He went to Brooklyn College, while working a full-time job. It’s easy if you can manage on four and a half hours’ sleep. Not wanting to waste his education on “baby courses,” as he says, Genovese sought out the toughest and most rewarding teachers. One of them was Arthur C. Cole, an authority on the Civil War. Genovese learned a lot about the South in his undergraduate years. He had grown up with the notion of southerners as either bumpkins or sadists. But he soon realized he had been “swindled”: The southern intellectuals, at least, were a very serious lot. General attitudes toward the South are still “idiotic,” says Genovese, even “childish.”
The undergrad went on to Columbia Graduate School, where his teachers included Dumas Malone, “a fine old gentleman.” What about Malone’s famous six-volume biography of Jefferson? “A great work.” Another professor was Frank Tannenbaum, a renowned Latin Americanist. “He knew the inner life of Peru, the inner life of Mexico, to an extraordinary degree,” says Genovese. Once an anarchist — a follower of Emma Goldman who had spent time in prison — Tannenbaum had become very conservative. And “there I was, sitting in his classroom as a Marxist. He could not have been more encouraging to me. His attitude was, I was going to grow out of it.”
Genovese is a great mimic and raconteur, with a phenomenal memory, and he entertains me with impressions and stories. How many people today can do Max Shachtman? We’re talking about a Trotskyist leader, a fairly big deal once upon a time. Genovese attended the legendary debate between Shachtman and Earl Browder, the deposed Communist chief. “Shachtman had a face like a pig,” Genovese says, “and he talked that way.” He was also a fantastic rhetorician.
But Communism wasn’t all fun and games, as Genovese would be the first to tell you. In 1994, he wrote this terrible truth: “At the age of fifteen, I became a Communist, and, although expelled from the party in 1950 at age twenty, I remained a supporter of the international movement and of the Soviet Union until there was nothing left to support.” In his living room, Genovese explains to me something about his younger self: He was under no illusion that Stalin wasn’t killing people left and right. It was simply that he had “absorbed the notion that this was a period we had to go through,” in order to form a more perfect union, so to speak. People have a tremendous capacity to rationalize, especially when infected by ideology.
In the course of his professorial career, Genovese would teach at several universities, among them Rutgers, Rochester, and Emory. He makes a very funny remark, although one he doesn’t intend to be funny, at all: “In the old days, many departments wouldn’t take me because I was on the left.” Then, when he wasn’t so Left anymore, “the Left had taken over the departments.” Timing is everything, as they say.
He caused a big, national stir in 1965 — that was his “15 minutes of fame,” he says, though he has had many more minutes than that. At Rutgers, he stated that he would welcome a victory by the Vietcong. Therefore, he became an issue in the New Jersey gubernatorial campaign that year. Former vice president Richard Nixon and other Republicans said that Rutgers ought to fire him: A professor at a public university was openly in favor of the enemy in time of war. Rutgers refused to fire him. I ask Genovese — not 100 percent sure what the answer will be — whether he thinks the university was right. He does. He points out that he never proselytized in the classroom. Besides, there was academic freedom to consider. He further recalls that, while the Young Republicans on campus were in favor of his firing, the Young Conservatives, to their right, were not. They too stood on academic-freedom grounds.
In coming years, Genovese would win the highest honors in his profession. First came the Bancroft Prize, for his quickly canonical book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Then came the presidency of the Organization of American Historians. In rising to this position, Genovese made a little history himself, because he was the first Marxist president of the organization. But as the years wore on, he moved rightward, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire forced a major, decisive reexamination.