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Eugene D. Genovese, R.I.P.
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The justly renowned social historian Eugene D. Genovese died yesterday at the age of 82 in Atlanta. His death followed several years of dealing with a worsening cardiac ailment and with a jolting loss in 2007 from which he never recovered. This was the death of his beloved wife Elizabeth (Betsey), who was his frequent collaborator on books and whom he celebrated after her passing in moving memoirs. In my professional opinion, Genovese may have been the greatest social historian this country has given us; and the fact that he wrote like a dream makes his accomplishment even more noteworthy. In Roll, Jordan, Roll, a work that won the Bancroft Prize in 1974, The Political Economy of Slavery, and The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview, Genovese presents an unsurpassed analysis of the mindset of the once dominant planter class in the Old South. Although Genovese wrote his early works as a Marxist and his later ones as a Catholic traditionalist and an avowed man of the Right, it is sometimes hard to distinguish his writings in terms of these personal changes. There is something which from the current political perspective is remarkably reactionary about Genovese’s oeuvre, even in those books he published as a Marxist who once came out openly for the Viet Cong. But that was when it was still possible to be a left-wing radical without having to be politically correct.

Absent from Genovese’s work is the tiresome moralizing that now characterizes academic historiography. Even in his most radical phase, he wrote admiringly about the antebellum Southern slave-owners, who believed deeply in their right to rule. This doomed class, which would give way in the Civil War to the dominance of the capitalist bourgeoisie and to the victory of free labor, did not lack for courage or manliness, according to Genovese. The planter class however represented the past, one that was destined to fall to the capitalist North, which eventually, Genovese hoped as a Marxist, would be overthrown by world socialism. By the way, Marx and Engels did not exhibit any of the tender feelings for the Southern side that one finds in their onetime follower. They saw the Civil War, like our liberals and neoconservatives, as an unvarnished struggle between Good and Evil.


Towards the end of his life Genovese turned to a somewhat different interest, which was the religious thought of antebellum Southern theologians. Essential to these studies was a detailed explanation of how learned Protestant thinkers, like James Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney, justified from a religious, biblical perspective Southern plantation society with its embedded hierarchy. Even more important, Genovese and his wife, who closely collaborated on this study, looked at how Southern theologians and Southern preachers came to terms with Southern defeat. Despite his Catholic loyalties, it is obvious from these studies that Genovese was strongly attracted to the Southern Calvinist mindset. He reveled in its discussions of divine Providence and in its tortuous attempts to make sense out of human history. One cannot read these texts without noticing that the interpreter is pondering his own theological quandaries while explicating those of others. Genovese’s themes over a working lifetime ranged from a unique application of Marxist materialism to the Southern experience to learned explorations of Protestant theology.

It would be remiss of me as Gene’s friend not to mention what I found to be his most endearing quality, his total openness about those he liked and disliked. Gene never hid behind righteous poses. He had a Latin exuberance, which he probably inherited from his ancestors and which made his letters to me a delight to read. He was always about settling scores and awarding senatorial honors. Never (to my knowledge) did he indulge in moral righteousness or in talk about the suffering just. It is hard to think of Gene as someone in the past tense. Never have I known a more animated personality or such a brilliant historian.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Academia 
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  1. Michelle says:

    I was lucky enough to audit one of Professor Genovese’s undergraduate classes when I was a graduate student at the University of Rochester. He was an amazing teacher, able to come into class without notes and talk off the cuff about the topic of the day–a raconteur telling a fascinating story. He shall be missed.

  2. pb says:

    Thank you for this tribute, Dr. Gottfried.

  3. “a Marxist who once came out openly for the Viet Cong”

    the vietcong weren’t marxist, they were bolshevist. no less than karl kautsky:

    “Unfortunately, the Russian Social-Democrats split into two approximately equal factions. One consisted of Mensheviki, who were organizing the party by democratic methods, as was always insisted upon by Marx. Against them appeared the Bolsheviki led by Lenin, who strove to establish in the party the dictatorial power of the leaders.”

    oooooh it bugs me.

  4. “He was always about settling scores and awarding senatorial honors.” Priceless.

