Cover: River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, from Harvard University PressCover: River of Dark Dreams in PAPERBACK

River of Dark Dreams

Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom

Product Details


$26.00 • £22.95 • €23.95

ISBN 9780674975385

Publication Date: 03/13/2017


560 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

27 halftones, 2 tables

Belknap Press


Add to Cart

Educators: Request an Exam Copy (Learn more)

Media Requests:

Related Subjects

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, The Los Angeles Review of Books

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, The Wall Street Journal

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… 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.Library Journal (starred review)

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, The Times Literary Supplement

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

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, The New Republic

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, The New York Times

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, The New York Review of Books

The American Civil War is still being fought. The racist inheritance of the South now permeates the collective unconscious of many who are taking their stand against African Americans and other people of color through this country’s racist legal and prison system and also through cutbacks in government that fall most heavily on those whom this society dragged across oceans to enslave and exploit. To understand the dynamics of the present, we must perceive the peculiar way in which racism is intertwined with a global system of economic exploitation that continues to flourish, rewarding some while disinheriting many others. Walter Johnson’s magnum opus puts the economy of slavery at the center of American history. His account succeeds in avoiding the sort of vulgar Marxist reductionism that misses the depth of human suffering that reached an apex in the first sixty-five years of the nineteenth century—suffering which in its modern twenty-first century manifestations continues to exact a heavy price from the bodies of African Americans and from the emotional well-being of everyone else. Johnson’s detailed account of the Cotton Kingdom prepares us to understand the later manifestations of oppression and imperialism that have shaped much of the world ever since slavery was officially abolished (but more plausibly taken into new forms and globalized).Tikkun

[One] of the most impressive works of American history in many years.—Timothy Shenk, The Nation

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

An important book… Johnson sees slavery not just as an integral part of American capitalism, but as its very essence.—Sven Beckert, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Johnson’s luminescent prose lends moral weight to the harrowed tribulations of the past, but he also has a keen geographical imagination that captures the spatial upheavals, the recurring conflicts and contradictions over land and water, that marked the history of slavery and capitalism in the Mississippi Valley.—Peter James Hudson, Boston Review

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

Mining journals, correspondence, public records and popular literature, Johnson reminds us that New Orleans, not Richmond, was the engine of Southern prosperity: its largest city, largest slave market and the center of a booming international trading system… Mixed with fascinating anecdotes, grim accounts of slave life and a convincing argument for plantation slavery’s essential role in the 19th century’s burgeoning industrial capitalism.Kirkus Reviews

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

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

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

Recent News

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. A statement from HUP »

From Our Blog

A stack of five bestselling titles from Harvard University Press against a hot pink textured background

Ringing in the New Year with HUP’s 2022 Bestsellers

There is no better way for readers to usher in the new year than by looking back to the books that defined the last. For Harvard University Press, our 2022 bestsellers make up a diverse list of books across time and discipline.