A Tragic Sense of Life: Remembering Two Great Historians

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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.

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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.

Unlike the opening section of Roll, Jordan, Roll, a tour de force that surveyed diaries, plantation records, and letters to delineate the paternalistic ideology, attitudes, and practices of elite slaveholders (although the small size of plantations in the American South constituted the most conspicuous difference between that slave society and those in other areas of the New World, Genovese, a good Gramscian, has always focused on the wealthiest planters, holding that this "master class" largely determined the values of the society it ruled), this book defines their "mind" by analyzing the writings of antebellum southern intellectuals--a cosmopolitan, highly educated, remarkably capable group of political economists, classicists, jurists, politicians, historians, writers, political theorists, theologians, and ministers.

But the extent to which intellectuals reflect the attitudes of the society, even the elite society, in which they're embedded is always problematic, and perhaps especially so in the antebellum South (as Michael O'Brien carefully points out in his recent Bancroft Prize--winning work about many of the very same southern intellectuals, Conjectures of Order). Moreover, this book hardly presents a comprehensive rendering of the nabobs' world view: the Genoveses tantalizingly refer to "volumes now in draft" that will assess many of the most essential and controversial aspects of the slaveholding intellectuals' concepts, including their critique of capitalism, their proslavery ideology, and the acceptance of that ideology by political leaders and the clergy.

In this volume the authors illuminate in their characteristically energetic prose the myriad ways in which the master-slave relationship "permeated the lives and thought" not merely of elite slaveholders but of their whole society. In doing so they elucidate the master class's deeply learned relationship to Christianity and to history (especially classical culture), which in turn highlights the tension between tradition and modernity in antebellum southern thought. Their chronicle attests to the Genoveses' more general view of the Old South as a non-capitalist society increasingly hostile to but inseparable from "the expanding capitalism from which it was born." Among its many contributions it provides significant and powerful support to the now academically unfashionable argument that the antebellum North and South were separate cultures with divergent political, economic, moral, and religious values; a work of searching historical anthropology, it reveals a profoundly alien society and culture. The Genoveses have accomplished the most difficult and intellectually imaginative feat of the historian: they have allowed us to understand the past on its own terms.

Some critics would charge that they've done more than that. Here, as elsewhere in their work, although the Genoveses don't shrink from the enormities inherent in slavery, they nevertheless declare (somewhat ostentatiously) that they "do not disguise ... our respect for the slaveholders ... nor do we disguise our admiration for much in their character and achievements." But to indict the authors for what is now called insensitivity (and they will be so indicted) is to ignore the psychological acuity and tragic sensibility that they bring to their subject. In defining the slaveholders' peculiar characteristics and world view, the Genoveses dissect the graciousness and generosity, the noblesse oblige and courage, the frankness and sense of ease, that were entirely common. Nevertheless, they are at pains to show that slaveholding wasn't a flaw in an otherwise admirable makeup but was intrinsic to that makeup--that is, they make plain that the admirable grew out of the loathsome (a pattern all too familiar to students of southern history).

Hence they open their book with Santayana's remark "The necessity of rejecting and destroying some things that are beautiful is the deepest curse of existence." True, they convincingly argue that a paternalist ethos often mitigated slavery; they reveal that the master class internalized Christian and chivalric values, which, they chillingly write, made its members "less dangerous human beings"; they demonstrate that in defending the peculiar institution southern theologians consistently bested their northern opponents in biblical exegeses (the Old Testament patriarchs owned slaves, Jesus didn't condemn slavery, and Paul and other New Testament writers sanctioned it); they show that slaveholders subscribed to "a code that made the ultimate test of a gentleman the humane treatment of his slaves"--but at the same time, in their explication of the psychology of slaveholding, which emerges from their deep and nuanced grasp of Christian doctrine, the authors upend the arguments of the slaveholders and of their modern apologists.

They repeatedly dismiss as "psychologically naïve" the notion that slaveholders (able, though not licensed, to give free rein to their tempers and impulses) would invariably treat their slaves well because it was in their pecuniary interest to do so. While they admit the intellectual rigor and sincerity of the slaveholding theologians' arguments, they simultaneously suggest the vacuity of those arguments: as Christians the slaveholders acknowledged that men are weak and sinful creatures who if given absolute power will abuse it. Because slavery perforce granted masters such power, the Bible, although it didn't condemn slavery, did condemn the sins that grew inevitably from it (C. S. Lewis wrote, "Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters"). In exploring their terrible and complex subject with honesty and sympathy, the authors have grappled heroically with the ambiguity at the heart of history and in the heart of man.

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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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