A visit with the historian Gene Genovese
Atlanta, Ga. — ‘The first time my name appeared in the New York Times, I was described as ‘an obscure associate professor,’” says Eugene D. Genovese. “I’ve always thought of myself that way.” He’s the only one who does. Genovese is an American historian, specializing in the Old South. In 2005, Benjamin Schwarz, an editor at The Atlantic, described him as “this country’s greatest living historian.” One could certainly make an argument. Genovese is definitely one of the smartest and most interesting people around. He made a spectacular journey from left to right: from Communism to anti-Communism, from faith in Marx to faith in God. He made this journey in tandem with his wife, another historian, the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.
A son of New York, he lives in Atlanta, in a handsome, quiet neighborhood of brick houses. I say to him, “I guess it’s appropriate that an historian of the South should live in the South — though I understand that Atlanta is not a southern city.” It’s not, says Genovese. But “it’s just southern enough so that life is more pleasant. People are more courteous, things are more civilized . . .”
Genovese encountered National Review long before a visit from me, one of its editors. He wrote an essay for the magazine in 1970 — when he was in the full flower of his Marxism. The essay was for NR’s 15th-anniversary issue. Our editors wanted a piece from a liberal point of view — it was written by Charles Frankel — and a piece from a Left point of view. (In those days, the difference between liberalism and leftism was far better understood.) Genovese’s piece was titled, simply, “The Fortunes of the Left.” NR’s James Burnham paid Genovese what he calls one of the highest compliments he has ever received.
On reading the piece, Burnham said, “It’s good. It’s very good. It’s much too good for my taste.”
In the essay, one can see clearly the conservatism brewing inside Genovese. For one thing, he zestfully bashes the New Left and the counterculture. “The Weathermen would be laughed out of the Left,” he writes, “were it not for the sobering thought that these pitiable young bourgeois will get themselves and some other people killed before the newspapers and TV, which invented them, stop finding them cute.”
He also mocks “the terrified elements of the Right and Center who interpret their own inability to discipline their children as the beginning of the end of civilization,” adding, “I suspect that it is, in fact, only the beginning of the end of the quaint notion that children can be raised without occasional spankings.”
As you might be able to tell, Genovese’s essay is laced with humor — which, at least in my experience, is not a hallmark of the Left. He tells me, “Even my worst enemies always acknowledged that I had a sense of humor. My party friends did not always appreciate that.” You know which party he means (the Communist). Moreover, he has always been a cultural conservative, he says, having no use for the slovenly, jejune, or vulgar. The Communist party of his youth had been “a very puritanical party,” he notes. “If we had gone to a meeting not properly dressed, we would have heard about it later.”
Before I came down here from New York, I asked Genovese, “Can I bring you anything from your hometown?” He answered, “Maybe a few heads.” He was born in 1930 and grew up in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. To this day, you could cut his Brooklyn accent with a knife. All his travels, worldliness, and scholarship have not dimmed it an iota. His parents were Italian-American, his father a dockworker, his mother a homemaker. The Depression was very hard on the family. “The year 1938 was particularly brutal,” says Genovese. “I was eight years old. I will never forget it.” Incidentally, the family pronounced their name JEN-o-veez. In his twenties, the historian started pronouncing it all’italiana: Jen-o-VAY-zay.
He has never been “Eugene,” except to his elementary-school teachers. People call him Gene.
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.
In 1994, he published a bombshell of an essay in Dissent magazine. (I quoted from it earlier.) The essay was called “The Question,” and the question derived from Watergate: “What did you know, and when did you know it?” What did you know about the atrocities of the Communists, and when did you know it? Genovese wrote that “in a noble effort to liberate the human race from violence and oppression we broke all records for mass slaughter, piling up tens of millions of corpses in less than three-quarters of a century. When the Asian figures are properly calculated, the aggregate to our credit may reach the seemingly incredible numbers widely claimed. Those who are big on multiculturalism might note that the great majority of our victims were nonwhite.”
Genovese wanted his fellow Marxists to take stock of their assumptions, prejudices, and careers, as he himself had. But few were willing to go along. As a class, Genovese’s colleagues were furious with him. I ask whether, in writing the essay, he had the sense of writing a professional-suicide note. (I don’t mean to shock you, but they don’t take kindly to anti-Communists in academia.) He says he knew he was saying goodbye — he was writing a farewell letter. “A lot of my friends broke relations, which I always thought was stupid. To break relations over political matters, you have to be an idiot. You must remember that today’s enemies are tomorrow’s allies, and vice versa. You might as well retain civil relations.”
