On Eugene Genovese

Eugene Genovese died Wednesday morning, passing away in his hospital bed at home after a long battle with heart disease. When I sat with him the night before and clasped his hand, he blinked his eyes for a moment, then sank back into darkness. He was ready for months, and he anticipated, with God’s blessing, reunification with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who died five years ago. (Both of them embraced Roman Catholicism late in life—Betsey’s perceptive account of her conversion can be found in an essay that appeared in First Things in April 2000.)

Genovese will be remembered for two things that don’t often coexist in figures in our time. First, he was a scrupulous, diligent, and discerning scholar; his work on the antebellum South will stand as a monumental corpus for years to come. Second, outside the classroom and the archive, he was a vigorous partisan, sometimes confrontational, identifying political adversaries and hurling broadsides with Homeric force.

Remarkably, though, the one characteristic didn’t compromise the other. To understand why, consider Genovese’s explanation for choosing Southern slaveholders as his first subject.

“Well,” he told me, “at Columbia when I asked my adviser how to pick a dissertation topic, he told me to choose the things most opposed to my own point of view. You know, I was a leader in the Communist Youth, and the farthest I could get from that was the master on the plantation.”

Genovese’s early profession was no pose. When I asked him at another time how he could be a communist after the show trials and the Gulag, he grew sober and offered a chilling reply: “Back then, we believed that in order to produce a model society, one generation would have to suffer.”

Not until the Soviet Union collapsed did Genovese give up on those hopes, announcing in an extraordinary denunciation in Dissent magazine his own guilt and complicity in the murder of millions, as well as judging the slithering cowardice and careerism of those academic fellow travelers who, as late as 1994, had offered no explanation for their blindness. Two paragraphs from that essay convey the fearlessness and passion of his confession and accusation:

What did we know, and when did we know it? We knew everything essential and knew it from the beginning. This short answer will doubtless be hotly contested by the substantial number of left-wingers now ensconced in the academic establishment. I can hear them now: “Where does Genovese get off speaking for us? Yes, he himself always knew. He never even had the decency to pretend not to know. He thereby proved himself the cad we have always known him to be. But we ourselves never even imagined that we were hearing anything more than the usual stories circulated by imperialists and reactionaries. Honest.”

I am prepared to accept those pleas of innocence, and I hope that everyone else exercises Christian charity and accepts them too. But I worry about where pleas of innocence will land those who offer them. It occurs to me that it would be much safer to admit complicity. For Americans who honor the spirit and content of the Constitution would feel compelled to defend our academic freedom, including our right to have borne with equanimity the blood purges and mass executions. If, however, our innocents insist on pleading ignorance rather than a complicity permitted by the Constitution, they ruin themselves. Especially the historians among them. For they thereby admit to a willful refusal to examine the evidence that had been piled high from the beginning. They confess to professional incompetence. I counsel against such a plea, for it would constitute grounds for revocation of tenure. Safer to plead no lo contendere.

From that point on Genovese drifted steadily to the right, but no matter where he stood ideologically, he never let his political beliefs cloud his scholarly judgment. He scorned the very idea of political criticism and scholarship as advocacy. In his 2001 memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left, Ron Radosh recalls a dramatic moment in 1969. Gene had become a renowned figure in the anti-Vietnam War movement in 1965, while a professor at Rutgers University, when he spoke at a “teach-in” and announced, “Unlike most of my distinguished colleagues … I do not fear or regret the impending victory of the Vietcong. I welcome it.”

Because he was a public employee of the State of New Jersey, people called for his termination. Richard Nixon himself denounced Genovese and the Democratic governor who refused to act (Nixon was stumping for the Republican challenger).

At the ’69 meeting of the American Historical Association, the Radical Caucus, Radosh among them, pushed a resolution calling for a total U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. The members asked Genovese to lead the initiative. Here is Radosh’s account of what ensued.

So we were shocked when we learned that Gene would lead the forces opposed to our resolution! He pointed out that passing such a resolution would in effect bind historians to advocate a position they may not necessarily believe, and to teach that position even if they strenuously disagreed with it. Should it pass, he argued in a moving and powerful address, it would serve only to further politicize the profession. Nonpolitical historians who rejected the motion would then have no choice but to resign. His closing remarks were meant to provoke, and we greeted them with boos. The New Left supporters of the withdrawal resolution, he said, were “totalitarians,” and he called upon the majority of the members to isolate them and “put them down hard, once and for all.” Conservative members of the AHA cheered, as we radicals stood there speechless.

For Genovese, no compromise on scholarly norms and the aims of inquiry, and no fear over standing up to bullies. On social occasions, though, while the sharp opinions lingered, he spoke softly and patiently, each point he offered seeming to bear the weight of deliberation. So, too, with his writing, for he believed that you shouldn’t open your mouth or write a phrase until you had read everything significant on the subject first. No matter how far he traveled from his hard-left beginnings, he never let ideology override learning, judiciousness, principle, and coherence. He preferred an informed and consistent liberal over an intellectually sloppy conservative, for instance, openly admiring Ruth Bader Ginsburg even though she was the justice most distant from his outlook.

Listening to Gene speak, one learned the crucial difference between where one stands and how well one stands for it. If he agreed with you but saw that you needed to do more homework, he gently indicated it with recommendations. If you made a point poorly, he thoughtfully or humorously suggested that you consider this, or recall that, or apply it to that. He was a natural teacher, holding that getting ideas right and good books read was a solemn duty. With his passing, scholarly ideals have lost one of their most potent and exemplary defenders.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.

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