the genovese story


Eugene Genovese’s scholarship made an enormous difference despite the challenges that he faced. As a self-proclaimed Marxist, he had to make his way through an unreceptive professional discipline – history – in a country still feeling the effects of McCarthyism, and he took on one of the central areas of historical interpretation, the coming and significance of the Civil War. What got him a hearing and then the notice of distinguished historians like C. Vann Woodward and David Potter was the breadth of his research, the clarity of his arguments, and the respect he paid to intellectual adversaries (sometimes more than they deserved). At a time when most scholars thought the debates over the Civil War had largely been resolved and a “consensus” interpretation reigned supreme, Genovese wrote of a fundamental, and revolutionary, battle between two different and increasingly antagonistic societies: a bourgeois North and a pre-capitalist South. In a series of immensely influential books – especially The Political Economy of Slavery (1965), and The World the Slaveholders Made (1969) – he insisted that slavery established the foundation of a radically different order in the southern states, limited the course of southern economic development, and gave rise to a pre-bourgeois ruling class that fashioned a distinctively reactionary world view.

more from Steven Hahn at TNR here.