Eugene D. Genovese (1930-2012)

Randall Stephens

To mark the passing of Eugene D. Genovese (1930-2012), I post here an excerpt from a recent forum in Historically Speaking (November 2011) on this influential historian's work and career, alongside that of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1941-2007).

As many know, Eugene Genovese's landmark Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Pantheon Books, 1974) had a profound impact on American historiography and went on to win the Bancroft Prize.  Genovese was instrumental in founding the Historical Society in the 1990s.

"The Intellectual World of Southern Slaveholders: Two Assessments of the Recent Work of Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese," Historically Speaking (November 2011)

The historical profession owes much to the power couple couple of Eugene D. Genovese and the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Their most recent books, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview (2005) and Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders’ New World Order (2008), both published by Cambridge University Press, are landmark studies of the intellectual world of the southern slaveholders. We asked two distinguished historians, Peter Coclanis and Stanley Engerman, to assess these two signal contributions to our understanding of the antebellum South. 

"Sic et Non"
Peter Coclanis

For the better part of fifteen years in the 1970s and 1980s Eugene Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese were the power couple in the circles in which southern historians ran. Brilliant, prolific, stylish, even glamorous, they were our equivalent of couples such as Sartre-Beauvoir, McCarthy-Wilson, and Hardwick-Lowell. Their writings were debated, their feuds savored, their sightings remarked upon, their notice treasured. That Genovese and Fox-Genovese were associated with the Left during that period undoubtedly added to their allure, but scholars of all political persuasions respected and ad- mired their work, however much many may have disagreed with it.

In the late 1980s, however, the couple’s image began to change. To be sure, they still had their admirers, but over the course of the next fifteen years or so the general view of the pair shifted, in Kübler-Ross-like stages, from respect and admiration to bewilderment, then in turn to disbelief, anger, repudiation, and in- difference. Why? In my view largely because Genovese and Fox-Genovese—both of whom had always been cultural conservatives—were seen to have shifted both their political allegiances and, more important, their scholarly orientations sharply to the right.

Of course, it is possible to argue that Genovese and Fox-Genovese had “been disappeared” by “pro- gressive” scholars in part because (a) their work was becoming more rarified, esoteric, and abstract, or (b) the two scholars, whether writing individually or as partners, published some (but hardly all) of their work in less prominent and sometimes downright obscure venues. This said, it must be remembered that during the same period many “progressive” historians were devouring the opaque, not to say in- comprehensible work of writers on the Left such as Ranajit Guha, Fredric Jameson, and Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. And, truth be told, few “progressives” had expressed much concern earlier when Genovese(and, to a lesser extent, Fox-Genovese) invoked the rarified, esoteric, and abstract—but Marxist—theorist Antonio Gramsci. Moreover, a large portion of Genovese’s and Fox-Genovese’s work continued to appear under distinguished imprints such as the University of South Carolina Press, University of Georgia Press, University of North Carolina Press, and Harvard University Press, which suggests to me at least that their “disappearance” was due rather more to their purported political and interpretive migration than to anything else.

In recent years, however, the worm has turned, as it were, and Genovese and Fox-Genovese have returned to scholarly view, if not necessarily to scholarly favor. Faute de mieux, one can point to the year 2004 as the turning point or, perhaps more accurately, tipping point. In that year the journal Radical History Review ran a very interesting “Genovese Forum,” and, more important, Michael O’Brien published his magisterial two-volume intellectual history of the antebellum South, Conjectures of Order, which covered some of the same terrain wherein Genovese and Fox-Genovese had situated themselves since the early to mid-1980s. The publication in 2005 of the massive Mind of the Master Class reminded historians that Genovese and Fox-Genovese were still with us, and Fox-Genovese’s untimely death in 2007 at the age of 66 led many to reread and reconsider her body of work. The appearance in 2008 of Genovese and Fox-Genovese’s Slavery in White and Black, a companion volume to The Mind of the Master Class, and the publication late in 2011 of another companion volume, Fatal Self-Deception, served further notice in this regard. And the publication of five volumes of Fox-Genovese’s essays by the University of South Carolina Press in 2011- 2012 in a series entitled “History and Women, Culture and Faith,” under the general editorship of David Moltke-Hansen, will also do much to keep the scholarly world attuned—once again—to the two scholars who captivated the world of southern history lo so many years ago.>>>

"The Richness of Intellectual Life in Antebellum America"
Stanley L. Engerman

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, individually and jointly, have done much to shape the study of southern history and the history of American slavery. These contributions are based on a combination of brilliant insights and exceptional research in primary and secondary sources. Despite the reactions of some to what they regard as their recent political inappropriateness, all scholars of these subjects must end up dealing with their writings and interpretations.

These two volumes do not describe the lives of slaves, as Eugene Genovese has done already in the masterful Roll, Jordan, Roll, but are principally concerned with the beliefs and worldviews of the southern slaveholders, most generally in the late antebellum period. The authors view the southern slaveholders as quite intelligent, knowledgeable in most regards about the world around them, and able to deal as equals with non-Southerners in terms of intellectual ability and, with one exception, concern with morality and the well being of the lower classes. The exception, as they point out, was the acceptance of the system of slavery and the horrors it imposed on the slaves. In their descriptions of free workers in the North and Britain, the Southerners demonstrated serious concern for the lower classes, one that seemed lacking in their dealings with their slaves.

The authors stress two important aspects of the slaveholder belief system. First, it represents a line of American conservatism, based on religious principles, that was consistently applied to the defense of their system while being critical of developments in northern and British society. Second, when slave- holders compared slave labor to northern free labor, they pointed to the many difficulties within the society of the North and thus argued for the human advantage of slavery. Fox-Genovese and Genovese emphasize Southerners’ belief in slavery in the abstract, “the doctrine that declared slavery or a kindred system of personal servitude the best possible condition for all labor regardless of race.”

They have researched extensively in many different varieties of writing by southern and northern authors, and provide a remarkable list of characters dealing with an exceptionally broad range of issues. In doing so, they offer a view of southern intellectual life that goes beyond the usual range of past and present collections of writings about southern thinkers, which deal almost exclusively with their proslavery arguments. Fox-Genovese and Genovese demonstrate that defenders of slavery had a broader vision than they are usually given credit for. There were many in the South thinking and writing about issues other than the defense of slavery. Southerners’ readings and writings show considerable knowledge of the nature of slavery in the past, and an awareness of the negative aspects of free labor and a capitalist society. Their knowledge of ancient and medieval slavery was often used to frame their discussions of slavery in the South.

Fox-Genovese and Genovese are, of course, not the only historians who have dealt recently with southern intellectual life. A major work by Michael O’Brien covers some of the same ground, pointing to the high level of the life of the mind in the South. O’Brien shows that Southerners were concerned not just with slavery and free labor but also religion, economics, politics, literature, and history. The southern intellectual elite often received college educations, in northern as well as southern schools, they traveled extensively in the North and Europe, they corresponded with northern and British intellectual figures, and read numerous books and journals—all of which meant that intellectuals in the South were on similar footing as those of the North. Part of the explanation for why antebellum Southerners have often been shortchanged is a frequent misreading of the 1850 census data on national literacy, which led to a major overstatement of North- South differences.

Those concerned with the economic arguments about slavery, and the presumed demise of the South on Malthusian grounds, will be interested to see that the same arguments were made, using the same basic economic model, to predict that the northern economy would also soon decline due to a population crisis with the ensuing immiseration of labor, and the possibility of worker revolts and riots.>>>