On Eugene Genovese





Marc Bauerlein teaches English at Emory University.

Eugene Genovese died Wednesday morning, passing away in his hospital bed at home after a long battle with heart disease. When I sat with him the night before and clasped his hand, he blinked his eyes for a moment, then sank back into darkness. He was ready for months, and he anticipated, with God’s blessing, reunification with his wife, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who died five years ago. (Both of them embraced Roman Catholicism late in life—Betsey’s perceptive account of her conversion can be found in an essay that appeared in First Things in April 2000.)

Genovese will be remembered for two things that don’t often coexist in figures in our time. First, he was a scrupulous, diligent, and discerning scholar; his work on the antebellum South will stand as a monumental corpus for years to come. Second, outside the classroom and the archive, he was a vigorous partisan, sometimes confrontational, identifying political adversaries and hurling broadsides with Homeric force.

Remarkably, though, the one characteristic didn’t compromise the other. To understand why, consider Genovese’s explanation for choosing Southern slaveholders as his first subject.

“Well,” he told me, “at Columbia when I asked my adviser how to pick a dissertation topic, he told me to choose the things most opposed to my own point of view. You know, I was a leader in the Communist Youth, and the farthest I could get from that was the master on the plantation.”...

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