Benjamin Schwarz: A Tragic Sense of Life: Remembering Two Great Historians





Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

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....

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