississippi Valley was the condition that made possible the expansion of the steamboat economy." (page 94) These Hummers of the western waters were the dominant form of transit in the region, but their widespread adoption was was not due to better technology -- it was actually worse technology, shoved into overdrive, which made the growth possible.

Through this close examination of the technology, Johnson demonstrates that economic growth and technological improvement don't always go hand in hand, an important reminder for historians.

Transportation and political imagery

In two weeks, I'll be presenting a paper at the annual meeting of the Nineteenth Century Studies Association in Fresno, California. My paper is entitled "Images of Steam Transportation in Popular Culture," and it will include some my new research on images of steamboats and railroads in the antebellum era. I do not have a great deal of experience with analyzing visual culture, so I'm looking forward to the opportunity to get some feedback at this conference on my initial take on what some of these images mean.

When I was doing the research for this project, I was overwhelmed by the number of transportation images I found. They are everywhere: on currency, in children's literature, on broadsides, in comic almanacs, on sheet music—everywhere.

One such image is the broadside "Correct Chart of Salt River" from 1848 (from the Library of Congress). This example includes a railroad and a steamboat as part of its political imagery:

For Americans in the antebellum era, the phrase "Salt River" had the implication of a foolhardy journey, with a particular connotation in politics: during the 1832 presidential campaign, a pro-Andrew Jackson boatsman took rival Henry Clay literally "up Salt River," causing him to miss a speaking engagement (this from Liz Hutter's very nice essay "Ho for Salt River!").

This particular broadside mocks the problems which besieged Democrats during the election year of 1848. Candidate Lewis Cass is represented by a steamboat. Such a boat would seem to be an appropriate way to travel against the current, as the drawing depicts. But the boat is marked "free trade," a reference to Cass's opposition to high tariffs. Cass is about to face a series of disasters: Noise and Confusion Shoals, Santa Anna Pass, and eventually the Lake of Oblivion. By contrast, the (protectionist) Tariff of 1842 puffs ahead on a train, taking the direct route to Washington. Train tracks lead directly to the destination, avoiding the complex geography that awaits the steamboat.

Images of steam transport were common throughout the antebellum era. In this broadside, we see both types of transport recruited to make a political message: Cass's free trade about to navigate difficult waters, while the tariff has a direct route to the capital city.

Additional reading: For more on Cass, see Willard Klunder, Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation (1996).

Steamboat as metaphor and preparation for the afterlife

In the children's literature I'm reading, transportation often serves its literal purpose: moving characters in the story from one place to another. Even when having transportation in the story lets the characters discuss other things, the trip has the same purpose it would in real life.

In other cases, however, transportation's role is clearly metaphorical. Author Jacob Abbott developed an extended metaphor with a steamboat in his 1832 work Young Christian. Abbott informs the young reader that according to the Bible, a person's time on each is merely a period of probation. He then proceeds to illustrate this with what he calls "familiar examples, drawn from the actual business of life" (307). Abbott selects the steamboat as a metaphor and notes that any steamboat must be "proved" before it can be put into service. He enumerates the things which could possibly go wrong with a ship—such as poor materials or poor construction—and notes that the engineer must carefully inspect every portion of the vast new machine in over to ensure that it is working properly. The engineer in this story takes days, even weeks, to insure that every joint, bearing, valve, and gauge is in proper working order. After the engineer is satisfied with the quality of the work, only then can people climb on board.

For Abbott, the steamboat embodies both power and restraint. he tells his young readers: "And though she has within her bosom a furnace glowing with furious fires, and a reservoir of death—the elements of most dreadful ruin and conflagration—of destruction the most complete, and agony the most unutterable; and though her strength is equal to the united energy of two thousand men, she restrains it all" (310). But the technology was not invoked to scare the reader. Rather, the steamboat served as a metaphor for the readers themselves. By the end of the story, the purpose of the metaphor is clear to the reader. Each of us, Abbott tells us, has within us "susceptibilities and powers, of which you have little present conception, energies, which are hereafter to operate in producing fulness of enjoyment or horrors of suffering, of which you now but little conceive" (311). Just as the engineer had to closely inspect the steamboat before launching it and taking lives into his care, so too should the reader inspect him or herself and change anything which needs fixing. Like a mechanic readying a steamship, American youth were to inspect hand modify their hearts. Abbott admonished his readers: "You are on trial—on probation now. You will enter upon active service in another world" (311). The steamboat—what must have been commonly known to his young readers by the 1830s—served as a lesson in how to prepare oneself for life after death.