Eugene D. Genovese (1930–2012)

Gene in his last years is better categorized as a “man of the Right” rather than as a conservative.

(United Press International)

The death of a favorite teacher in his or her late old age typically evokes strong emotions from former students in their early old age. In this case the emotions are mine and the teacher is Gene Genovese, one of my professors at Rutgers when I was an undergraduate from 1962 to 1966. We remained in contact off-and-on over the decades and I saw him last in Atlanta in July 2010. This piece is not another attempt to offer an instant analysis of the “real” Genovese, an enterprise now well underway in cyberspace. Rather, I want to add something to the story from the perspective of an undergraduate he taught who subsequently entered what Gene called the “history business.”

I first heard about Gene in the fall of 1963, the first semester of my sophomore year, from my friend Ken O’Brien (who also entered the history business). Ken was taking Gene’s course in American Negro history. As a naive eighteen-year-old from a white working class-lower middle class New Jersey family, I was surprised to hear that this subject existed. I soon learned in detail that it did from Genovese himself. During the spring semester of 1964, the Intro US history course since the 1870s, taught in lecture by the terrifying Richard P. McCormick, allowed some students to take tutorials in small groups. Three of us were assigned to Gene. Our first assignment was to make sense of the currency issue in the late nineteenth century via debates in the Congressional Record. No, I’m not making this up. During the rest of the semester Gene tamped down my enthusiasm for William Jennings Bryan (a racist), delighted in my discovery that Theodore Roosevelt posed no threat to the standing order, and chided me for still liking Woodrow Wilson (the worst racist of the lot).

During my junior and senior years I took three courses from Gene, a two semester sequence on the history of the American South and a seminar on comparative slavery in which I first heard the word “hegemony.” I was attracted by Gene the professor rather than by the subject matter. Nor was I unique in this respect. The obits, which focus on Gene’s scholarship and shifting but always controversial worldview, ignore his record as a great teacher of undergraduates. Jocks liked him as much as aspiring scholars did even though he assigned readings on ante bellum agriculture, at least some of which had to be skimmed to get through the courses.

Part of Gene’s appeal to undergrads was that he wasn’t scary like Professor McCormick or their great colleague Warren Susman. I was not alone in enjoying a glass of wine while visiting his office, an act of hospitality that now might be more likely than an endorsement of Vietnamese Communism to prompt official university censure.

Gene offered such an endorsement at the first Rutgers teach-in on the Vietnam War in April 1965. Speaking as a “Marxist and a socialist,” he did “not fear or regret the impending Vietcong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it.” These two deliberately provocative sentences, quoted in the school paper, the Daily Targum, were picked up by New Jersey news media and soon became notorious.

Initially Warren Susman seemed to be the star of the night for his confrontation with a conservative speaker — yes, there were some on the program — who called the war a defense of “civilization.” But Gene’s welcome of a Vietcong victory became the main issue in the 1965 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign. According to State Senator Wayne Dumont, the Republican nominee, no one expressing this opinion should be allowed to teach at a public university. Democratic Governor Richard J. Hughes and the Rutgers board of governors grudgingly defended Gene’s right to speak his mind. Gene’s popularity among students remained undiminished.

Truth be told, Gene’s rhetorical extravagance outside the classroom was another part of his appeal to students, much as George Fitzhugh’s rhetorical extravagance was part of Fitzhugh’s appeal to Gene as a historical subject. Gene’s fans included Wayne Valis, the foremost conservative in the Rutgers Class of ’66 and a future aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. The teach-in still elicits fond memories among Rutgers alumni of a certain age and a certain sort. At a recent reunion of the Targum staff from that era faded copies of the paper reporting on the “Genovese case” stood out among the relics of our youth.

On the whole Gene’s teach-in speech hardly seems extravagant in retrospect.[1] He announced at the outset that he was offering a “frankly political” analysis in a setting that was “not in any sense an enlarged classroom, but a place where professors and students can speak their minds on vital questions in a manner not ordinarily proper in class.” Indeed, his self-identification as a Marxist was intended to “put you on guard against my prejudices as you should be on guard against everyone’s, especially your own.”

Gene placed the war in the context of the Cold War “struggle for the underdeveloped world” in which the United States supported such “thugs” as Chiang Kai-shek, Francisco Franco and the Shah of Iran as well as “whichever general is fronting in Saigon.” Fidel Castro was viewed as a threat not only because he was a Communist but also because of Cuba’s example as a “small country rebuilding a distorted economy on a socialist basis, evicting foreign capital. and suggesting to others that they, too, are entitled to be masters in their own house.”

American Cold War policy stood “completely naked” in Vietnam. Having initially built up the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem instead of seeking elections in keeping with the Geneva Accords of 1954, the United States was now “applying napalm to a people that every honest reporter admits would still overwhelmingly elect Ho Chi Minh.” In short, the ultimate purpose of the war was “containing a rival social and economic system and punishing those who move toward it.”

