I have just learned of the passing of Eugene Genovese, the distinguished and controversial historian of slavery. He was best known for his epic 1974 book Roll, Jordan, Roll, which detailed the lives of enslaved people. It won the Bancroft Prize the next year. Roll, Jordan, Roll helped open up the serious study of the lives of enslaved people -- and also introduced many of us to the idea of hegemony.
Much of Genovese's subsequent work (often co-authored with his spouse, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese) was about the minds of the slaveowners, however -- and it was this work that many of us have engaged with (and have argued against). The Genoveses focused on the ways that proslavery southerners critiqued the industrial north (and free labor in general). That was certainly one of several important arguments supporting slavery. But in recent years many of us have focused on other aspects of the proslavery argument, such as the ways that slavery extracted labor from workers at low costs -- and thus how slavery and the market worked together, rather than in conflict. Part of this is an issue of emphasis, but a lot of it goes to a really fundamental difference in what the Genoveses see as the core of southern ideas about slavery and what the new generation of historians -- often economic historians but also often cultural and legal historians -- see as the primary ideas and functions of southern society.
One of Genovese's hallmarks was an interest in engaging with people on all sides of this debate. His political ideas seemed, also, to be in a state of flux -- he migrated from marxism early in his career, to quite conservative views sometime in the 1980s and 1990s and then I am told was moderating again in recent years. Back in 2009 I had the pleasure of meeting Genovese at a conference in Athens and mentioned that I focused on legal thought about slavery (mostly proslavery southern thought) and am particularly interested in the ways that slave law worked in conjunction with the market. He said -- quite matter-of-factly -- "sure, what else would you expect? They're lawyers ... and judges." Our conversation wandered off in the direction of how central legal thought was to southern society and how too many historians ignored legal thinkers.
There's a lot to the subtle and lengthy books that he and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, his spouse who predeceased him in 2007, wrote together -- including my favorite, The Mind of the Master Class (2005). (Little aside here -- I actually have three copies of it -- one that I leave in Philadelphia so I can read it when I'm at my parents' home, one for the office, and one at home here in Chapel Hill. There aren't a lot of other books for which I can say that -- only Horwitz' Transformation and Cover's Justice Accused, I think. That's an odd collection of books, isn't it?!) I hope to have some more considered thoughts on their work and legacy soon.
Because I'm thinking about the Nat Turner rebellion and its echoes in the antebellum south these days, I am drawn to Genovese's 1968 essay in the New York Review of Books that dealt with responses to William Styron's The Confession of Nat Turner -- and I thought you might enjoy the closing paragraph of his review. This is from the days after Genovese had established a reputation as a perceptive commentator of the old south, but before he wrote Roll, Jordan, Roll:
One thing remains certain: If [black intellectuals] follow the line laid down by [Herbert] Aptheker with which they open the book, and if they proceed, in a hysterical way, to demand new myths in order to serve current ends, they will find the same moral, political, and intellectual debacle at the end as did most of the Marxists of those days. Their political movement, being a genuine popular force, can only be served by the truth. The history of every people exhibits glory and shame, heroism and cowardice, wisdom and foolishness, certainty and doubt, and more often than not these antagonistic qualities appear at the same moment and in the same men. The revolutionary task of intellectuals is, accordingly, not to invent myths, but to teach each people its own particular contradictory truth. This historian has never been sure which lessons can be drawn from the past to serve the future. Except perhaps one: Until a people can and will face its own past, it has no future.
The Historical Society has a remembrance of him here; here is a video of a talk Robert George gave about Genovese last year; Civil War Memory's tribute is here; and here is a brief obituary in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. HNN has a statement from the Genovese family and here is a video of a panel last year about Genovese and southern conservatism. Mark Bauerlein has a remembrance at the Chronicle Blog, which focuses on Genovese's independence of thought.
Here is the New York Times' obituary, which focuses a lot of attention on Genovese's opposition to the war in Vietnam and uses an illustration of his teach in at Rutgers in 1965, which earned him the contempt of . Obituaries are such strange devices, aren't they -- like most biography they tell a lot about the writer. Here is what it says about his work on proslavery thought:
More broadly, Mr. Genovese was accused of playing down the truth that slavery, by definition, demonstrates the cruelest kind of racism. Mr. Genovese repeatedly felt compelled to assert that his books were not an apology for slavery. In subsequent books, Mr. Genovese praised intellectual life in the antebellum South, particularly its tradition of cooperative conservatism, which he saw as kinder than capitalism in the North. He cited statistics showing Southern whites, even those from disadvantaged families, were more apt to go to college than Northern whites. He argued Southerners preferred broader ownership on property and more constraints on the marketplace.
He called the Civil War the War for Southern Independence. He castigated those who saw the slaveholding South “as the citadel of the Devil.”
“The fact is the South embodies much that’s at the core of Western civilization,” Mr. Genovese said in an interview with The New York Times in 1998. “If it has become at times the embodiment of the worst of that tradition, it has also embodied the best.”
I look forward to the discussion of Genovese's ideas on proslavery thought that I expect we'll be hearing in the coming months. One minor point here -- I need to go back and check that stuff on college education. My recollection is that I looked into Genovese's point, which I think appeared in Slaveholder's Dilemma, when I was working on University, Court, and Slave. The numbers came from DeBow's Review (or at least DeBow's Review made a similar point) and that they excluded slaves in that calculation.
The illustration is the Cobb House in Athens.