Walter Johnson

Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies


My work focuses on slavery, capitalism, and, increasingly, imperialism in the nineteenth century. My first book, Soul by Soul (1999) used the slave market as a way to think about the fantasies, fears, negotiations, and violence that characterized American slavery. Since then, I have written a series of essays about social and historical theory relating to the history of slavery in the U.S.: on the idea of “agency” as the organizing theme of scholarship; on notions of time; on theories of capitalism and slavery; and on the idea of reparations for slavery as a historical narrative. Most importantly, I have written a history of the Mississippi Valley between the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War entitled River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Imperialism in the Mississippi Valley (2013). While retaining a focus on the immediate experience of slavery and mastery, this book also embeds the history of slavery in the U.S. in the histories of global capitalism (especially the cotton trade and the Atlantic money market) and U.S. imperialism (the Louisiana Purchase, the illegal invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua in the 1850s, and the effort to reopen the Atlantic Slave trade on the eve of the Civil War). I am currently writing a book about the 1841 revolt aboard the slave ship Creole.

Dissertation Committees

“Behaving Like Animals: Studies in Animal Cruelty and American Culture, 1900-present” (Timothy McGrath)

“Sold South: The Political-Ecology of American Expansion” (Katherine Stevens)

“Slavery and the Civil War in American Cultural Memory” (Christina Adkins)

“Mastering Emotions: The Emotional Politics of Slavery” (Erin Dwyer)

“The American System in the World Depression, 1932-1941: The Case of the Coffee Trade” (Augustine Sedgewick)

Selected Publications

  • RiverOfDarkJohnsonSized

    River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Belknap, 2013), by Walter Johnson