Yet, in an echo of William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Gene said that President Lyndon Johnson, was “not an evil man.” While rightly interpreting the war as part of a purposeful Cold War strategy, Gene mistakenly credited the Johnson administration with more sophistication and forethought than the available evidence warranted even in 1965. But one aspect of the “predatory” American strategy did seem wrong-headed even in its own terms.  Gene doubted that the People’s Republic of China planned to expand throughout Asia, but if this was Beijing’s intent, then a Communist Vietnam could serve as a bulwark. These men and women had not bled for decades “in order to make foreigners the masters of their country.” This passage would bring cheer to the hearts of two recent visitors to Hanoi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Even Gene’s two deliberately provocative sentences look astute. If the Johnson administration had allowed the “impending” Vietcong victory to occur in 1965 or 1966, both the United States and Vietnam would have been spared enormous pain.

Gene’s pointed endorsement of a Vietcong victory does highlight one side of his temperament. He loved controversy and combat — but sometimes only until he had second thoughts about what he had said or written.

At the 1969 American Historical Association convention Gene opposed a resolution denouncing the Vietnam War on the grounds that it would divide the organization. As a graduate student at the time, I agreed; in retrospect this position seems wrong though the issue still does not look clear cut. As far as I know, Gene never changed his mind. Nor did I ever hear him regret his inflammatory words urging the AHA business meeting to crush proponents of the anti-war resolution — “put them down hard.”

Perhaps Gene did regret this extravagant rhetoric. Certainly he came to regret other academic controversies that had needlessly turned personal. Gene’s clashes with his friends (and comrades) and then enemies Herbert Gutman and Christopher Lasch were especially notable. Throughout the academy the magnification of intellectual differences is standard operating procedure even during eras less volatile than the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, the differences between Genovese and Gutman on the question of slave autonomy were slight in comparison to other scholarly disputes about, for example, the existence of an American empire or the effectiveness of federal regulation of big business. In the final analysis both Genovese and Gutman recognized that the slaves tried to preserve as much of their autonomy and culture as possible and that the masters held ultimate control.

Although the methodological differences between Lasch and Genovese were more substantial, their friendship lapsed because these two eccentric intellectual giants tried to co-exist in the same history department. In these instances the sides of Gene’s temperament that valued intelligence and friendship triumphed over the side that reveled in controversy and combat. He patched things up with Gutman and resumed a friendship with Lasch. Yet there is no denying that Genovese could be a very difficult man.

Gene was the second of my Rutgers professors–following Lloyd Gardner–to urge me to enter the history business and he remained supportive over the decades. Our worldviews and approach to history shared at least one important feature, a willingness to write with understanding about bigots and weirdos. But in Gene’s view I was a wimpy social democrat who watched polls in Democratic Party primaries for Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and other fellow wimps. Sufficiently distant from his strongly held political positions — first on the left and then on the right — I was never at risk of ideological excommunication. The political never became the personal.

I began seeing Gene and his wife Elizabeth (Betsey) Fox-Genovese regularly when in the early 1990s I started making research trips to Atlanta once or twice a year. Amid their extraordinary hospitality, we reminisced a lot. Gene was always happy to hear about Rutgers students from the early 1960s who still told stories about him. Along with Betsey, and I’m sure many others, I urged him, apparently without success, to write a memoir and to deposit his private papers in an archive instead of destroying them. Once again I enjoyed Gene’s outrageous comments about his former, present, and future ideological allies. I also witnessed, on a “same time next year” basis, his move to the right. As a good Genovese student I tried to understand his rationale.

The personal and psychological aspects of this transition I will leave to others if they must. But the intellectual roots of the change are not hard to find. I liked to tease Gene that he had always hated liberalism more than he loved socialism; liberalism (in the twentieth-century American sense) was intellectually too messy for him as well as insufficiently disciplined in its means and ends. Sometimes Gene conceded that I might have a point. A few years ago he half joked that he would tell me the single most important reason for his shift “if you promise not to laugh.” Gene said that he had concluded that liberals in their optimism were “wrong about human nature.” I didn’t laugh. Neither did I offer the futile response that he might have moved a shorter distance on the spectrum to become a Niebuhrian social democrat. I have no doubt that Gene considered this quip part of a serious explanation of his transition.

Although honored by conservative organizations and claimed especially by traditionalists after his return to the Roman Catholic Church, Gene in his last years is better categorized as a “man of the Right” rather than as a conservative (to recall a distinction Whittaker Chambers made to William F. Buckley Jr). Even this distinction does not fully capture the continuing idiosyncrasies of his worldview. A fierce defender of Israel, Gene nonetheless voted for Pat Buchanan at least once because he distrusted Republican neocon dreams of creating a worldwide capitalist utopia. Despite his return to Catholicism, Gene talked often and nostalgically about the Communist Party of his youth as well as about the ex-Communists and Popular Fronters who energized New York City Democratic reform politics during the early 1960s. It is almost as if he considered Communism a necessary stage in both his own life and the life of the country.

In the end two legacies count above all else: first, Gene’s enormous contribution to the study of American history which, by and large, was enriched rather than marred by his extracurricular ideological combat, and second, for those of us fortunate enough to have been his students, his excellent undergraduate teaching.

  1. See the abridged version, the only one I could find, of “American Imperialism Confronts a Revolutionary World,” in Louis Menashe and Ronald Radosh, ed., Teach-Ins: U. S. A. Reports, Opinions, Documents (New York: Praeger, 1967), 224–229. This anthology also contains useful contemporary documents on the Genovese case in New Jersey politics.

 Crossposted with U.S. Intellectual History