Eugene Genovese: Review of The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders' Worldview

Historians in the News

... When Eugene Genovese appeared on the scene in the early 1960s, scholarly interest in the Civil War--even amid its centennial--seemed at low ebb, the interpretive literature was still dominated by the "consensus perspective" that had emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, and our understanding of African American slavery was only beginning to detach itself from the hold of Southern apologists. With The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), and then with The World the Slaveholders Made (1969) and Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974), Genovese challenged this entire intellectual edifice and was partly responsible for a historiographical revolution.

Genovese argued that antebellum America had developed into two fundamentally different and antagonistic societies, one based on slavery and one on free labor; that the South had given rise to a powerful and self-conscious ruling class of slave-owning planters, who advanced a worldview and a set of politics critical of the capitalist North and intended to defend to the death the social system over which they presided; that the planters commanded the culture, as well as the politics and economy, of the South, achieving leadership over the free majority of non-slaveholders; and that although the slaves found ways of resisting the worst of their enslavement and laying the groundwork of a discrete African American culture, they never fashioned the politics or the sensibility to attack the slaveholders or slavery directly. Indeed, the slaves' embrace of Christianity--the centerpiece of Roll, Jordan, Roll--came to exemplify the contradictory dynamics of their experience and their struggle.

What held these interpretive interventions together, and made them so remarkable and consequential, was Genovese's sophisticated Marxism. Unlike Western Europe and Latin America, where it flourished and enjoyed a considerable following--notably in the work of Albert Soboul, E.P. Thompson, and Andre Gunder Frank--academic Marxism in the United States, especially in the field of history, was, as late as the mid-1960s, a marginal and besieged current, given over mainly to economic determinism and hounded into obscurity by the culture of the Cold War. Genovese was hardly alone in breathing life into it, and the rise of the New Left created a receptive context. But Genovese helped to provide Marxism with an intellectual credibility that it had never before achieved by employing a sophisticated approach to political economy and, especially, by drawing upon the writings of Antonio Gramsci, who focused on questions of cultural and political authority, civil society, and how ruling classes became hegemonic.

Before long, Genovese's work framed many of the debates in Southern history, captured the attention of those well outside the field of Southern history, and compelled historians to take a serious look at Marxism itself. The political irony was that conservative historians often appreciated the seriousness of Genovese's scholarship and the respect that he showed to his scholarly predecessors (even reactionary and racist ones), while budding Marxist and leftist historians grew increasingly critical of Genovese's apparent admiration for the planter class of the South. Many bridled at his almost celebratory treatment of Virginia's pro-slavery ideologue George Fitzhugh, who believed that slavery was the proper status for all poor people regardless of race; and more than a few felt that Roll, Jordan, Roll, his book on "the world the slaves made," was too much about the world the slaveholders made for them.

Neither Genovese's subsequent book on slave rebellions, From Rebellion to Revolution (1978), nor a collection of essays that he published with Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (a French historian turned Southern historian), Fruits of Merchant Capital (1983), nor Fox-Genovese's own book on the women of the plantation South, Within the Plantation Household (1988), did much to allay the suspicions. And in fact, by the late 1980s Genovese and Fox-Genovese seemed well on their journey down a rightward road, criticizing the main professional organizations for submitting to feminism and multiculturalism, drawing close to the Catholic Church, winning honors and patronage from Republican officeholders, and commemorating Southern conservatism and evangelicalism. Genovese even turned up in the pages of Southern Partisan, a neo-Confederate rag, and several of his recent books--The Slaveholders' Dilemma (1994), A Consuming Fire (1998), and The Southern Tradition (1996)--read like apologetics for the old regime and its vestiges. Fox-Genovese's polemical Feminism Without Illusions (1991) read more as a defense of cultural conservatism than as a brief for feminism.

What happened? Had Genovese and Fox-Genovese switched sides? Or was this the logical outcome of their thought, even in its explicitly Marxist phase? The Mind of the Master Class suggests strong, if not dominant, threads of continuity. Indeed, in a variety of ways, the book seems very much a throwback. It is intellectual history of the most traditional sort, embracing as its subjects a largely male, educated elite, and it takes relatively little notice of recent scholarly trends or of scholarship that has been published during the past fifteen to twenty years. It is learned in an almost relentless way, overflowing with footnotes and commentary (perhaps one-third to one-half of its eight hundred-odd pages are taken up with footnotes), and beset with seemingly endless examples on most every point, somewhat in the manner of a French grand thèse. And most interestingly, it feels as if framed by the old Marxist problematic. The Mind of the Master Class is a study in the intellectual and cultural hegemony of slaveholding planters. It reads like a book that Genovese and Fox-Genovese might have written in the 1970s or early 1980s, and, given the time span of its preparation and their refusal to engage with a rapidly changing literature, much of it may well have been written then.

To a considerable extent, this is good news. The Mind of the Master Class is neither tendentious nor dismissive. It does not conjure up alleged villains in the academy so as to swipe at or to demean them. At its best, the book is a fascinating and painstakingly detailed account of how Southern intellectuals took on the world of political and religious ideas between 1820 and 1860. ...
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