THE PURSUIT OF A DREAM by Janet Sharp Hermann


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The facts are striking, the interpretation is flimsy--starting with Hermann's decision to construe the succession of black communities on view as a chain of ""utopian experiments."" The reason: in 1821 Joseph Davis shared a coach with Robert Owen, whose utopian writings he knew, and drew him out further. (The observations attributed to Owen here, however, appear to be his known views; the book suffers throughout from a paucity of direct, substantiating quotes--and a surfeit of inference and assumption.) Shortly after, Joseph and his younger brother Jefferson, the Confederate president-to-be, established model plantations at Davis Bend, on the Mississippi: the slaves were decently housed, their health was looked after, they had a chance for some schooling, even to learn and practice skills. On Joseph's initiative, too, slave courts were set up to settle disputes. But, as Hermann recognizes, Davis adopted ""only those elements of Owen's philosophy that would promote his goal of an efficient, prosperous plantation community."" And in summation she is forced to acknowledge the obvious: for its slave-residents, her proclaimed ""utopia"" was still enslavement. Most, indeed, quit Davis Bend as soon as Confederate reverses permitted. But Davis' enlightened proprietorship did enable Benjamin Montgomery--intelligent, able, enterprising--to become a black man of affairs. And that appears to be the crux of the story. For a few troubled years, Davis Bend was the site of a freedmen's colony (ironically, because the Davis brothers' seized plantations were there, not because they had run model plantations); to Hermann, another--if clouded--""utopian experiment."" But from the turmoil Ben Montgomery emerged, remarkably, as the owner of the Davises 4000-plus acres: he too had decamped; returned and made common cause with his old master against the Freedmen's Bureau (which found him, perhaps, too assertive); now proceeded to recruit tenant-farmers for ""a community exclusively of colored people."" The nature of the Montgomery proprietorship--how it strongly resembled, and yet differed from, antebellum white proprietorship--comprises the book's most extended and absorbing section. The Montgomery women gardened, for instance--and picked cotton. But Hermann has little knowledge of the tenant-farmers' life--beyond the existence of class distinctions, disruptions, and dissent. And with the end of Reconstruction and the death of Ben Montgomery, the community quickly disintegrated. The most curious episode, in a way, is the last: Isaiah Montgomery, Ben's son, founded another all-black settlement at Mound Bayou--where, however, land was individually owned; and in the Booker T. Washington years, it stood as ""a symbol of black achievement."" Isaiah, meanwhile, won renown for opposing black suffrage. Hermann one need hardly add, makes nothing of all of this; and though she has obviously done a great deal of research, her use of it hardly qualifies as scholarship. But it's a human story of large dimensions--and a potential source of much discussion.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1981
ISBN: 1578061296
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press