Eugene D. Genovese, R.I.P.
Eugene D. Genovese was widely regarded as our foremost historian of the American South. But that was not the most interesting thing about him. What was most interesting was the journey he took, from Communism and atheism to conservatism and faith in God. A Brooklyn boy, the son of a dockworker, he was born in 1930. At 15, he joined the Communist Party. At 20, he was expelled,“having zigged when I was supposed to zag,” he explained. But he remained loyal to Communism.
In 1965, when he was a professor at Rutgers, he gained what he too modestly called “my 15 minutes of fame.” That was when he said he would welcome a victory by the Viet Cong. Former vice president Richard Nixon, campaigning for a candidate in New Jersey that year, called for Rutgers to fire Genovese. So did many others. Rutgers refused.
In 1970, National Review asked Genovese to contribute to its 15th-anniversary issue. We wanted a perspective from the Left. (We also got a perspective from the “liberal” camp. In those days, you could tell the difference.) After reading Genovese’s essay, our senior editor James Burnham, a former Communist, told him, “It’s good. It’s very good. It’s much too good for my taste.”
On his journey, Genovese won the Bancroft Prize, the highest honor in his profession. He enjoyed another high honor when he was elected president of the Organization of American Historians. He was the first Marxist to hold that position. But he did not hold his Marxism. He moved steadily the other way. Doing this with him, remarkably, was his wife, the historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. After she died in 2007, Genovese wrote a memoir of their marriage: Miss Betsey. In it, he says: “She gagged on abortion for a simple reason: She knew, as everyone knows, that an abortion kills a baby.”
In 1994, he wrote a blockbuster essay for Dissent magazine: “The Question.” What was the question? It derived from Watergate, and it was two questions in one: “What did you know, and when did you know it?” In other words, 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.” And “those who are big on multiculturalism might note that the great majority of our victims were nonwhite.”
This was a giant mea culpa. Almost no one else issued one. Genovese was virtually alone. His apostasy cost him friends, but also earned him others.
WFB praised him, as only he could. The 20th century was a hard teacher, he observed, and 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.” Gene Genovese refused to keep denying and ignoring. He did it late, you might say, and that’s true. But he did it gloriously, and his life was superb.