Steven Hahn: From Radical to Right-Wing: The Legacy of Eugene Genovese

Roundup: Talking About History

Steven Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author most recently of The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom (Harvard University Press).

Eugene D. Genovese, who died on September 26 at the age of 82, arrived at the University of Rochester in 1969 amid a swirl of controversy. Several years earlier, while on the faculty of Rutgers University, he had ignited a political firestorm when he publicly welcomed a Vietcong victory in the Vietnam War. Some New Jersey officials, including a Republican candidate for governor, called for his dismissal and even Richard Nixon denounced him. Ironically, after a brief stint at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Genovese was hired by Rochester’s Republican president to chair a history department with an assortment of left-wing faculty and graduate students. As a political activist myself and an undergraduate at Rochester, I was attentive to the buzz and, a few years later, as a junior, enrolled in Genovese’s course on “The Rise of Modern Capitalism,” despite hearing that he was extremely tough.

Tough Genovese was, especially on left-wing students who figured they might have the favor of a fellow radical. He routinely handed out Ds and Fs to nearly half the class, and leftists who didn’t cut it would not be spared. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the sheer power and inspiration of his teaching. With a few note cards in hand, Genovese delivered brilliant, wide-ranging lectures on early modern Europe (not his specialty), the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the crisis of the 17th century while pacing back and forth in front of the room. He exuded confidence, erudition, and intense political commitment, and he sent a powerful message to those, like myself, who were desperately searching for socially and politically meaningful things to do: that intellectual work was immensely valuable to any movement for change; that the only politically useful scholarship was scholarship of the highest order; and that if we studied hard enough, read broadly enough, and thought deeply enough we would write the sort of history that made a difference. For me, nothing would be the same again....

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