Eugene Genovese, Historical Giant, Leaves Behind Legacy of Achievement and Principle
It takes a particular kind of fearlessness to stand by an unpopular personal belief, a particular kind of brilliance to defend it persuasively, and a particular kind of integrity to gain the respect of those who disagree. Historian Eugene Genovese had all three of these qualities in abundance, and his death on Wednesday, September 26, at the age of 82, has left the world a little less colorful. Best known for his revolutionary work Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Genovese was one of the most prominent and influential historians of American slavery -- as well as, at varying times, a Marxist, a socialist, a Roman Catholic, and finally a traditionalist conservative.
Born in 1930 to an Italian family in Brooklyn, Genovese was active in the Communist Party from 1947 to 1950, but was finally expelled for, as he put it, “having zigged when I was supposed to zag.” He continued to call himself “a Marxist and a socialist,” and in 1965, while a professor at Rutgers University, he made his opinions perfectly clear by stating, “I do not fear or regret the impending Viet Cong victory, I welcome it.”
His announcement caused a firestorm of controversy, first on the Rutgers campus, then across the state of New Jersey, and finally throughout the nation. Richard Nixon himself, then out of office but preparing for the 1968 campaign, urged Genovese’s dismissal, as did several state legislators, and a fierce academic free-speech debate ensued. Today it is considered by many to be an important moment in American and academic history: not only did Genovese retain his job, but the support of his colleagues at Rutgers gained the university the Alexander Meiklejohn Award from the American Association of University Professors the following year.
Undaunted by his close call, Genovese maintained his Marxist beliefs, and applied them to his study of slavery in the American south. A prolific writer, he released a rapid series of influential works: The Political Economy of Slavery(1965), The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), In Red and Black (1971), and his famous Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). He quickly gained the respect of his colleagues for the undeniable brilliance of his work, the intellectual strength of his arguments and the unflinchingly critical spirit with which he examined the historiography of the period.
In the words of Professor Peter Kolchin, another prominent historian and an admirer of Genovese, he “refused to write the kind of propagandistic history that romanticized every action of the poor and oppressed and derided the privileged as nothing more than bloodsucking exploiters.” He also refused to judge historical works based on the opinions of their writers, and frequently praised and utilized many conservative scholars, even those who were dismissed by other radical leftists. Few historians, on the Right or Left, have been so able or so willing to differentiate between historical and ideological judgments, and this was another defining quality of Genovese’s work which brought him appreciation (and enmity) from all sides.
In 1969 Genovese married Elizabeth Fox, herself a noted historian, and the two often collaborated in their publications throughout the seventies, eighties, and into the nineties. Then, in 1994, Elizabeth converted to Roman Catholicism, and a year later, Genovese followed suit. The “royal couple of radical academia,” as they were known, had been slowly moving away from Marxism, and by the mid-nineties they had embraced traditional conservatism instead. Genovese continued to consider himself a socialist, but he had come to the conclusion that the Marxist ideology simply did not stand up to his own critical scrutiny, neither as a political position nor as an interpretation of history.
The move was met with criticism from many of their peers, but Genovese and his wife stood by their new beliefs with all the fearless conviction with which they had stood by their old ones. Genovese helped found The Historical Society, an organization for historians of both sides who were tired of the encroachment of ideology into the study of history. Despite his change in political sides, he had not lost his disdain for those who could not separate their personal beliefs from their history, and he felt that historical debates had gotten “ideologically vicious,” taking up favored, politically correct subjects such as gender and race to the exclusion of all others. Ironically, his once-radical beliefs were now mainstream, and as a conservative he found himself often as persecuted by the Left as he had been by the Right. His works became less fashionable and he considered himself at odds with many of his former friends, but no matter what their political persuasion no one could deny that his scholarship continued to be of the highest quality.
In 2007, Genovese lost his wife and partner of nearly forty years, but such was the extent of their collaborative studies on American slavery that he continued to publish works with her as co-author right up until his death. His final such work out this year, entitled Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South, and was, perhaps fittingly, a continuation of sorts of the study he had begun with Roll, Jordan, Roll. It, like nearly all of his works, has been met with critical acclaim for its intellectual rigor, persuasive arguments, and shrewd insight; in many ways, Genovese had not changed at all from the old days. He continued to reject any and all ideological intrusions into the study of history, and utilized leftist works as freely as he had once utilized conservative works.
It is not surprising, then, that Genovese’s death this week has been met with regret even from those with whom he disagreed. Yale professor David Brion Davis, who worked with Genovese in the 1970s and did not share his Marxism or his later conservatism, unreservedly called him “brilliant and imaginative,” and “one of the greatest historians of American slavery.”
Similar tributes have arisen from all corners of academia and both sides of the political aisle, and it seems that despite his often polarizing beliefs, Genovese is remembered fondly. And so he should be: fearless, brilliant, and unflinchingly honest, Genovese is the sort of individual that comes around far too seldom. It is no exaggeration to say that he changed the face of American historiography, and his influence will continue to be felt for many years to come.
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