Eugene D. Genovese, Historian of South, Dies at 82

October 4, 2012 | Alumni

By DOUGLAS MARTIN

September 30, 2012

Eugene D. Genovese, a prizewinning historian who challenged conventional thinking on slavery in the American South by stressing its paternalism as he traveled a personal intellectual journey from Marxism to conservative Catholicism, died on Wednesday at his home in Atlanta. He was 82.

His friend William J. Hungeling confirmed the death without giving a cause.

Mr. Genovese enthusiastically melded politics and academia even as his politics changed.

A member of the Communist Party at 15, he had remained firmly on the left when, in 1965, speaking to students, he inflamed politicians by saying he would welcome a Vietcong victory in the Vietnam War.

By the 1980s, however, he had rejected Communism and liberal politics. In 1998 he helped form the Historical Society to combat what he saw as the “totalitarian assault” of political correctness and ideologically tinged research. He also came to support conservative Republicans like Pat Buchanan.

“I never gave a damn what people thought of me,” he said in an interview with The Star-Ledger of Newark in 1996. “And I still don’t.”

Mr. Genovese’s greatest influence, however, was quieter, devolving from his insights into the politics and culture of the antebellum South, expressed in more than a dozen books. Several were written with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a noted scholar of women’s studies whose own political transformation, from Marxist-leaning feminist to social conservative, paralleled her husband’s.

Praised for his meticulous research, Mr. Genovese argued that slave life in the pre-Civil War South was not one of continuous cruelty and degradation. Rather, he described a system of “paternalism” in which slaves had compelled their owners to recognize their humanity. This, he said, allowed the slaves to preserve their self-respect as well as their aspirations for freedom while enabling their owners to continue to profit from their labor.

The book in which he articulated this view most completely was “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” which in 1975 won the Bancroft Prize for American history writing. The historian Edward L. Ayers, writing in The New Republic in 1994, called it “the best book ever written about American slavery.”

But others criticized the book as being weak in its analysis of the economics of the period and took issue with its view that a paternalistic relationship was peculiar to slavery in the United States. Some said that the buying and selling of slaves could hardly be considered paternalistic; parents do not normally sell their children, the historian Eric Foner wrote in 1982.

More broadly, Mr. Genovese was accused of playing down the truth that slavery, by definition, demonstrates the cruelest kind of racism. Mr. Genovese repeatedly felt compelled to assert that his books were not an apology for slavery. In subsequent books, Mr. Genovese praised intellectual life in the antebellum South, particularly its tradition of cooperative conservatism, which he saw as kinder than capitalism in the North. He cited statistics showing Southern whites, even those from disadvantaged families, were more apt to go to college than Northern whites. He argued Southerners preferred broader ownership on property and more constraints on the marketplace.

He called the Civil War the War for Southern Independence. He castigated those who saw the slaveholding South “as the citadel of the Devil.”

“The fact is the South embodies much that’s at the core of Western civilization,” Mr. Genovese said in an interview with The New York Times in 1998. “If it has become at times the embodiment of the worst of that tradition, it has also embodied the best.”

The son of a dockworker, Eugene Dominick Genovese was born on May 19, 1930, in Brooklyn and never lost the accent. His membership in the Communist Party lasted five years, ending when he was expelled at 20 for “having zigged when I was supposed to zag,” he said. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College, then served 10 months in the Army before being discharged because of his Communist past.

In his 20s, he earned a master’s and Ph.D. from Columbia (and started pronouncing his name the Italian way, “jen-o-VAY-zay”). He then began a professorial career that took him to more than a dozen colleges, including the University of Rochester, the University of Cambridge in England and four universities in Georgia: Emory University, Georgia State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Georgia. He was president of the Organization of American Historians from 1978 to 1979.

In April 1965, as a professor at Rutgers in New Jersey, Mr. Genovese spoke at a “teach-in” against the escalating violence in Vietnam. Saying he was a Marxist (but no longer a member of the Communist Party), he proclaimed: “I do not fear or regret the impending Vietcong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it.”

His remarks created a firestorm. Richard M. Nixon, then out of office and living in New York, denounced him, and the Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey, Wayne Dumont, demanded his dismissal. Bumper stickers saying “Rid Rutgers of Reds” popped up.

Mr. Genovese insisted that he did not mean to say that he hoped American servicemen would be killed, and the state educational authorities defended him. But he soon left Rutgers to teach at Sir George Williams University in Montreal (since merged into Concordia University).

In the 1990s, he and Ms. Fox-Genovese converted to Roman Catholicism and were remarried in the church 26 years after their first wedding. She died in 2007. Mr. Genovese left no immediate survivors.

Mr. Genovese came to believe that religion should be taught in public schools, and opposed abortion on demand and special laws to protect homosexuals. He believed pornography should be banned. But Mr. Genovese did not affiliate himself with any segment of the political right. He said he felt uncomfortable around conservatives who believed that unfettered markets solve all problems.

“if somebody wants to disorder the world and give me political power,” he said, “they’ll find out how conservative I’m not.”

Originally published by The New York Times