Chalk one up to the AHA (American Historical Association). To be honest, of late, I’ve been feeling a sense of being adrift. Not good: especially since I’m about to embark on a dissertation… in a foreign country. I need to be grounded, I need to feel a sense of the possible, not the improbable.

Then the latest AHA quarterly, American Historical Review (June 2012), arrived; an issue dedicated to all things “turning.” No, not my stomach (nerves); rather a huge issue dedicated to the historiography of recent “turns” within the discipline. The “cultural” turns grabbed my attention as microhistory – a cultural method – is the big sword I carry into Bristol University to get my work done.

James W. Cook, a University of Michigan professor, penned an article, “The Kids Are Alright: On the “Turning” of Cultural History.” According to Cook, cultural history has yet to make its full impact known, though cultural history “turned” up with force since the 1980s. Cook pointed to a book – a long time favorite of mine – as a piece of work where the power of cultural history exudes, blends in with economic, social, and political histories to produce a hybrid account that is, well, just spectacular. Soul by Soul: Life Inside an Antebellum Slave Market (2001), by Walter Johnson is that book. Cook allotted three or four pages of his twenty-five page essay to Soul by Soul, an astounding amount. But Cook exhibited Johnson’s book to make his point: that “strategic mixtures of commerce and culture, structural constraints and competing subjectivities” makes for award winning books (Avery O. Craven Award, Organization of American Historians; John Hope Franklin Publication Prize, American Studies Association; SHEAR Book Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic; Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize, Harvard University Press; Co-Winner of the Frederick Jackson Turner Award, Organization of American Historians; and Co-Winner of the Frances B. Simkins Award, Southern Historical Association – to name a few).

But more to the point, Soul by Soul has always been that book that fascinated me – and now I know why: the hybrid blending of the cultural to the economic, to the social, to the political – which is precisely what I want to achieve with my dissertation, the one that focuses on a single execution. Soul by Soul will be the guide that grounds me. It is now my goal.

Of interest: I came across Soul by Soul in a seminar class at California State University, Chico. Dr, Robert Tinkler assigned the book (one among many) in a study of the Antebellum South. Professor Tinkler required us to write book reviews: my review of Soul by Soul now follows.

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Early in Walter Johnson’s book, Soul by Soul, the author informs the reader of the method of his research. “This project takes the form of a thrice-told tale:” states Johnson, “the story of a single moment – a slave sale – told from three different perspectives.” (8) Those perspectives are slave narratives of the 19th century, letters written by the slaveholders themselves, and the documents concerning the legal end of this trade in the form of “notarized acts of sale… slave record books, price lists, and advertisements,” (14) as well as the “docket records of approximately two hundred cases of disputed slave sales that came before the Louisiana Supreme Court.” (12)

Startling is Johnson’s conclusion. After tremendous and detailed research on this one particular aspect of slavery in the antebellum South, Johnson declares, “The History of the antebellum South was made in the slave pens.” (214) Perhaps, this is one of the reasons that charts, graphs, and ledgers – the number-side to selling any commodity – are for the most part vacant from Johnson’s book. He is after the human toll, the “daily process by which two million people were bought and sold…” (8) For Johnson, “Every one of the two million human-selling transactions which outlined the history of the antebellum South provided a way into its deepest secrets…” (17) Indeed, Johnson claims that the graphical representation of the slave trade “does not fully describe it.” (8)

Instead, Johnson will plunge into the “trader’s tables” to pull out the very “human attributes” where slave traders found profits: “tall field fellows… tall field girls… the muscular arm of a field hand and the sharp eye of a seamstress,” in other words, the slave trader’s need to translate slaves “into money value” necessitated the need to “introduce a greater degree of precision,” to refer to the “human history hidden behind the numbers.” (58, 59) Johnson points to a trader’s coffle, a line of slaves being driven to market, as the place where that trader would speculate “on the humanness of their slaves…” According to Johnson, “By estimating and appropriating the emotions,” of slaves, “traders were cutting costs… They were using their slaves’ humanity to protect their investment in human property.” (59, 60)

The sale itself was a battle of “physiognomy,” a place where both the buyer and the slave being sold studied each other’s faces, looking for clues to “character,” where each “were subjected to careful scrutiny.” (165) A chart, graph or ledger would miss this story.

Even when Johnson does provide a ledger, John White’s slave record on pages 45 and 46, the author scarcely refers to it. Instead, the reader must make the inferences over the names of the slaves provided, over the values by which White paid for and then sold these 22 slaves, and also the names of the slaveholders who purchased them. For Johnson, it is more important to focus on the human toll of the slave trade. So, yes, John White was a “speculator,” a man who “could and did turn thousands of people into prices.” But White had to do this daily, and thus for Johnson, “the traders’ business was personal estimation.” Slave traders had no choice but to isolate “the ill,” contain “the unruly,” keep “slaves from forming dangerous alliances,” basically “recognizing the humanity of the people they bought and sold.” (46, 47)

Ledgers, such as White’s, may show that he made 10.71% profit, or that he lost nearly 14% of the slaves he purchased for resell. But, Johnson is right, graphs, charts, lines and bulges do not tell the full story. Johnson’s investigation is refreshing then, in that it articulates “that the essence of slavery lay in the worst of its abuses rather than the rosiest of its promises.” (219)