American Mediterranean: Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Lago, Enrico Dal
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: American Mediterranean; Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Guterl, Matthew Pratt
Accession Number: 230778724
Full Text: American Mediterranean; Southern Slaveholders in the Age of Emancipation. By Matthew Pratt Guterl (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. ix plus 237 pp.).

At the beginning of his Introduction to American Mediterranean, Matthew Pratt Guterl asks provocatively "what do we know of the 'master class'?" (1). He, then proceeds to enumerate the southern slaveholders' features accepted by most scholars, only to stake his claim that "we know less, though, about their links to the wider fraternity of slaveholders in Cuba, in Brazil, and elsewhere, or about their place and their role in the hemisphere" (1). Here are, in synthesis, not only the reason that prompted Guterl to write American Mediterranean, but also the features that make it such an exceptionally innovative and, at the same time, timely work. In fact, in treating the southern master class as part of a much larger--and much more tightly linked than we previously thought--community of slaveholders in the Americas, Guterl places firmly his work at the center of the current 'transnational turn' in both historical and literary studies, and there is little doubt that, given its interdisciplinary character, American Mediterranean will appeal to both historians and experts of literature and culture. Using the fictional character of William Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!--the slaveholder who went to the West Indies before his rise to fortune in the Old South--Guterl shows convincingly how the cosmopolitan dimension of the southern master class should prompt us to go well beyond old-fashioned studies of national histories of slavery, and to focus, instead, in classic 'transnational' fashion, on what he calls the '"hemispheric engagements' that shaped southern slaveholding" (7).

In doing this, Guterl connects American Mediterranean to a host of recent studies that place the culture of the South, and of the United States in general, in a much larger context, whether hemispheric or global. (1) At the same time, Guterl links his research with Peter Kolchin's idea of historical comparison between the American South and "other Souths", while he criticizes harshly those comparative studies--the majority, he thinks, a little inaccurately--that, through comparison, emphasize "the power of the local ... and the boundaries of the nation-state", but "hide connections" (11). (2) By the standards of the current historical debate, in fact, Guterl's American Mediterranean could very well take its place among the best studies of what French scholars call histoire croisee--a type of study focused on historical connections and ideological transfers between peoples and nations, rather than on comparison between them. (3) In Guterl's case, the focus is on the Caribbean--the "American Mediterranean" in Matthew Maury's 1854 phrase--and there is certainly no better place to look for southern slaveholders' connections with the master classes of other regions of the Americas. Generations of scholars have paved the way to Guterl's sophisticated study, first by focusing on the southern slaveholders' attempt at creating a Caribbean empire by annexing Cuba in the 1850s, and more recently, by looking at the larger Atlantic context of the Haitian revolution. (4)

At different points in his book, Guterl show that he does build upon previous studies, but then he goes well beyond them, demonstrating how the focus on the Caribbean cannot be peripheral and circumscribed to certain events, but has to be central if we wish to understand the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction South in its proper context. As Elizabeth Kelly Gray has eloquently summarized, Guterl's compelling argument is that "Southern sectionalism ... was international" (5); by the same token, the rise and fall of the Confederacy, and then Reconstruction had an equally crucial international dimension, given that their repercussions affected the entire American hemisphere, and particularly the "American Mediterranean". Indeed, in the first chapter of his book, Guterl shows, through the stories of diverse characters such as Octavia Walton, Ambrosia Gonzalez, and James Achille de Caradeuc, how the "American Mediterranean" came into being, through continuing exchanges and relocations that dated as far hack as the Haitian revolution, during which "a good many of the grand blancs of St. Domingue had escaped north to the American South either directly through the Caribbean or through Cuba" (43).

Similarly, in relating the familiar story of the Civil War and the rise and fall of the Confederacy in the second and third chapters, Guterl utilizes particularly compelling personal histories to make his case about the continuously crucial international, arid specifically Caribbean, perspective of southern slaveholders. Thus, the case of Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, who was born from a slaveholding family in the Caribbean island of St. Croix and who arrived in Charleston as a "young West Indian boy", serves well to illustrate the southern master class' Caribbean links (52). The same goes for the case of Eliza McHatton, who was "raised in New Orleans" as "a child of the American border surging westward during the nineteenth century" and who went in exile in Cuba in 1862, before the Confederacy collapsed. Equally enlightening case studies in the fourth and fifth chapters, on the labor problem during Reconstruction, illustrate how "for those who stayed behind, and who resisted the urge to flee to Cuba, Brazil, or Mexico, the immediate reaction to emancipation was informed by the hemispheric history of slavery" (114). Guterl's book, then, is as much a history of southern slavery as a history of emancipation in hemispheric perspective, and, as such, it is a crucial reading for all those who study the U.S. South in transnational and comparative dimensions.


(1.) See especially Caroline Field Lavender and Robert Levine, eds., Hemispheric American Studies (New Brunswick, NJ, 2008), with a contribution from Guterl himself.

(2.) See Peter Kolchin, A Sphinx on the American Land: The. Nineteenth-Century South in Comparative Perspective (Baron Rouge, 2003), 74-115.

(3.) On comparative history vs. histoire croisee in reference to slavery in the Americas, see Michael Zeuske, "Comparing or interlinking? Economic Comparison of Early Nineteenth-Century Slave Systems in the America in Historical Perspective" in Enrico Dal Lago and Constantina Katsari, eds., Slave Systems; Ancient and Modern (Cambridge, UK, 2008), 148-184. For a truly hemispheric perspective on connections between slaveholders in the American continent, see Rafael de Bivar Marquese, Feitores do corpo, missionarios da mente: Senhores, letrados e o controle dos escravos nas Americas, 1660-1860 (Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2004).

(4.) See especially Robert E. May, The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861 (Athens, GA, 1989); and David P. Geggus, ed., The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (Columbia, SC, 2001).

(5.) Elizabeth Kelly Grey, "The Deep and Deeper South", Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 2 (2009) [].

Enrico Dal Lago

National University of Ireland, Galway
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