A Tragic Sense of Life: Remembering Two Great Historians

Eugene Genovese and Eric Hobsbawm, who died within days of each other, were fearless scholars with old-fashioned manners and a healthy contempt for unchecked individualism.



Within five days of each other, the English speaking world's two greatest historians to have emerged from the Marxist tradition have died: Eugene Genovese, on September 26, and Eric Hobsbawm, the man whom Genovese described as "the strongest influence on my work," on October 1.

Genovese's subject was the masters and slaves of the antebellum South. The subjects of Hobsbawm books ranged from Latin American bandits to jazz (we shared a great affection for the now-closed jazz club Bradley's, on University Place in New York; I introduced him to Smalls, a tiny club in a basement on Tenth Street that kept extremely late hours), but his most lasting masterpiece is his magisterial multi-volume history of the "long nineteenth century" (1789-1914) -- The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, and The Age of Empire - -that the London Observer famously described as "part of the mental furniture of educated Englishmen."

Both men were guided by a cold-eyed astringency, along with a tragic sense of life; both were intellectually -- and physically -- fearless; both rigorously separated their politics from their scholarship. I knew them -- Hobsbawm casually, though we talked about jazz with some intensity and responded to each other's work on international political economy at some length; Genovese somewhat more than casually -- and admired them deeply, though not without reservations. I always found Genovese deeply charming and warmly wise, but I knew him to be someone not to cross.

As for Hobsbawm, his explanation of his 60-year (!) allegiance to Moscow boiled down to his conflating the struggle against fascism and social injustice and the communist movement. That apologia dishonored the 20th century's farther-seeing men and women of the left, who recognized that the October Revolution was villainous from its inception, and who struggled against both fascist and Soviet tyranny (George Orwell comes to mind, a man Hobsbawm insisted on identifying correctly but inadequately as "an upper-class Englishman called Eric Blair").

But I esteemed their formality of manners and dress, and their contempt for what is in fact an apolitical lifestyle progressivism. This form of progressivism, as they keenly understood, amounts to an embrace of the unlimited autonomy of individual desire, and as such is a product of -- and serves the interest of -- an unrestrained and socially corrosive capitalism. Above all, I esteemed their intellectual and political toughness -- a toughness nicely displayed in this passage of Genovese's that I've always found at once deeply appealing and obviously disconcerting:

In irreconcilable confrontations, as comrade Stalin ... clearly understood, it is precisely the most admirable, manly, principled, and, by their own lights, moral opponents who have to be killed; the others can be frightened or bought.

Here is my review, from the October 2005 Atlantic, of Genovese's long-awaited book, The Mind of the Master Class, which he wrote with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. This article is good place to begin a discussion of Genovese's scholarly legacy, since it grapples with the controversial aspects of Genovese's scholarship as well as the intellectual and moral outlook that animated his work.

This country's greatest living historian, Eugene D. Genovese has for more than forty years been analyzing with penetration and subtlety nearly every facet of American slavery: its economics; its ideology; its place in the national and global markets; the life, character, and culture of the slaves; slave rebellion and resistance throughout the New World; and the world view of the slaveholders--a subject to which he has returned throughout his career and which he scrutinizes here with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (who has written, among other works, Within the Plantation Household, a finely shaded study of the tangled and fraught relations between women slaveholders and women slaves).

Genovese has doggedly pursued the truth for as long as necessary and regardless of its ramifications. His ultimate ambition has been to write the definitive study of southern slaveholders (of which this book will undoubtedly form the largest single part), but to fulfill that goal he had first to fathom the world of the slaves. In doing so, Genovese, then a Marxist and an atheist, was compelled to accept that Christianity formed the core of slave life; despite his predispositions, he therefore made it the cynosure of his study. That study amounted to a ten-year "detour," which resulted in Roll, Jordan, Roll, the most insightful book ever written about American slaves and the most lasting work of American historical scholarship since the Second World War.

Since completing that detour Genovese has been laying the groundwork for this long-awaited book in articles and monographs on topics ranging from legal history to theology, sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife (they collaborated on the theoretically daring and sophisticated essays collected in Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism). A work brilliant but at times exasperating, always tough-minded, often mischievous, and occasionally disappointing, the 800-plus-page The Mind of the Master Class is impossibly rich--the authors probe an astonishing variety of nearly always recondite subjects, including elite slaveholders' ideas about the Gracchi, David Hume's History of England, and the French Revolution--but its scope is in fact narrower than its title implies.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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