    I remember when he was the cause of great scandal at Rutgers for his view of the Viet Cong. How different things turned out.

  5. Jack Ross says:

    A fine and moving tribute. I was rather disappointed by the profile in NR that showed him having become as neocon as his old comrades like Radosh and Martin Sklar. But his work on slavery and the South was very badly maligned by the leftist professors I knew.

    I must make one quibble though – Marx and Engels did not see the Civil War in something like contemporary PC good-and-evil terms. They simply arbitrarily favored the more advanced capitalist power in all 19th century wars in keeping with their theories. Not defending this position, just stating it.

  6. This essay is an eloquent and accurate celebration of a brilliant social historian. I still retain fond memories of reading in graduate school “Roll Jordan, Roll”, in which this Marxist historian openly praised Christianity for inspiring Southern slaves to hold together, as best they could, their families and community while lacking the power to change their oppressed condition in the land of Dixie. This faith was one of the few sources of cohesion and survival that the slaves had. Unlike most leftist historians known to me, Genovese studied, understood, and respected the Christian faith. At the same time, he charitably sought to understand the other side of slavery, the mind of the master class, so as to comprehend why God-fearing individuals could passionately fight for such an institution. He was neither a polemicist nor a panderer. If there are any genuine social historians left today, they can look to Genovese for a model of what it means to be a true scholar.

  7. BillWAF says:

    “Absent from Genovese’s work is the tiresome moralizing that now characterizes academic historiography. Even in his most radical phase, he wrote admiringly about the antebellum Southern slave-owners, who believed deeply in their right to rule.”

    Of course, when Genovese hoped to get a professorship at Harvard in the black studies institute, he wrote something different. In the May 4, 1980 Sunday New York Times Book Review, reviewing William Gillette’s “Retreat from Reconstruction 1869 -1879” and Lawrence Powell’s “New Masters,” Genovese wrote:

    “Southern conservatives had grasped a hard lesson from the start: they had everything to condemn the blacks another century of ghastly oppression; therefore the outcome would depend upon the political will of the North to decapitate the Southern leadership. It is usually said that … civilized country could not have afforded … the execution of several thousand brave and personally honorable Confederate leaders. I suppose so…If the corpses are properly counted, I suspect the record will show tens or hundreds of dead blacks for every white man spared.”

    Of course when Genovese did not get that Harvard job, he returned to his pro- master class sympathies. He was a brilliant writer, but a dishonest historian.

  8. BP says:

    Dishonest? Hardly. Even in the passage you quote, Genovese depicts the masters as “brave and personally honorable,” but he always maintained that by not executing the Confederate leadership the fate of blacks was left in the hands of the very people who had fought to the death to keep them enslaved. Your unsupported accusation–that Genovese “changed” his tune to get a job–is both insulting and ignores his lifelong conviction that black people suffered tremendously under slavery and segregation. He simply insisted, again consistently and without contradiction, that those who ruled–notwithstanding their role in a system that was “cruel, unjust, exploitative, [and] oppressive”–were serious, thoughtful, “brave and personally honorable.” And because they were all these things, as well as committed Christians who believed they were defending the last best hope for a true Christian civilization, they could never be bought off. They had to be crushed.

  9. Kat says:

    Agree with BP. But I would say, “Overrun, but not defeated.”

  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Thank you, BP. You are absolutely right. So many have either failed or willingly refused to understand Dr. Genovese’s argument and his examinations of both the plight of the slaves and the worldview of the slaveholders in the antebellum South. He offered an excellent example to us all of an unbiased search for truth. His example would be well-heeded in the academic community of today.

  11. This is the first I’ve heard of the passing of Genovese, and what a way to celebrate this great man’s passing. I find it very moving that one of my intellectual idols wrote so eloquently about the passing of another of my idols. I understand fully for whom that bell tolls.

    Eugene Genovese, requiescat in pace. Deo vindice.

  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I began Rutgers in 1966, the year after Professor Genovese’s teach-in remarks became an issue in NJ’s gubernatorial election, but I was singularly privileged to learn from him and get to know him and Betsey as a graduate student at Rochester four years later. Years after he was never too busy to answer an occasional letter. I will miss him.

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