Up from Leftism
A visit with the historian Eugene D. Genovese
BY JAY NORDLINGER
THE NATIONAL REVIEW, November 14, 2011
‘The first time my name appeared in the New York Times, I was described as ‘an obscure associate professor,’” says Eugene D. Genovese. “I’ve always thought of myself that way.” He’s the only one who does. Genovese is an American historian, specializing in the Old South. In 2005, Benjamin Schwarz, an editor at The Atlantic, described him as “this country’s greatest living historian.” One could certainly make an argument. Genovese is definitely one of the smartest and most interesting people around. He made a spectacular journey from left to right: from Communism to anti-Communism, from faith in Marx to faith in God. He made this journey in tandem with his wife, another historian, the late Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.
But Communism wasn’t all fun and games, as Genovese would be the first to tell you. In 1994, he wrote this terrible truth: “At the age of fifteen, I became a Communist, and, although expelled from the party in 1950 at age twenty, I remained a supporter of the international movement and of the Soviet Union until there was nothing left to support.” In his living room, Genovese explains to me something about his younger self: He was under no illusion that Stalin wasn’t killing people left and right. It was simply that he had “absorbed the notion that this was a period we had to go through,” in order to form a more perfect union, so to speak. People have a tremendous capacity to rationalize, especially when infected by ideology.
In coming years, Genovese would win the highest honors in his profession. First came the Bancroft Prize, for his quickly canonical book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. Then came the presidency of the Organization of American Historians. In rising to this position, Genovese made a little history himself, because he was the first Marxist president of the organization. But as the years wore on, he moved rightward, until the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire forced a major, decisive reexamination.
In 1994, he published a bombshell of an essay in Dissent magazine. (I quoted from it earlier.) The essay was called “The Question,” and the question derived from Watergate: “What did you know, and when did you know it?” 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. When the Asian figures are properly calculated, the aggregate to our credit may reach the seemingly incredible numbers widely claimed. Those who are big on multiculturalism might note that the great majority of our victims were nonwhite.”
It was a stroke of luck, or a stroke of grace, that Genovese and his wife, Betsey, moved to the right and moved toward religion — Catholicism, specifically — at the same time. Neither left the other behind. “We had different temperaments,” says Genovese, “but our brains were almost as one. We very rarely disagreed on things.” One disagreement, whether intellectual or temperamental, was on Wagner’s music: She hated it, he loves it.
In the field of politics, the two once thought that America could have a different kind of socialism, a socialism consonant with the American traditions of liberty and democracy. They came to the conclusion, however, that this was impossible. Oppression was baked into the socialist cake. Genovese is unwilling to call himself a free-marketeer, believing that the “logic” of the free market “leaves an awful lot of people in the gutter.” But he would support most free-market measures, because “the alternatives are dreadful.”
One issue he is perfectly firm on is abortion: He is against. So was Betsey, the creator of the leading women’s-studies department in the country, no less. (It was at Emory.) In 2009, Genovese published a beautiful little volume called Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage. He writes, “She gagged on abortion for a simple reason: She knew, as everyone knows, that an abortion kills a baby.”
Turning to the president of the United States, I ask Genovese to classify him for me. What is Obama? A McGovernite, a social democrat, a socialist, a pinko, a red? Genovese says that Obama is redder than people suspect, even his conservative adversaries. Obama’s instinct, he says, is to take the most radical position he can get away with. What’s more, he is “probably the vainest president I can remember, and the least competent. What surprised me was the incompetence. The first time I laid eyes on this guy — I heard him make a speech — I said, ‘He’s a demagogue.’ One more. More skillful than most. I mean, he is clearly a good speechifier. I say ‘speechifier’ because, in a classical sense, an orator he’s not. You just have to read Demosthenes and Cicero to know what an orator is. He ain’t it. Churchill yes, him no. And furthermore he butchers the English language. Gets away with it. But he does.”
All his life, Genovese had been hoping for a black president and a woman president. So, “we got a black president — thanks a lot.” Still, Genovese allows, Obama’s election was an historic occasion, symbolizing the huge progress we have made as a country. I ask whether he is hopeful or depressed about the future for black Americans. He regrets that he is more depressed than hopeful. “Look,” he says (and he begins a great many sentences with “Look”): “They have a thoroughly corrupt leadership, and I don’t just mean the politicians, I mean the intelligentsia too.” He cites Cornel West, who, he says, had the choice to be a serious and useful scholar or a rabble-rousing clown, and went down the wrong path.
Here at his home in Atlanta, Genovese continues to work. He has just come out with a book started jointly with his wife and finished by him: Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South. He has no e-mail, fax machine, or cellphone. He has a home phone, whose number is unlisted. He follows baseball, he watches Fox News. He gets along fine, as near as I can tell.
And there is a heroic aspect about him. Writing about Genovese in 1995, William F. Buckley Jr. said, essentially, that the 20th century — the bloodiest on record — was a hard teacher. 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.” The terrible costs of Communism and its cousins, including socialism, Genovese could not deny or ignore. He said goodbye to a Left that had loved him and lionized him. His truth-telling exposed him to their total wrath and condemnation. Genovese is not only brilliant, he is brave. A hell of a lot of fun, too.