There is no doubt Eugene D. Genovese made a huge contribution to American historiography.
Born on May 19, 1930 in Brooklyn, New York, Genovese was noted for applying a distinctly Marxist perspective to the area of historiography the academic focused on: the study of power, class and relations between planters and slaves in the South.
Raised in a working-class Brooklyn Italian American family, it should not surprise anyone to learn Genovese was heavily active in the Communist youth movement. Interestingly, the historian was expelled from the movement “for having zigged when [he] was supposed to zag.”
Genovese established himself academically by earning Bachelor of Arts from Brooklyn College in 1953. He moved on to Columbia University for both his Master of Arts (1955) and his terminal degree, a Ph.D. in history (1959).
Even though the historian is initially remembered for his Marxist approach to historiography, it should be noted Genovese ultimately abandoned the left and Marxism and embraced traditionalist conservatism.
When it comes to Genovese, it is impossible to not discuss the book “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made.” Published in 1974, this book earned the author the Bancroft Prize.
University of North Texas history professors Mike Campbell and Gus Seligmann use “Roll, Jordan, Roll” as required reading material for many of the courses they teach.
In arguably what is one of the most assigned American history books ever written, Genovese articulately examined the society of the slaves.
From Genovese’s point of view, he considered the antebellum South as a closed organically united paternalist society that exploited and attempted to dehumanize the slaves. This is evident in the way in which the historian wrote “Roll, Jordan, Roll.”
Unlike Southern historian U. B. Philips, Genovese did not cherry-pick the material used in his work. With great attention to detail, Genovese looked at the role religion played in the daily life of the slaves. Genovese essentially redefined resistance to slavery.
“Roll, Jordan, Roll,” as both Campbell and Seligmann have established in incorporating it into many of their courses, is a must read.
Do you remember the teach-in? Anyone familiar with twentieth century American history will know how vocal Genovese was in relation to the Vietnam War.
In 1965, during the teach-in at Rutgers University where he was teaching, Genovese expressed his thoughts clearly to the assembled student body.
The illustrated comment was widely reported and generated a backlash of criticism.
Even though the politicians of the day vicariously questioned Genovese’s judgment and sensitivity to the responsibility inherent in being a Rutgers professor, there is no denying everyone, including professors have a right to First Amendment freedoms. Anyone that does not understand that point does not get what the Bill of Rights establishes.
Despite this point, it should not surprise anyone, the then President Richard M. Nixon denounced the historian for openly expressing his thoughts. Further to Nixon’s denouncement, the Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey, Wayne Dumont used Genovese’s statement as a campaign issue.
Even though Genovese insisted that he did not mean to say that he hoped American servicemen would be killed, Dumont demanded Hughes dismiss the Southern historian from the state university.
Unfortunately for Dumont, Genovese had not broken any state laws or university regulations. Genovese was supported by fellow faculty members on grounds of academic freedom. Consequently, the history professor was not dismissed from his teaching position.
In 1969, Genovese married fellow historian Elizabeth Fox (died 2007).
A year after his wife died, in 2008, Genovese published the tribute book “Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage.”
Genovese died September 26, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia, aged 82, from complications relating to a “worsening cardiac ailment.”