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Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market
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Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  1,493 Ratings  ·  55 Reviews
Soul by Soul tells the story of slavery in antebellum America by moving away from the cotton plantations and into the slave market itself, the heart of the domestic slave trade. Taking us inside the New Orleans slave market, the largest in the nation, where 100,000 men, women, and children were packaged, priced, and sold, Walter Johnson transforms the statistics of this ch ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published March 2nd 2001 by Harvard University Press (first published 1999)
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What Johnson accomplishes within the structure of Soul by Soul is quite impressive. As the instructor teaching the seminar for which I read this book put it, each chapter is refracted around the chattel principle, but each is distinct in focus and features conflicting perspectives on the principle. Johnson manages to recirculate individuals - slaves, slave traders, slaveholders - throughout each chapter, revealing the workings of the chattel principle through their correspondence, slave/abolitio ...more
Mike Anastasia
Jul 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book is a crown jewel in American slave studies and opens up doors may historians assumed were permanently rusted shut from history's rainstorms. As part of my graduate school coursework, this review is of Walter Johnson's seminal narrative illustrating slave life in the New Orleans markets.

This book perfectly illustrates the horrors of American slavery, but also represents a shining light in an otherwise infinitely umbral abyss. Johnson observes various slave markets throughout the city o
Sam Newton
Dec 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 19th-century
I liked this book. Johnson looks at slave auctions and how the process commodified and dehumanized them to mere objects for sale. Assesses the vulnerabilities of slave traders (who based on class and gender, had to achieve upward status based on their sales) and slaves (who were stuck between competing slave traders, but who had some degree of power to manipulate the process). Johnson looks at gender, whiteness, and class and gives us a window into slave markets. The argument that the New Orlean ...more
Ai Miller
Oct 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book was fun--well, as fun as a book about enslavement can be. Johnson does a great job of highlighting the ways that the three stakeholders in the slave market engage in that market. Histories of capitalism etc. aren't super my thing, but if they are yours you'll probably love this book--Johnson's writing style is really great and accessible, and his use of sources is interesting.
Mar 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is quite the insightful book.
Oct 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Academics who can actually write give me major feelings of jealousy, and Johnson can really, REALLY write. The organising principle of this book - each chapter revolving around the perspectives of different participants involved in a slave sale - meant that a complex subject easily bogged down in detail was immense readable, if still sickening. The book still maintained detail and the harrowing nature of the slave market while emphasising the potential for personal agency amongst slaves and the ...more
Mar 12, 2009 rated it really liked it
A very insightful attempt to describe the attitudes that slave owners had towards potential black purchases. Johnson also accounts for the many tools slaves used in order to avoid separation and being sold. He also describes the atmosphere of the slave purchase it self.
Brian Jones
Nov 28, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Likely the best book on slavery in the antebellum U.S. I've ever read. The domestic slave trade created these hyper-articulated systems of representation and performance around slave sales and slave ownership that just don't seem to exist in earlier periods and in other places.
Jul 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing
A book that manages to balance the agency of the subject while clearly coming off as enraged by the conditions that the subjects had to live under.
Natasha M
May 29, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: school
This book was amazing. I read it for History before 1877. I loved it. It made me cry.
Oct 15, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Excellent! Excellent! Best book on the topic. I own it and reread many parts of the book in my research of the subject.
Jan 16, 2015 rated it it was ok
To be fair, I read this book for school, and there is nothing like reading for class that ruins a good book. I learned a lot, but it was incredibly dry and drawn out.
Jul 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
If it is possible to have a "favorite" book on slavery, then this is mine.
Herman Padilla
Sep 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: antebellum-south
Academic exploration of a New Orleans Slave market made some interesting, and relevant points such as ..."slaveholders depended upon the world to be relatively constant: they depended upon being in the same bed, answering to the same name, and tasting the same food in the same way when they woke up as they had when they went to sleep. And like anyone else, slaveholders also depended upon their property to help them keep themselves constant over time-They oriented themselves around the expectatio ...more
Jul 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
An excellent read - very well written, and full of fascinating material. Powerful, too, in the way that it uses different viewpoints - slave testimonies, court records, slave-holder accounts - to illuminate the economic, social and psychological aspects of the everyday operations of the slave markets; and, more broadly, the socially- and ideologically-constructed 'markets' of slavery.

One of the most striking things for me is that the reiteration of the dynamics, seen from different perspectives,
Nov 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
"Soul by Soul" is a classic work of history - one of the first that truly delved into slavery from the perspective of the slaves. It also provides interesting insight into Southern whites who were not slave owners, and how becoming a slave owner increased their standing in the community.

