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Eugene D. Genovese, R.I.P.

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.

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