Working Lives on the Mississippi and Volga Rivers. Nineteenth-Century Perspectives
Throughout the nineteenth century, major rivers assumed multiple roles for the emergent nation-states of the western world. The Thames in England, Seine in France, and Rhine in Germany all served as fodder for a growing sense of national identity. Offering a unity and uniqueness, the rivers were enlisted by poets, artiss, and writers to celebrate their country's strengths and aesthetic appeal. The Mississippi and Volga Rivers were no exceptions to this riverine evolution. At the same time, however, less vocal populations experienced the rivers differently. To African Americans--enslaved and free--laboring on the Mississippi offered a freedom of movement unknown to the land-bound. While employed on steamships, African Americans escaped the vigilance of an overseer with the possibility to escape bondage. Still the work was demanding and relentless. To the burlaki, the Volga was taskmaster and nurturer. But for both groups, laboring on the rivers resulted in connections that were immediate, intimate, exacting, often tedious and brutal concomitant with marginalized lives, consigned to society's fringe. Still, the lives shaped by working on these rivers, produced rich cultures revealing alternative riverine histories. In these histories, the rivers possessed an agency, enshrining an ambiguity in humans' kinship to the environment; a complexity often missing in the national narratives.
rivers; labor; race; barge hauler; African American
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