The focus is on one of the largest slave markets in the country at New Orleans. It is a story that needed to be told. His research is impeccable, the numbers staggering, and the first person stories emotional.
Aug 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Our history!
Oct 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017-books
Aug 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-2017
Really brilliantly written account of the slave market from the point of view of sellers/traders, buyers, and the slaves themselves. Powerful piece of work, thank you Walter Johnson.
Oct 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
You'll have to look at the footnotes to find Johnson's argument that slavery is a capitalist concept. Looking forward to reading Baptist's more radical study.
Susan Lindsey
Jan 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
A horrifying and illuminating look at the New Orleans slave trade. Vital to understanding antebellum attitudes, society, and economic aspects of slavery.
Oct 12, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: high-school
This book was informative, but it was so repetitive.
Sep 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is quite fascinating. It offers a look into the antebellum slave market (1820-1860) in order to better understand the region, culture, and slavery particularly. Walter Johnson looks at new and old sources to reveal the life and perspectives of slaves, slaveholders, slave traders, and non-slaveholders in the Old South. Many of his sources are located/focused on New Orleans--the largest slave market in North America during the 19th century--where slavery was "reduced to the simplicity of ...more
David Bates
May 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
“As they talked about and wrote about buying slaves, slaveholders mapped a world made of slavery,” Walter Johnson writes in his 1999 book Soul by Soul. “They dreamed of people arrayed in meaningful order by their value as property, of fields full of productive hands and a slave quarter that reproduced itself, of well-ordered households and of mansions where service was swift and polished. They dreamed of beating and healing and sleeping with slaves; sometimes they even dreamed that their slaves ...more
Lynette  Lee (J.Kirby)
Sep 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-books
Very well written book that gives first-hand accounts of the slave markets in New Orleans, Louisiana. Through his research, Johnson Walter is able to peel back the layers of slavery and show exactly occurred during the slave trade. This book does not go in the Transatlantic Slave Trade nor the Underground Railroad. Its whole purpose is to show the inner workings of the American trade from patty rollers, to the slave catchers, to the slave pens, and to the auction blocks. Here, readers can see a ...more
Feb 18, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: african-american
It is very difficult to study slavery in the USA. What would have been everywhere 200 years ago is as if it never existed today. And yet the consequences are everywhere from the White House built with slave labor and today inhabited by a first lady who is descended from both master and slave to our prisons filled with black men and the number of black children living in poverty.
Mr. Johnson's writing style is a bit convoluted. He expresses an idea or a principle and then keeps looping back to t
Dec 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Walter Johnson uses the slave trade and the slave market to illuminate the "chattel principle" that underlay all of slavery. As the soil of the upper South was spent by decades of tobacco farming and as the new cotton economy pushed slavery westward, farmers in Virginia and Maryland increasingly earned their living by selling slaves into the lower South. Johnson shows how the existence of the slave trade strips away the pretense of the benevolent master. Slave masters tried to realize their drea ...more
Aug 04, 2011 rated it liked it
Overall, I would say this book is interesting because it sheds light on a market that no longer exists in most peoples modern lives. The only downside is that his points to me could have been summarized better and put into much better order. I never really understood where the book was going. To me the book should have focused more on each person in a different chapter, like I highlighted before. If you are interested in slavery and the market process this would be a good book for you. If you ar ...more
Jul 20, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites, history
In this deeply humane book, Johnson concentrates on the slave economy, examining the 'chattel principle' that turned people into property by looking closely at the practical, physical details of slave sales. He looks at the people on both sides of the transaction: whites, who elevated their prestige by owning slaves, and the slaves themselves. He notes that while buyers were judging and valuing slaves as property, the slaves themselves were acutely aware of buyers' attitudes and desires, and mig ...more
Feb 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Really interesting read. The book focuses on the slave markets of New Orleans. Johnson uses a huge array of primary source documents from all sides of the trade; slaves, sellers, and buyers. Well researched and well written, a truly terrifying look at the slave trade and white America's justification of it. Worth the read.
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“Some slaves, however, were "too white to keep." That was how Edmund was described by the man who had sold him from Tennessee. The man's hope was that such a sale would make it more difficult for Edmund to escape from slavery, but, as it was, New Orleans suited the slave well: within a day of arriving in the city, Edmund had slipped unnoticed onto a steamboat and disappeared. So, too, Robert, who boarded the steamboat that carried him away from slavery and New Orleans as a white man. "I should have thought he was of Spanish origin," remembered one of his fellow passengers, "he was a man of clear skin and dark complexion." But more than the way Robert looked, the other passengers remembered the way he acted: "he was very genteely dressed and of a very genteel deportment"; "he had more the appearance of a gentleman than a plebeian"; and, almost every witness noted, "usually seated himself at the first table, high up, and near the ladies." Robert, it turned out, had once” 0 likes
“The vitality associated with blackness might cancel out the vulnerability associated with
femininity in the search for a field hand, while a "bright disposition" might lighten a dark-skinned woman in the search for a domestic servant; a "rough" face might darken a light-skinned man, while "effeminacy" might lighten a dark-skinned one; an outwardly dull demeanor and the presence of wife and child might make a light-skinned man seem less likely to run away; and so on. In the slave market, buyers produced "whiteness" and "blackness" by disaggregating human bodies and recomposing them as racialized slaves.”
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