Monday, January 2, 2023

Booknotes: Shantyboats and Roustabouts

New Arrival:
Shantyboats and Roustabouts: The River Poor of St. Louis, 1875–1930 by Gregg Andrews (LSU Press, 2022).

Before its post-Civil War decline, steamboat commerce up and down the Mississippi River was an economic powerhouse that served vast expanses of the trans-Appalachian West, and the riverfronts of major cities such as Memphis and New Orleans were hotbeds of that activity. On the other hand, those same vitally important riverfront zones were socially stigmatized as dangerous dens of crime and vice best avoided by "respectable" citizens after dark. Civil War units recruited from such places often earned reputations as fierce fighters and just as feared troublemakers. Wheat's Special Battalion, its ranks heavily filled with a diverse array of New Orleans misfits and wharf rats, is a prime example.

By 1875, the river steamboat economy was in clear decline all along the Mississippi, including at St. Louis. As documented in Gregg Andrews's Shantyboats and Roustabouts: The River Poor of St. Louis, 1875–1930, though, the riverfront continued to attract "the levee poor, miscreants, moonshiners, misfits, and cultural refugees from an industrializing society on the make." Shantyboats from far and wide converged onto the Mississippi in seasonal migrations that were "iconic features of the Mississippi River valley." Near the turn of the century, the number of individuals counted among those waves of white and black river poor reached 20,000, rising to perhaps 30,000 two or three decades later.

According to Andrews, shantyboat dwellers drawn to cheap river life and steamboat roustabouts (the latter a term commonly applied to black deck hands) "remain understudied by scholars of the era. Most of what we know about these laborers on the river comes not from the work of historians but from travel accounts, novelists, songwriters, and early film producers. As a result, images of these men and women are laden with nostalgia and minstrelsy."

Adopting a fresh approach and perspective, Shantyboats and Roustabouts "uses the waterfront squatter settlements and Black entertainment district near the levee in St. Louis as a window into the world of the river poor in the Mississippi Valley, exploring their daily struggles and experiences and vividly describing people heretofore obscured by classist and racist caricatures."

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