Friday, September 6, 2013

Just Finished Reading - Flush Times and Fever Dreams

It has been about four months and 20 books ago since I posted a "Just Finished Reading" report. I am not sure what to credit that to. Maybe it has been just a simple lack of motivation.  I have certainly come across some good reads in that meantime, and maybe I will get a breeze of inspiration and eventually post on some of them. My recent read, however, was just too good not to share.

I had read Joshua Rothman's Notorious in the Neighborhood about a year and a half ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I was happy to hear about his new book Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (University of Georgia Press, 2012).

As someone who has been fascinated with the culture and society of the Old South for years, this book was just up my alley. In it Rothman examines the expansion of the nation in the early nineteenth century into areas formerly occupied by Native Americans and that gave way to the cotton boom. In the early and mid-1830s the economy was on a seemingly endless upward coaster ride. Land for cotton farming was being bought and sold so well in Mississippi and men were banking on the continuation of those good times. While reading I saw many similarities between that time period and our recent recession in 2008 and the beginning of the Great Depression of the 1930s. But like a roller coaster, and those other eras, what goes up usually must come down - and in 1837 an economic panic hit that wiped out much of the accumulated wealth of the region and which took decades to rebuild. All before being wiped away again by the Civil War and emancipation.

Rothman though concentrates the majority of Flush Times and Fever Dreams on the year 1835 - when things were still going well - at least economically. Socially, things were different. As mentioned above, men came to Mississippi in the 1830s to make fortunes. Those that didn't do so well either gave up or sought to take from those that were doing well. In this culture men like John A. Murrell, a born loser if there ever was one, made a living robbing, stealing horses and slaves, and often killing his victims.

The peculiar and interrelated factors that led to the economic boom on the cotton frontier also led to its eventual demise, both economically and socially. Men bought land to produce more cotton, and purchased more slaves to plant, cultivate, and harvest that cotton. It was a vicious cycle that caught many up in its pull. Banks lent enormous amounts of money because the potential return was so great. But the seeds of demise were being sown with the mono-crop. Slave populations grew in many parts of cotton growing Mississippi to where they outnumbered whites by wide margins. With that extreme disparity in numbers came extreme fears. Fears that turned into violence. As Rothman explains, "It was a truism of life under slavery in the United States that white southerners feared their slaves might rise against them. But in the [Old] Southwest, Americans had created ideal circumstances for the situation they dreaded most."

When a rumor was spread that the then incarcerated Murrell had hatched a plot to organize slaves for a massive insurrection in which the whites would be killed and their riches would be collected, a massive backlash was let loose. In Madison County, Mississippi, white men believed to be associated with Murrell were rounded up and whipped, beaten, and killed to extract confessions and information. Black slaves suspected or over heard speaking of the incident were whipped and hanged too. In nearby Vicksburg, a mob of the most town's usually most respectable citizens turned furious against the professional gamblers there that they believe polluted the morals of the community and were a drain on the city's wealth.

Rothman does an excellent job of telling the story of Murrell, his would be captor Virgil Stewart, the "respectable citizens" of Vicksburg, and the rein or furor and violence that rocked west central Mississippi in July of 1835. Tying these heinous acts to the atmosphere of the times and the society it had created is one of the book's greatest achievements.

I highly recommend Flush Times and Fever Dreams to anyone interested in antebellum southern history - or for that matter, anyone that enjoys reading a good story. I sincerely believe you won't be disappointed by the writing, research, and storytelling you will find in this book. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a full and worthy 5.

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