Friday, September 23, 2016

Cotton Kingdom

AVI referenced a First Things article about Frederick Law Olmstead, which mentioned some of his books. He was described as an excellent observer, so I looked up Volume 1 of Cotton Kingdom (Volume 2 is hard to find by itself).

FYI, I found it inconvenient to use the laptop to read it, so I downloaded the EPUB version to read on a portable system. It was handier to carry around, but the OCR was terrible: Red River frequently turned into Eed Eiver or Eed Kiver, and footnotes got mingled with the regular text. I wish the OCR programs would put in a symbol for end-of-page--that would help get the lower bound on a footnote, at any rate.

He started in Virginia, and found startlingly poor people and transportation. He considered slavery evil, but testified accurately about what he saw and heard--when it supported his opinions and when it didn't seem to.

Some things happen "off-stage:" he didn't see much whipping, though people talked about it. The poor whites were almost always not just poor but feckless. Most slaveowners weren't rich, and not all approved of slavery. On many farms slaves got financial incentives to perform. Conversations are jarring. Travel was fraught with difficulties: one trip by riverboat didn't leave on time, or the next day, or the next day, or the next day...

Read it.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

The First Things article did suggest that it was a better account than much we publish now. It seems difficult to credit that at first, because a current writer would have acres of first-hand accounts to draw from. Perhaps that is the problem, as the historian is always using the data to illustrate a point-of-view, no matter how s/he tries to be objective. So do we all.

The person who simply sees and records maybe rarer than we think.

james said...

I'm told that the transect is a useful tool in geology. When you want to study a new area, pick a direction and just go straight and record everything you find along the way.

Olmstead had a point of view too, but he didn't generally try to tie his observations together into an overarching thesis, though he did sometimes offer his own interpretation of a situation. For example, writing about a slave who didn't try to take advantage of an opportunity to get free, he said the slave might have thought, given the pressures, that the other option was "transportation for life" to Liberia.

But a "transect" journey has an immediacy and a variety and a continuity that the big thesis approach can't always attain.