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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Published : 2021-09-30

Zeisler-VralstedD. (2021). Working Lives on the Mississippi and Volga Rivers. Nineteenth-Century Perspectives. Review of International American Studies, 14(1), 77-105.

Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted
Eastern Washington University  United States

Dorothy Zeisler-Vralsted is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at Eastern Washington University where she taught classes on modernization and nature, the contemporary politics of water, and modernization and Indigenous peoples. A recipient of two Fulbright awards, her research focuses on water history with publications on the historical development of major river systems, water use in the American West, and the intersection of race, gender and the environment. Her most recent publication is Rivers, Memory and Nation- Building: A History of the Volga and Mississippi Rivers (Berghahn Books, 2014). Her research has led to invited lectures in Australia, Armenia, Russia, United Arab Emirates and the US. She is currently under contract for two future publications, African Americans and the Mississippi River: Race, History and the Environment and an anthology of primary and secondary sources on water and human societies.

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