It was a stroke of luck, or a stroke of grace, that Genovese and his wife, Betsey, moved to the right and moved toward religion — Catholicism, specifically — at the same time. Neither left the other behind. “We had different temperaments,” says Genovese, “but our brains were almost as one. We very rarely disagreed on things.” One disagreement, whether intellectual or temperamental, was on Wagner’s music: She hated it, he loves it.
In the field of politics, the two once thought that America could have a different kind of socialism, a socialism consonant with the American traditions of liberty and democracy. They came to the conclusion, however, that this was impossible. Oppression was baked into the socialist cake. Genovese is unwilling to call himself a free-marketeer, believing that the “logic” of the free market “leaves an awful lot of people in the gutter.” But he would support most free-market measures, because “the alternatives are dreadful.” The policies of such politicians as Mitt Romney and Chris Christie strike him as sensible.
One issue he is perfectly firm on is abortion: He is against. So was Betsey, the creator of the leading women’s-studies department in the country, no less. (It was at Emory.) In 2009, Genovese published a beautiful little volume called Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage. He writes, “She gagged on abortion for a simple reason: She knew, as everyone knows, that an abortion kills a baby.”
At some point in our conversation, we discuss Israel, a country that Genovese is now very much for, another of the changes that have occurred in him. I bring up Edward Said — the late Palestinian scholar and rationalizer of terror — and quote something that Paul Johnson said about him: a “malevolent liar and propagandist, who has been responsible for more harm than any other intellectual of his generation.” Who else, in Genovese’s estimation, has done significant harm? He suggests Michel Foucault, the philosopher. “But, you know, these Frenchmen, they come and they go.” I ask about Noam Chomsky. “I don’t understand him,” says Genovese, “because clearly God gave him a very good brain, and yet for decades he has written the most rigid and knee-jerk stuff.”
Genovese thinks that American education is in sorry shape, and he bases this opinion in part on what he saw with his own eyes: In his last years in the classroom — the early 1990s — his graduate students came to him knowing all too little. They had not been adequately taught in elementary school, junior high school, high school, or college. It’s not that the students were any less bright than they had ever been: They were simply ignorant.
Turning to the president of the United States, I ask Genovese to classify him for me. What is Obama? A McGovernite, a social democrat, a socialist, a pinko, a red? Genovese says that Obama is redder than people suspect, even his conservative adversaries. Obama’s instinct, he says, is to take the most radical position he can get away with. What’s more, he is “probably the vainest president I can remember, and the least competent. What surprised me was the incompetence. The first time I laid eyes on this guy — I heard him make a speech — I said, ‘He’s a demagogue.’ One more. More skillful than most. I mean, he is clearly a good speechifier. I say ‘speechifier’ because, in a classical sense, an orator he’s not. You just have to read Demosthenes and Cicero to know what an orator is. He ain’t it. Churchill yes, him no. And furthermore he butchers the English language. Gets away with it. But he does.”
All his life, Genovese had been hoping for a black president and a woman president. So, “we got a black president — thanks a lot.” Still, Genovese allows, Obama’s election was an historic occasion, symbolizing the huge progress we have made as a country. I ask whether he is hopeful or depressed about the future for black Americans. He regrets that he is more depressed than hopeful. “Look,” he says (and he begins a great many sentences with “Look”): “They have a thoroughly corrupt leadership, and I don’t just mean the politicians, I mean the intelligentsia too.” He cites Cornel West, who, he says, had the choice to be a serious and useful scholar or a rabble-rousing clown, and went down the wrong path.
Genovese is far from a picture of despair, however. There is fight in him. He once chided the great Irving Kristol for saying that the “culture wars” were over and that the Left had won. “The culture wars haven’t even been fought!” Genovese says. “It’s not at all inevitable that the Left is going to win.
I’m not convinced that the present madness will last forever. Some of the damage will remain, though.”
Here at his home in Atlanta, Genovese continues to work. He has just come out with a book started jointly with his wife and finished by him: Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South. He has no e-mail, fax machine, or cellphone. He has a home phone, whose number is unlisted. He follows baseball, he watches Fox News. He gets along fine, as near as I can tell.
And there is a heroic aspect about him. Writing about Genovese in 1995, William F. Buckley Jr. said, essentially, that the 20th century — the bloodiest on record — was a hard teacher. Genovese had learned his way through. “Is this learning to be compared with ‘learning’ that the earth is round, not flat? No, because the physical features of the earth are not deniable. But it is different in the social sciences. Everything is deniable, or ignorable.” The terrible costs of Communism and its cousins, including socialism, Genovese could not deny or ignore. He said goodbye to a Left that had loved him and lionized him. His truth-telling exposed him to their total wrath and condemnation. Genovese is not only brilliant, he is brave. A hell of a lot of fun, too.