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.