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.