(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Soul by Soul is an impressive work of scholarship, winner of Harvard University Press’s Thomas J. Wilson Prize, awarded to the best first book accepted by the press each year. Even though it is his first book, it is surprising to see that Walter Johnson, an assistant professor of history at New York University, wrote it while in only his early thirties. His research for the work is so voluminous and authoritative that one might imagine him as a senior scholar at the top of his field, but obviously he has many years as a leading scholar ahead of him.

Soul by Soul is not a chronological history full of big-name personalities; rather, it is an analytical history of everyday life in the slave trade, featuring nameless people, people with only one name, or people who have full names only because they were listed in court records or left written documents. Basing his work on extensive reading of nineteenth century slave narratives, Louisiana Supreme Court records, letters of slaveholders, and sales papers (“notarized Acts of Sale” and “traders’ slave record books, price lists, and advertisements”), Johnson documents and interprets the domestic slave trade that reached its peak in the first half of the nineteenth century. The slave trade was spurred by two circumstances: The United States Constitution (1789) ended the importing of slaves after 1808, and the tobacco-growing areas around Chesapeake Bay declined while the cotton-growing areas of the Southwest (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana) prospered. By shuffling coffles, oceangoing vessels, and Mississippi River craft, hundreds of thousands of slaves moved from the older and upper parts of the South to the Southwest territory, served most prominently by the slave markets of New Orleans. These are the markets upon whichSoul by Soul focuses.

Through the New Orleans markets, Johnson takes a close look at the commercial side of slave trading. For those in it, trading slaves was only a business, a capitalist venture, just another way to make a dollar. Nor was it exactly an easy way: There were many risks and problems, with the merchandise getting sick, dying, running away, or in general not cooperating. For both sellers and buyers, the merchandise was considered chattel. After a long overland drive, the slaves were “fed up” and allowed to heal so they would look like prime stock. At the market they were kept in “pens” and given the run of the “yard” for exercise. They were graded and priced according to such qualities as age, sex, size, and skin color. The blackest were considered the strongest for work in the fields, while lighter-skinned slaves were thought more suited for house duty. Slaves with special skills, such as cooking or carpentry, brought premium prices, and some women were sold as “breeders.” Men were sometimes dressed in suits and top hats and women in calico dresses, and until 1852 in New Orleans it was legal to display them on the street outside the market. However, buyers were allowed to question and feel the merchandise, and there were undressing rooms where the product could be examined more intimately. In Louisiana there were also redhibition laws (lemon laws) that allowed returns for up to a year, and sometimes slaves were sold on a trial basis.

Even so, the rule of the slave market was “Buyer beware!” As Johnson points out, slick merchandising came into play: By and large, the traders were selling fantasies, and the buyers were shopping for fantasies. Besides feeding and dressing up the slaves, the traders sometimes doctored them up (with the help of physicians), invented nice-sounding life stories for them, and prompted the slaves to play the roles. Sometimes the slaves were made to dance and act happy, but warned not to say they had serious medical problems or had ever run away. Since the buyers were usually ignorant of the slaves’ backgrounds, they were easily duped, so they might take along an experienced friend to help them make a purchase. However, they also contributed to their own fleecing by harboring fantasies of wealth, power, sex, and importance. The idea of ruling over their own little world of slavery was too much for some men to resist.

Johnson tells the story of one such man, John Knight, who dreamed of establishing a plantation utopia. Perhaps seeing himself as another Thomas Jefferson, he bought a Louisiana plantation and sent a shopping list for about sixty slaves to his father-in-law in Maryland. He also announced his plans to provide model housing, give the slaves a siesta during the hot...

(The entire section is 1859 words.)