Eugene D. Genovese, Historian of South, Dies at 82





...Praised for his meticulous research, Mr. Genovese argued that slave life in the pre-Civil War South was not one of continuous cruelty and degradation. Rather, he described a system of “paternalism” in which slaves had compelled their owners to recognize their humanity. This, he said, allowed the slaves to preserve their self-respect as well as their aspirations for freedom while enabling their owners to continue to profit from their labor.

The book in which he articulated this view most completely was “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made,” which in 1975 won the Bancroft Prize for American history writing. The historian Edward L. Ayers, writing in The New Republic in 1994, called it “the best book ever written about American slavery.”

But others criticized the book as being weak in its analysis of the economics of the period and took issue with its view that a paternalistic relationship was peculiar to slavery in the United States. Some said that the buying and selling of slaves could hardly be considered paternalistic; parents do not normally sell their children, the historian Eric Foner wrote in 1982.

More broadly, Mr. Genovese was accused of playing down the truth that slavery, by definition, demonstrates the cruelest kind of racism. Mr. Genovese repeatedly felt compelled to assert that his books were not an apology for slavery. In subsequent books, Mr. Genovese praised intellectual life in the antebellum South, particularly its tradition of cooperative conservatism, which he saw as kinder than capitalism in the North. He cited statistics showing Southern whites, even those from disadvantaged families, were more apt to go to college than Northern whites. He argued Southerners preferred broader ownership on property and more constraints on the marketplace....

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